A Brief History of the Philippines from a Filipino Perspective
The oldest human fossil remains are found in Palawan, on the western
fringe of the archipelago. These remains are about 30,000 years old,
suggesting that the first human migrations to the islands took palce
during the last Ice Age, when land bridiges connected the archipelago to
mainland Asia and Borneo.
The islands were eventually inhabited by different groups that developed
domestic trade linkages. The archaelogical evidence shows a rich pre-
colonial culture that included skills in weaving, ship-building, mining and
goldsmithing. Contact with Asian neighbors date back to at least 500 B.C.
Trade linkages existed with the powerful Hindu empires in Java and
Sumatra. These linkages were venues for exchanges with Indian culture,
including the adoption of syllabic scripts
which are still used by indigenous groups in Palawan and Mindoro.
Trade ties with China were extensive by the 10th centuray A.D. while
contact with Arab traders reached its peak about the 12th century. By the
time the Spaniards arrived, Islam was well established in Mindanao and
had started to influence groups as far north as Luzon.
Many existing health beliefs and practices in the Philippines are rooted
back in the pre-colonial period. This includes magico-religious elements,
such as beliefs in spirits and sorcery as causes of illness, as well as
empirical aspects such as the use of medicinal plants.
Archaelogical sites in the Philippines have yielded skeletal remains
showing intricate ornamental dental work and the use of trephination
(boring a hole into the skull as a magical healing ritual).
Today's traditional medicinal practitioners can trace their origins back to
the pre-colonial period - the psychic surgeons, with their flair for drama,
parallel the pre-hispanic religious practicioners (babaylan and
catalonan) who also played roles as healers.
When the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines, the indios (natives)
had reached different levels of political development, including simple
communal groups, debt peonage (often erroneously described as slavery)
and proto-feudal confederations.
The Spaniards imposed a feudal system, concentrating populations under
their control into towns and estates. During the first two centuries of
their occupation, the Spaniards used the Philippines mainly as a
connecting point for their China-Acapulco (Mexico) trade. The country's
economic backwardness was reinforced by Roman Catholicism, which was
practiced in a form that retained many pre-colonial elements such as
animism while incorporating feudal aspects of the colonizers' religion
such as dogmatism, authoritarianism and patriarchial oppression. The
Spaniards wer never able to consolidate political control over the entire
archipelago, with Muslims and indigenous resisting the colonizers most
effectively. Among the groups that were subjugated, there were numerous
localized revolts throughout the Spanish occupation.
In the 19th century, the Philippines was opened to world trade, allowing
the limited entry of liberal ideas. By the late 19th century, there was a
distinct Filipino nationalist movement which erupted into a revolution in
1896, culminating with the establishment of Asia's first republican
government in 1898.
Spain laid the foundation for a feudal health care system. The religious
orders built charity hospitals, often next to churches, dispensing services
to the indio. Medical education was not extended to the
indio until late in the 19th century, through the University of Santo
Tomas. This feudal system of the rich extending charity to the poor
persists to this day among many church-run as well as non-sectarian
The U.S. Occupation (1898-1946)
The first Philippine Republic was short-lived. Spain had lost a war with
the United States. The Philippines was illegally ceded to the United
States at the Treaty of Paris for US$20 million, together with Cuba and
A Filipino-American War broke out as the United States attempted to
establish control over the islands. The war lasted for more than 10 years,
resulting in the death of more than 600,000 Filipinos. The little-known
war has been described by historians as the "first Vietnam", where US
troops first used tactics such as strategic hamleting and scorched-earth
policy to "pacify" the natives.
The United States established an economic system giving the colonizers
full rights to the country's resources. The Spanish feudal system was not
dismantled; in fact, through the system of land registration that favored
the upper Filipino classes, tenancy became more widespread during the US
occupation. A native elite, including physicians trained in the United
States, was groomed to manage the economic and political system of the
country. The U.S. also introduced western modells of educational and
health-care systems which reinforced elitism and a colonial mentality that persists to this day,
mixed with the Spanish feudal patron-client relationship.
Militant peasant and workers' groups were formed during the U.S.
occupation despite the repressive situation. A movement for Philippine
independence, involving diverse groups, continued throughout the
occupation. A Commonwealth government was established in 1935 to
allow limited self-rule but this was interrupted by the Second World War
and the Japanese occupation. The guerilla movement against Japanese
fascism was led mainly by socialists and communists, known by their
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, flag independence was
regained although the U.S. imposed certain conditions, including the
disenfranchisement of progressive political parties, the retention of U.S.
military bases and the signing of economic agreements allowing the U.S.
continued control over the Philippine economy.
The Philippine Republic (1946 - )
The political system of the Philippines was basically pattered after the
U.S., with a bicameral legislature and a president elected every four years,
limited to one re-election. Philippine democracy remained elitist with
two political parties taking turns at the leadership. In 1972, Ferdinand
Marcos declared martial law as his second term was about to end, amid a
resurgence of a nationalist movement that was questioning treaties on the
US military bases and the U.S. economic "parity" rights.
Political repression reached its height under Marcos. His preferential
treatment for foreign investors further contributed to the deterioration of
the Philippine economy, particularly with the use of government funds and
foreign loans for the Marcos family and their cronies. Until the 1960s,
the Philippines was economically among the most developed countries in
Southeast Asia; today (1991 when this was written - Ken), it is the
second poorest country in the region.
In the early years after the declaration of martial law, opposition against
Marcos was spearheaded by the Left. A new Communist Party was
established in 1968, followed by the New People's Army (NPA) in 1969.
After Marcos's declaration of martial law in 19782, a broader political
grouping called the National Democratic Front (NDF) was established with
an anti-imperialist, anti-feudal and anti-fascist line. In the southern
Philippines, the Muslim fought for secession through the Moro National
Liberation Front (MNLF).
The assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983 precipitated an
economic and political crisis that further broadened the ranks of those
opposed to Marcos. Strapped for funds, the Marcos regime agreed to a
"stabilization plan" from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that
plunged the economy back to 1975 levels. In February 1986, after holding
blatantly fraudulent presidential elections, Marcos was overthrown by a
civilian uprising supported by the military. Marcos's rival in the election,
Corazon Aquino, became the new president.
The economic and political crisis in the country continues even the the
restoration of formal democratic processes including the ratification of a
new Constitution and the election of a Congress. The new Congress
remains dominated by the elite, including former officials during the
Marcos dictatorship. Economic policies remain essentially conservative
with an Omnibus Investments Code that favors foreign investors and a
limited land reform law. The new government has pledged to pay the
entire foreign debt of US$28 billion, much of which had been incurred by
Marcos under anomalous conditions. In 1990, the government agreed to
another IMF stabilization plan that includes cutbacks on government
budgets; reduction or elimination of subsidies and increased taxes. Graft
and corruption remains endemic and has eroded support from the middle
The new government is essentially a fractious coalition of conservative
forces representing traditional interests as exemplified by their policies
on land reform, labor, foreign investments and their antagonism toward
progressive groups. The perennial attempted coups by right-wing
elements in the military are manifestations of power struggles among the
members of the conservative elites, who ride on continuing discontent
among the people brought about by the slow pace of economic and political
change. Independent and progressive groups that work with peasants,
workers, students and other sectors have sustained the struggle for more
substantial social changes but face increasing repression, particulalrly
from paramilitary (vigilante) groups formed with the tacit support of the
Serious questions about the dominant models of development, including
those used in health care with its hospital- and doctor-centered
orientation, have spurred new initiatives in health care among
altlernative organizations. Community-based health programs are part of
the popular movements that seek to democratize health care even as the
struggle goes on for other structural reforms.
Reprinted with permission from Health Alert Special Issue 116-
117. Produced by the Health Action
Information Network (HAIN),
Quezon City, Philippines.
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