Philippines: The Second World War to the Modern Era (1935–21st century CE)


Philippines: The Second World War to the Modern Era (1935–21st century CE)

The Second World War to the Modern Era (1935–21st century CE)


Manila Philippines Map 1
Manila Philippines Map
Manila Philippines seal
Manila Philippines seal
Manila Philippines Coat of Arms
Manila Philippines Coat of Arms
Manila Philippines Flag
Manila Philippines Flag

The Second World War to the Modern Era (1935–21st century CE)

The Philippines officially became involved in World War II when Japan attacked the Clark Air Base in Pampanga on December 8th, 1941, just hours after its infamous attack on the American Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. Shortly after the aerial attack, Japan began landing troops on Luzon, and being overwhelmed and unprepared, the Americans and Filipinos could not resist and immediately fled or submitted. The American general at the time, General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), withdrew with his forces to Bataan Peninsula (western edge of Manila Bay, north of Manila) and Corregidor Island at the entrance of Manila Bay. General MacArthur declared Manila an open city to protect and preserve its heritage and prevent the destruction of Intramuros by Japanese forces.

The United States officially surrendered the region to Japan in April of 1942 after three months of fighting on the peninsula, thus beginning the official occupation of the Philippines by Japan. Eighty thousand prisoners of war were forced to take the Bataan Death March to a prison camp more than a hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles) north to be loaded onto trains for prisoner of war camps. More than eleven thousand prisoners (both Filipino and American) died during this walk due to exhaustion, starvation, disease, and gross mistreatment and unlawful killings by the Japanese troops. (The Japanese responsible for the death march were later charged with war crimes.) President Manuel Luis Quezon and his vice president were part of the march but then left to go into exile in the United States. MacArthur was sent to Australia to regroup and prepare for a counterattack on the Japanese.

The Japanese reasons for invading Southeast Asian countries during the Second World War were motivated by their desire to create a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and to overthrow colonial oppression. This was a thinly veiled attempt to use the world war as a ruse for gaining Asian-Pacific territories and their resources. Once ensconced in the Philippines, the Japanese proceeded to create an independent government council, eventually pronouncing the archipelago as an independent state in 1943. José P. Laurel (1891–1959), a Nacionalista Party member and judge, was installed as the president. However, Japan’s decisions were unpopular with Filipinos, and the “independent” government was, in reality, considered an inauthentic move by Japan to give the illusion of independence while Japan remained as overlords. President Laurel remained in office for two years until Japan surrendered in 1945.

The Filipinos remained loyal to the Americans, and the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was drastically diminished (from forty-eight states to twelve) through the actions of underground guerilla warfare. The guerillas were constituted of the Philippine Army, US Army combatants of Southeast Asia (that provided supplies and weapons via submarine and parachute drops), and indigenous Filipino rebel armies. Half a million Japanese troops were killed in the ongoing guerilla warfare that continued until their formal surrender from World War II in August 1945 and which was ratified on September 2nd. One of the most important Filipino guerilla armies was the Huks (the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon, or the Hukbalahap, which translates in English to the People’s Army Against the Japanese). This communist organization was formed by a group of farmers in Central Luzon, whose numbers reached at least thirty thousand during the war. Their considerable efforts to undermine the Japanese occupation were heralded in the Philippines, but unfortunately, they furthered their fight into 1946 after the close of the war. The Huks rebelled against the independent Philippine government of the time, but they were defeated and outlawed. (They returned in 1950 under the new name of the People’s Liberation Army, wreaking havoc throughout the villages and undermining the government. By 1955, the organization had weakened and disbanded.)

Leyte Gulf—the gulf east of Leyte Island in the Visayas—became the site of the most conclusive and largest naval battle of World War II. The Battle of Leyte Gulf, which lasted from October of 1944 to July of 1945, involved over 200,000 naval personnel from Japan and America (led by MacArthur), as well as Australia, who were allied with the Americans. It was, in reality, a series of four separate battles and is considered the last true naval battle ever fought. The conflict also included Japanese kamikaze attacks, in which the aviators commit suicide by flying their planes at high speed into battleships. The Japanese navy, headed by General Yamashita Tomoyuki (1885–1946), suffered great losses of its vessels and crew, and they inevitably lost their hold on the Philippines and subsequently the remainder of their strongholds in Southeast Asia. The most important result of the Japanese loss of territory in the region was that their sources of fuel and oil were removed, which considerably contributed to their eventual loss of World War II. The Japanese had not only lost their hold on the Philippines but had also lost command of the seas.

However, General Yamashita held onto parts of Luzon until the end of the Second World War and only relinquished the capital after the battles of Manila Bay, which took place several months after the start of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Battle of Manila in February/March of 1945 was the final battle of Manila Bay in the history of its seemingly endless “Manila Bay Battles.” The battle led to the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Filipino civilians at the hands of Japanese troops or by being caught in the crossfire, as well as the complete destruction of historic colonial Manila. (Manila, along with Warsaw and Berlin, were considered the three most devastated cities at the close of World War II.) Intramuros was liberated by the Allied forces on March 4th, 1945, but the beautiful city had been devastated, and the Filipinos in its proximity had been brutalized, murdered, and traumatized by the Japanese. In 1946, Yamashita was executed by the Allied forces after being tried for war crimes that had been committed by the troops under his command, even though there was no evidence that he had knowledge of or had condoned these offenses. His execution led to a legal precedent known as the Yamashita standard, which enforced that military authorities should be aware of and responsible for their subordinates’ actions in times of war.

Unlike other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines welcomed America’s presence, heralding the troops as heroes who had liberated their country from the Japanese. The US helped to reestablish a government since Quezon had died in exile and spent two billion dollars over five years to fix the destruction caused by the world war. The original date of independence of 1946 was achieved peacefully, and for the next two decades, the Philippines retained good relations with the US under a democratic, elected, and national constitutional government. (One of the consequences of the war and the departure of the Americans was the proliferation of Amerasian children who remained behind.)

The Third Philippine Republic began in 1946 with the installation of President Manuel Roxas (in off. 1946–1948) of the newly formed Liberal Party. This era lasted for twenty years until 1965 and the start of the Marcos era, which was marked by dictatorship, civilian intimidation, and atrocities that brought an end to good Philippine international relations.

After Philippine independence in 1946, local governance structures were clearly disordered and undemocratic. After the Second World War, there were no legal mechanisms in place to generate funds for the running of the barrios, which were still contained within the municipalities. Residents were not empowered to collect taxes to use toward local economic development and infrastructure. The services provided by the municipal government were limited, and the rule of law and chain of governance were disordered and confusing. This situation necessitated the newly independent Philippine government to organize legal governance structures at the local government level, specifically in the rural areas, and centralize community development programs. To avoid the influence of communism, which was beginning to infiltrate the thinking of certain groups that were now required to be self-dependent in their daily governance, the government created the elective Barrio Council Law in 1956. The creation of this local government policy was the Philippine government’s effort to centralize government control while promoting localized development communities.

The Barrio Council Law charter was found to be seriously flawed since all legal frameworks still reverted to the municipalities and the barrios continued to find themselves disempowered. This law was replaced by a new Barrio charter a few years later. The new Barrio Charter Act, although not perfect, gave official recognition to barrio self-rule and autonomous community development, creating the underpinnings of democracy in the rural Philippines. The election of the barrio lieutenant defaulted to elected members of the village, which, like their predecessors in the 1500s and before, was heavily influenced by wealth, position, and prowess, with perhaps a new dimension of modern politicking included. The barrios could now conduct their own tax collection and administrate their own treasuries while exercising their own legislative powers. By 1963, a revised barrio charter included more specific alterations to the law, but it was minor in terms of the overall governance framework of the document.

During the Third Philippine Republic, the United States continued to assist the Philippines economically, particularly via efforts to bolster trade deals. In 1947, the Philippines signed a ninety-nine-year lease that allowed the US to maintain their military bases on the islands—a factor that had always been strategically critical to the Americans. When Roxas died suddenly of a heart attack in 1948, he was replaced by Elpidio Quirino of the Liberal Party, who served one term, leaving office in 1953. Three further presidents served during this era: Ramon Magsaysay (in off. 1953–1957), an extremely popular president at home and abroad who regrettably died in a plane crash; Carlos P. Garcia (in off. 1957–1961), who convinced the United States to return large military reservations to the Philippines; and Diosdado Macapagal (in off. 1961–1965), who introduced massive land reforms and changed the national Independence Day back from the American-selected July 4th to Aguinaldo’s June 12th.

The Fourth Philippine Republic started with the democratic election of the Nacionalista Party’s Ferdinand Emmanuel Edralin Marcos Sr. in 1965, who remained unlawfully in office until 1986 (the Philippine constitution at that time allowed a president to serve for a maximum of two terms of four years each). When Marcos’s legitimate second term of leadership expired, he ruled as a dictator from 1972 using martial law and election rigging to retain his position, as well as changing the constitution in 1973 to suit his own ends! Marcos used the excuse of the double threat of the Communist Party and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as an excuse to maintain military command and the presidency, citing them as violent extremists. He controlled the press and abolished other media, ordered the arrest or assassination of members of opposition parties, shut down congress, and forced swathes of democratic protestors into exile for fear of their lives. Marcos is remembered as a brutal kleptocrat under whom corruption was rife. Tens of thousands of Filipinos who opposed his rulership were tortured, found murdered and mutilated in the streets, or simply disappeared. Marcos imprisoned an estimated seventy thousand of his opponents. There were no limits to the atrocities performed in order for him to stay in power.

Since World War II, the Islamic strongholds of the southern Philippines had remained a center for religious separatism and the birthplace of many of the original leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It has been the site of some of the most destructive political and ideological fighting. Unfortunately, during the fighting between MILF and the Philippine forces in the 1970s, irreparable damage was done to the ancient anthropomorphic pottery artifacts of Ayub Cave, southern Mindanao.

Under Marcos, the original Philippine barangays were reinstated in 1974, and this law was ratified in 1991 after the end of the Marcos era. The barangay is currently the smallest unit of local governance in the archipelago, of which there are over forty-two thousand. The primary difference between the barangays of the modern day and those of the pre-colonial era is that contemporary barangays are established according to geographical arrangement and that historical barangays were formulated in allegiance to a chief (as well as being roughly geographically). During Marcos’s period of martial law, the barangays were used as instruments to enforce his dictatorship. Although his regime pretended to extend democracy through the institution of citizen assemblies, they were really used to increase his control down to the neighborhood, or sitio, level by sending out spies and control squads. Marcos’s allies were routinely reelected to positions of power at the community level. Once again, like in the colonial era, the Philippines was in a position where the illusion of a decentralized, participative, democratic governance system was being used to disguise a tightly controlled central government.

By 1986, local and international pressure in retaliation to Marcos’s government resulted in a snap election in which he finally lost power. A peaceful resistance movement in Manila in 1986, the People Power Revolution, included over two million Filipinos who used the assassination of opposition Senator Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. (1932–1983) as the basis of their protest. The resultant election heralded in the Fifth Philippine Republic, which is the current phase of the Philippine government. Marcos lost the election to the first female Philippine president, Maria Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, known as Cory Aquino (in off. 1986–1992), who was the widow of the late Benigno Aquino and a member of the Liberal Party. (In this first election of the Fifth Republic, Marcos once again attempted to snatch back power by electing himself the winner by popular vote. However, independent electoral observers, including members of the international community—specifically the US—declared vastly different results and declared Aquino the winner. American involvement was partly due to the previous colonizers still retaining two military bases on the islands.) The People Power Revolution, which had formed a quasi-military presence, forced Marcos into exile. In 2016, the government gave permission for the late President Marcos to be buried in the country’s cemetery for heroes against significant public protest.

Cory Aquino was in office for one term of six years, and she was the most prominent figure during the People Power Revolution. Since her husband’s assassination had begun her political career, she rallied for change. Once in office, Aquino instituted a new permanent constitution. Her constitution disabled the ability of presidents to unilaterally declare martial law, restored congress, and proposed the creation of autonomous regions in the Cordilleras and Muslim Mindanao. Although democracy was restored under her leadership, Cory Aquino was inexperienced in politics, and her government was considered slightly weak and fractured. This instability led to six unsuccessful coup attempts by the Philippine military (the most serious of which was in Manila in 1989). A series of natural disasters also negatively affected Aquino’s term, including the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which left 700 dead and 200,000 homeless.

The most important historical event of Aquino’s presidency was the denial of her senate to allow the continuation of the US military bases, with the Americans returning the spaces to the Philippines in 1992. The final total withdrawal of American presence in the Philippines ended after almost a century of their intimate involvement with the archipelago. A further four presidents followed from 1992, with the sixth and current president of the Fifth Republic, Rodrigo Duterte, having been elected in 2016. Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos (in off. 1992–1998) of the Lakas-CMD (Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats) followed Cory Aquino. From 1998 to 2001, Joseph Estrada, Ramos’s vice president and a former movie actor, sat as president. Estrada was forced to resign halfway through his first term due to an impeachment crisis (including accusations of being a recipient of massive bribery), with which he would not comply.

Estrada’s vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was also the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal of the 1960s, took office as president in 2001 and completed a one-and-a-half term (nine years), leaving in 2010. Her presidency was relatively stable, although marked with controversy and military uprisings. In 2010, the son of Benigno and Cory Aquino, Benigno Simeon Cojuangco III, also known as “PNoy” or “Noynoy,” served one six-year term under the Liberal Party until 2016. Aquino III’s leadership was marked with successes and difficulties, including natural disasters and the continued tensions with the various Islamic separatist groups. The most noteworthy milestone of his term was the 2014 ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This agreement, which had been seventeen years in the making, had the intention of eventually bringing peace to the Sulu and Mindanao regions.

The agreement stressed the cessation of armed conflict in lieu of independent, autonomous Islamic regions that would retain a form of power-sharing with the overall Philippine government. This was an agreement aimed to transition certain regions into full autonomy, but by 2019, it was clear that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which was subsequently established after the agreement to implement this change, was failing. In 2018, President Duterte stepped in with a reconfigured plan for an interim government for the Islamic Philippines, replacing the defunct ARMM with the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). (Bangsamoro being a composition of the words “bangsa” or “nation” and “Moro” or “Muslim.”) The new plan, ratified in 2019, includes the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and a constitution of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. The autonomous regions, which include several Philippine provinces of Mindanao and Sulu, will eventually be transitioned into power-sharing arrangements with the overall Philippine government, with the BARMM having its own constitution, regional government, and ability to practice Sharia law while still being a subsidiary of the full Philippine government and presidency, its military, and foreign policy. The transition period is set to end in 2022.

Another agreement that began during Aquino III’s presidency that continues into Duterte’s era is the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States of America. This military agreement does not aim to allow America any permanent military bases in the Philippines but does allow for the creation of significant facilities for both American and Filipino military forces and resources. Under the agreement, America is also permitted to rotate troops on impermanent bases. The original agreement was signed between US President Barack Obama (in off. 2009–2017) and Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines. In 2016, the agreement was deemed constitutional by the Philippine Supreme Court.

Plans, such as the BARMM, help to recognize ancient cultural claims to heritage, such as the sultanates of the Islamic Philippines. Legally, royalty is not recognized in the modern Philippine constitution, but many Filipinos claim descendancy from the royal houses or chief principalities (principalía families) of old, sometimes even adhering to the ancient caste system of social hierarchy. In some instances, principalía councils still make decisions on behalf of communities.

After the Marcos era, the Philippine government knew it needed to reinstate truly decentralized and democratic governance systems, and the 1987 Philippine Constitution restored autonomy to local government units. The 1992 Local Government Code defined the new powers of the barangays, guaranteeing their independence. Included in the various new local codes and acts were a significant proportion of powers to the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and civil society. This new arrangement for the local government was to be as broad-based as possible. Since the early 1990s, the various administrations of the Philippines have sought to continue to increase transparency and democratization in Philippine politics, particularly at the local level. Technically, the barangays have full authority over their own governance and, most importantly, participate in efforts in their own disaster management systems and drive the collection of local data for policy-making through the Community-Based Monitoring System (CBMS). Unfortunately, despite the government’s efforts, predatory politics has ensued, including clientelism (political bribery). Philippine politics is currently dominated by well-known figures, often celebrities or members of political dynasties. A form of “cacique democracy” has developed at a local level that echoes the ancient barangay-style homage to a powerful “boss.” Even though, technically, the barangays are the smallest unit of hierarchical government in the Philippines, a type of street law exists at a local level, where leaders with warlord-like authority have significant influence.

The existing Negritos of the Philippines consist of an estimated twenty-five different linguistic groups, but in the 1980s, their numbers were a meager fifteen thousand. Widely scattered throughout the archipelago, they battle for their land rights since their previously hunter-gatherer societies have turned to agriculture. Their societies are considered to be in various stages of deculturation. Despite the influx of acculturative forces over the centuries, the Negritos were still living a semi-nomadic existence in the mid-20th century. The Filipino population explosion since the end of the Second World War saw the movement of other ethnicities into the sparsely populated lands previously occupied by Negritos. The Negritos have inevitably found themselves as landless squatters on their own ancestral lands and have been forced into more modern occupations of subsistence agriculture, communal barter, or trading labor. The intrusive and damaging influences of logging and mining have also had a highly detrimental effect on the Negritos, as their lands continue to shrink and be destroyed by private and public corporations. Over the centuries, as roadways and other transport links were placed through previously Negrito land, not only were their hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds disrupted or destroyed, but it also provided more outsiders with access to their previously remote lands.

Like other Southeast Asian islands, the Filipino people adhere strongly to community and family life. Historical arts and culture include Spanish, Muslim, and indigenous influences, and folk dancing and music often include remnants of several cultures. Art and literature continue to be a part of the ever-curious and questioning Filipino lifestyles, and the archipelago’s long list of existing and potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites and intangible cultural aspects are proof of the Philippines’ critical role in human and natural history.




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