A COLLECTION of more than 7,000 palm-fringed islands — only a few hundred of which are inhabited — the Philippines’ long history of Westem domination makes it unique in Asia.
Partially colonised by Spain from the mid-l6th century (the Muslim island of Mindanao was never conquered), the Philippines was also the scene of Southeast Asia’s first major anti-colonial rebellion. Having defeated the Spanish, the Filipino nationalist movement found itself embroiled in an equally bloody conflict with the US when Spain sold the country to Washington in 1898.
The Americans won — and so began a cultural and political reign that persists still — despite the Philippines’ independence in 1946. US corporations have invested massively in the Filipino economy and Clarke Base, one of the US’s largest military bases in the world, covers over 50,000 hectares.
Today, the capital of Manila is a city of concrete, hamburgers and hoardings. Japanese and US multinationals peddle their wares from every billboard. Almost every advertisement — apart from those selling the local gin and beer — is in English. It is a lively, colourful country — with an unlikely mix of Catholic fervour, a passion for beauty contests and consumer goods and a deep-rooted, intransigent class system. These three influences have reached out into the most remote mountain areas. Each village has its own church, each its own corrupt mayor, each its lorry load or airlifted supply of coca-cola.
Ferdinand Marcos presides over it all. He has governed without interruption since 1965 and his presidency — more accurately ‘dictatorship’ — has been associated with nepotism, rising inequality, and a growing military. In fact the army has grown six-fold to 250,000 since 1972, when Marcos first introduced martial law to cope with the rising opposition to his government’s policies.
Finally, in January this year martial law was lifted in response to many pressures not least because the Pope refused to visit the country under such circumstances.
But nothing much changed. The President simply used his exceptional powers to extend his own rule, enshrining in a redrafted constitution the same strictures that characterised the old military government
Today, the main opposition is the illegal National Democratic Front and the clandestine New People’s Army — which has considerable support in the countryside. In the south, the Muslim Moro People’s National Liberation Front has been fighting its own guerrilla campaign since the 1960s.
However, the Catholic church is potentially one of the greatest influences for change. As in Latin America, there is both a conservative and a ‘liberation’ church, the latter being the only relatively safe ‘front’ for resistance in the country. But with three quarters of the army’s generals hand-picked from Marcos’ home region, his regime looks safe for at least a few more years.