By Anthony Divinagracia
JUNE 12, 2019 – Days after Philippine Independence was declared, Emilio Aguinaldo directed Felipe Agoncillo to publish the Act of Proclamation and a “Manifesto to Foreign Governments” in major Hong Kong newspapers. The Aguinaldo instruction resonated with the imperative to galvanize Philippine sovereignty by obtaining foreign recognition.
He knew the fledgling Filipino nation cannot flourish as a pariah state despite looming suspicions about the United States’ veiled intentions to the Philippines. The first order of the day was to convince the rising world power that the Philippines is a free and self-governing country in no need of another colonial master to determine its destiny.
“It is important that you should go (to the United States) as soon as possible, so that McKinley’s Government would know the true situation. Show him that our people have their own Government, civil organizations in the provinces already exist, and soon the Congress of Representative of these provinces will meet. Tell him that they cannot do with the Philippines what they like,” Aguinaldo told Agoncillo in a letter.
Agoncillo was also tasked to tell U.S. President William McKinley that it would be impossible for the Americans to “overrule the sentiments of the people represented by the government and so it cannot be ignored by them.
“Do not accept any contracts or give any promises respecting protection or annexation, because we shall see first if we can obtain independence. That is what we shall secure in the meantime, if it should be possible to do so… Give them to understand in a way that you are unable to obligate yourself, but once we are independent then we shall be able to make arrangements with them.”
On his way to Washington, Agoncillo met General Francis Greene aboard the steamer China. Rehearsing Aguinaldo’s instructions, the Filipino diplomat convinced the American military official that his countrymen are capable of governing themselves and breaking bread with future allies, like the United States.
“As a reminder, he pointed out that the Filipinos did exactly what the Americans did when they threw off the British yoke. if so, why then, should the United States and other free nations deny to the Filipinos their right to be free and independent?” historian Teodoro Agoncillo noted in his book “Malolos: The Crisis of the Republic.”
But the diplomat Agoncillo’s efforts were all in vain. McKinley turned down his request for an audience. And with it the chance to personally convey the Philippines’ fitness for foreign recognition as an independent country.
De La Salle University history professor Jose Victor Torres admitted no country recognized the Philippines’ declaration of independence on June 12, 1898. But the prerequisite for recognition has to be placed in its proper context.
“It is true that no foreign power recognized yet the independence of the Philippines when it was declared in 1898. But, for me, that was the important thing at that time during the revolution – the declaration of independence which is a prelude to the creation of a nation or a nation-state. This did not occur until January 21,” he said.
“What foreign nations recognize is the independence of a country with a state rather than independence per se. A revolutionary government did exist but the term itself showed who was still in power. Take note that it was only with the creation of the Malolos Republic did Aguinaldo urged foreign nations to recognize the independent Philippines.”
Upon promulgating the Malolos Constitution on January 21, 1899, Aguinaldo appointed Agoncillo and fellow revolutionaries to start diplomatic activities. They were collectively known as the Hong Kong Junta. Agoncillo was designated Philippine representative to the United States, Mariano Ponce and Faustino Lichauco for Japan, Antonio Regidor for England, Juan Luna and Pedro Roxas for France, and Eriberto Zarcal for Australia.
In his account of the Philippine Revolution, the country’s first secretary of foreign affairs Apolinario Mabini called the declaration of independence “premature and imprudent” because the Americans are concealing their true intentions to the country. But Aguinaldo still pushed through with the declaration, which according to the historian Agoncillo, would “inspire the people to fight more eagerly against the Spaniards and at the same time lead the foreign countries to recognize the independence of the country.”
Mabini thought Aguinaldo should have reorganized the government first before proceeding with the declaration of independence to convince the foreign powers, notably the United States, that the Philippines are now capable of self-rule.
“Once independence had been embodied in a constitution, the Philippine Government would be unable to negotiate any agreement with any other government except on the basis of recognition of such independence, since otherwise the Government would be violating the fundamental law of the State; and that, in those arduous circumstances, I was of the opinion that the Government should have freedom of action to negotiate an agreement which would prevent the horrors of war with the United States, on condition that such an agreement should bring positive benefits to the country and recognize the natural rights of the citizens,” he said.
University of Santo Tomas history professor Archie Resos agreed with Mabini, saying the declaration should have been carefully planned based on international and regional scenarios.
“First, the Philippine should have been recognized by the international community for its stability and competence. Second, ample preparation for governance should have been considered and lastly, the military capability of the Filipinos at that time is still backward,” he said.
Yet Mabini’s words in hindsight still fell to the myopia of events which saw the First Philippine Republic crumble as it valiantly defended its sovereignty against the looming encroachment of a non-recognizing United States.
On December 21, 1898, McKinley issued his “Benevolent Assimilation” proclamation. It invoked the terms of the Treaty of Paris which formalized the United States’ acquisition of the Philippines from Spain, in a signing event that pushed Agoncillo the diplomat as Filipino representative to the outtakes of political relevance.
“With the signature of the treaty of peace between the United States and Spain by their respective plenipotentiaries at Paris on the 10th instant, and as a result of the victories of American arms, the future control, disposition, and government of the Philippine Islands are ceded to the United States. In the fulfillment of the rights of sovereignty, thus acquired and the responsible obligations of government thus assumed, the actual occupation and administration of the entire group of the Philippine Islands becomes immediately necessary, and the military government heretofore maintained by the united states in the city, harbor, and bay of Manila is to be extended with all possible dispatch to the whole of the ceded territory,” McKinley proclaimed.
The McKinley proclamation also presented the Americans “not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights.”
From this point on, the Philippines did not celebrate Independence Day until in July 4, 1946, U.S President Harry Truman issued a proclamation inaugurating the Third Philippine Republic.
“The United States of America hereby withdraws and surrenders all rights of possession, supervision, jurisdiction, control or sovereignty now existing and exercised by the United States of America in and over the territory and people of the Philippines and on behalf of the United States of America, I do hereby recognize the independence of the Philippines as a separate and self-governing nation and acknowledge the authority and control over the same of the Government instituted by the people thereof under the constitution now in force,” the proclamation read.
For Resos, the July 4 recognition of Philippine independence was pregnant with meaning.
“Yes June 12, 1898 is the appropriate Philippine declaration of independence. July 4, 1946 reminds us of U.S. neo-colonial influence in the Philippines. This is not a coincidence that the Americans wanted to inculcate in the minds of every Filipinos that July 4, 1776, the declaration of American independence was the greatest day on earth. In a way reminding us of our indebtedness to the United States for recognizing the independence of the Philippines,” he said.
But in 1962, President Diosdado Macapagal reverted Independence Day to June 12, vouching for its historical aptness “because a nation is born into freedom on the day when such a people, molded into a nation by a process of cultural evolution and a sense of oneness born of common struggle and suffering, announces to the world that it asserts its natural right to liberty and is ready to defend it with blood, life and honor.”
Speaking on the first June 12 independence celebration after 1898, Macapagal stressed that recognition from foreign nations, or the lack thereof, does not diminish the Filipinos’ struggle for self-rule and the right to freedom.
“That right is an integral quality of the nation itself. For this reason, it is proper that what we should celebrate is not the day when other nations gave recognition to our independence, but the day when we declared our desire to exercise our inherent and inalienable right to freedom and independence,” he said.
Citing the United States as an “instructive precedent” to the original date of Philippine independence, Macapagal noted how the thirteen American colonies declared their independence on July 4, 1776, which was only recognized by England on September 3, 1783.
“The American people have regarded July 4 as their day of freedom. In the same way, June 12, 1898 is the true birthday of an independent Filipino nation, for it was on this day that they called the whole world to witness their powerful resolve to consider themselves absolved of allegiance to the Spanish crown,” he said.
Torres gave the Macapagal and Truman declarations a more vivid context.
“One of the acts Macapagal did was to remove July 4 as our independence because historically, it was already done on June 12. Take note of the text of Truman’s speech in July 4, 1946, that the U.S. recognized Philippine independence. It didn’t say ‘grant independence.’ In short, it was there all along, all America had to do was recognize it,” he said.
Macapagal also dispelled the impression that he calendared Philippine independence back to June 12 after the U.S. Congress “backed out of a material commitment and obligation to our people,” pertaining to the war reparation agreement and military assistance that lasted into the 1960s.
“There is no casual relation between the two events. We commemorate our freedom on this day because the permanent truth and historical reality so justify and not for any transient reason. To suggest that we have moved the commemoration of our independence because of the influence of material factors is to offend the Filipino people and their leaders; because the heroic exploits of our patriots and people, which led to the declaration of independence on June 12, 1898,” he said.
“The Filipinos neither count the cost nor consider material rewards but are moved solely and nobly by their fervent love for their country and the pursuit of its noble ideals.”
But Macapagal was not one to strain ties with the United States as a global ally despite transferring Philippine independence to June 12. He said: “The Filipino people will preserve their esteem and gratitude for America, and in the present state of the world, I believe I bespeak the sentiment of our people in declaring that we will be ready to fight on the side of America, as in the past, in defense of freedom and human dignity for ourselves and for all mankind.”
Since World War II, the Philippines have fought alongside the United States in almost every major theatre of conflict despite occasional blips in their relationship. One of this was the Senate rejection of the Philippines-U.S Bases Treaty in 1991 which led to the expulsion of American troops in the country.
President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly called out the United States for the atrocities it committed against the Filipino people during the Filipino-American war, notably the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre in Jolo, Sulu where 600 Moros died. He also urged the Americans to return the Balangiga Bells which its military took as war trophy, following the Balangiga siege in 1901. On December 11, 2018, the bells were returned to the church of Balangiga, Eastern Samar after 117 years under American custody.
Despite its historical transgressions, the United States remains the most trusted foreign nation among Filipinos based on an SWS survey released last March. The United States got a net trust rating of +60 for a grade of “very good,” followed by Japan (+34), and Australia (+31). China, the United States’ economic rival as of late, was the least trusted by Filipinos, registering a neutral -7 score, despite the Duterte administration’s warm relations with Beijing.
Filipinos may still debate over the date and significance of celebrating Philippine independence on June 12. But for Torres, the message of June 12, 1898 is clear.
“What is important is our understanding of independence. It is easy to say that we are free. But it is difficult to say, how we’re going to defend that freedom. Naging malaya tayo. Pero hindi natin natamo ang ginhawa ng paglaya,” he said.
***Anthony Divinagracia is a senior producer of News 5 and One News. He has a Masters degree in History and teaches Political Science at the University of Santo Tomas.