My father came to America in 1973, seeking to escape the squalor and violence of the Philippines, then under the control of the repressive Marcos dictatorship. He came back to the Philippines ten years later to retrieve my mother, who was pregnant with me at the time. Since then, my father has been an ideal, patriotic citizen, voting in every election, and going to jury duty whenever called. But the one thing that dwarfs his patriotism for America is his love for the Philippines. He tried to instill that pride into my siblings and me, a pride for a country that may be poorer, more polluted, and less stable than the United States, but is still home for him and for many of the two million or so Filipino-Americans today.
I hate to admit it to my father (who I’ve called Tatay’, Filipino for father, as long as I can remember) today, but I believe that I have some of the same esteem he has for the Philippines. So, after hearing President Bush last week at a state dinner in Manila compare the current U.S.-led occupation of Iraq to the U.S. imperialistic rule of the Philippines, I had only one question for him: Do you want to insult another ethnic group, Mr. Bush?
Bush just returned from a diplomatic tour of Asia, which, besides attempting to drum up support for a flagging reconstruction in Iraq, tried to cement diplomacy with a part of the world that he hasn’t totally alienated. He made an eight-hour visit in the Philippines, mostly to thank the Philippine government for their support of the war on terror and to pledge an undisclosed amount of aid. His speech at a state dinner thrown by Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo cited the Philippines as a model for rebuilding Iraq. Saying the United States had “liberated the Philippines from colonial rule,” Bush compared the current situation in Iraq to the occupation of the Philippines when it was a colony of the United States until it was granted independence in 1946.
Gosh, thank you, President Bush, for not only opening old wounds, but putting salt on them. The fact that he can blatantly and smugly talk about American self-righteousness in a country the United States brutalized almost a century ago proves that this man has no respect for other nations. He can say the U.S. liberated the Philippines from the colonial rule of Spain, but did he just forget that the Philippines then fell under the colonial rule of the United States? Did he also forget that the analogy of the Philippines implies U.S. troops could remain in Iraq for a long timesay, 48-odd years?
It’s surprising that Bush would even want to compare Iraq to the Philippines, given the negative connotations associated with the Philippine occupation. During the Spanish American war, the U.S. promised Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo that the Philippines would be rewarded with independence if they supported the Americans. When the war ended, the U.S. kept the Philippines as an American colony, betraying Aguinaldo.
Incensed Filipino revolutionaries then began the Filipino-American War in 1899. The two-year conflict involved heavy guerilla warfare from the Filipinos entrenched in the jungles and ran up higher causalities than the entire Spanish-American war. At least 4,200 American soldiers and more than 16,000 Filipino fighters died, with an estimated 200,000 civilians succumbing to famine and disease. After the war, the Philippines would be under U.S. control for 45 years, only granted independence after the onslaught of the Great Depression and World War II.
Many saw the U.S. occupation of the Philippines as the result of unabashed American ambitions to use the country for its own agenda, similar to the opinions of many Iraqi war protesters. Like the Iraqi war protesters, anti-imperialists objected to McKinley’s decision to keep the Philippines as a colony, believing it went against American ideals of democracy and liberty. Mark Twain, among history’s most famous of the anti-imperialists, wrote a scathing essay, “To the Man Sitting in Darkness,” attacking U.S. policies on the Philippines. Similarly, in the current Iraqi occupation, the U.S. government underestimated the determination of the Iraqi insurrectionists to withstand the U.S. army.
This is the legacy Bush invoked during his speech, a legacy of imperialism that seems to still be present today. The American self-righteousness at the timeto “Christianize” and “democratize” the Filipinosdoes not seem to have changed much in the Iraqi war. The Americans saw themselves as heroes, even though their haughty attitudes and unwillingness to understand the Filipinos further estranged them from the civilians caught in the crossfire.
Filipinos, though grateful to the U.S. for all their help, still feel scorn for the American arrogance toward Filipino culture. They wanted help, not control, and the American occupation in Iraq brings painful memories of invasion, humiliation, and helplessness. One can only hope the U.S. will learn from their mistakes in the Philippines and lead Iraq through a clean, swift transition to self-rule without all the hostility and agony Filipinos went through.
I remember back in 1998 when I saw Filipino adults celebrating the centennial of the Philippines’ independence from Spain. I asked some of them why they were celebrating the “centennial” when technically the Philippines didn’t gain their independence from the U.S. until 1946. My tatay scolded me, saying that in their hearts, Filipinos gained their independence in 1898. I think I now understand why, and I hope I can make my tatay proud for that.