On 23 September 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law throughout the Philippines. Appearing on television, Marcos claimed that ‘Maoist subversive elements’ were plotting the overthrow of the Philippine Government and that this threat necessitated the introduction of extraordinary measures. The martial law proclamation, hardly a unique event in the recent experience of many ex-colonial countries, was nevertheless of special significance for the Philippines. The declaration must be viewed as a bench-mark in the growing political and economic crisis in the islands: it represents the first time in this century that the façade of democratic government (rather expertly fashioned by us colonial officials) has been ripped away. Marcos’ action plunged the Philippines into a political crisis of a type never before experienced in the islands. Previously, a remarkably stable two party system had operated without serious challenge for decades, masking an inherently unstable social environment which was marked by extremes of flaunted wealth and grinding poverty. To understand the causes of the current crisis is no easy task, the more so because the Philippines represents a curious configuration of social and historical forces.

The Philippines contains over seven thousand islands to the north of Indonesia and east of Vietnam and southern China with an area of 116,000 square miles. The northern island of Luzon is the largest and Manila, by far the largest and most important city in the Philippines, is located there. Mindanao, the second largest island lies to the south, and in between these two major land masses there are a dozen or so important though smaller islands known collectively as the Visayas. The Philippine population is now approaching 40 million, the result of a spectacular post-war rise in population. The current rate of population increase is well over 3 per cent, and had been so for more than two decades, making the Philippines one of the fastest growing countries in the world.footnote1 Hence, although gnp has risen at rates varying from 4·4 per cent (1956–1960) to 9·2 per cent (1948–1952) the net increase has been far lower. Per capita income in 1969 was estimated at £44 per annum.

The Philippines does not readily fit into the shared pattern of South-east Asian experience due mainly to differences in its historical development. This has guaranteed Philippine dissimilarity both from the region and, to some degree, from the experience of ex-colonial countries generally. As a consequence of over 300 hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines became and now remains the only South-east Asian country where Christianity, or, more specifically Catholicism, is the dominant religion. Except for the Moslem minority in Mindanao and Sulu, the religion of the conquerors has taken firm root. In this respect the Philippine experience is more akin to that of Latin America than to the experience of other countries in South-east Asia (e.g. Vietnam), where Western religion usually gained the adherence of only a minority of comprador elements.

The Philippines is specific also in the sense that it is one of the few countries in the modern world to have suffered long stretches of colonial rule under two imperial masters. Spain conquered and ruled for over three centuries, giving up the colony to the us in 1898 as part of the settlement terms of the Spanish-American War. For another 48 years the Filipinos were ruled by the usa, almost the only ‘official’ colony Washington ever had. What this double dose of colonialism has done to Filipino consciousness is difficult to gauge with precision, but it has created a ‘western’ orientation to a degree not to be found elsewhere in South-east Asia.

A third distinguishing factor defining the Philippine experience stems from the second. American colonial tactics were advanced for their time, comparable in several respects to post-war neo-colonialist techniques. Collaboration and subtlety replaced physical force; autonomy and a large measure of self-rule replaced a colonial civil service. American neglect and a willingness to allow the emerging indigenous ruling class to share in the exercise of power permitted the Philippine colony to develop in a way almost diametrically opposed to the experience, say, of the Vietnamese under the French. It has often been remarked by defenders of the us role in the Philippines that the Americans were ‘reluctant’ colonizers and much attention has been given to us moves to divest itself of the Philippines, beginning in the late 1920s and culminating in 1934. What has been overlooked is America’s precocious understanding of collaborationist principles which made it unnecessary—in certain circumstances—to retain overt political control. In a number of important respects therefore, the 20th century colonial experience of the Filipinos was qualitatively different from the experience shared by almost all other colonies. This form of colonialism had major demobilizing effects upon Filipino culture, and created a form of ideological confusion that facilitated continued us imperialist control. A direct expression of this lay in the prevalence of English as a spoken language: there exists no one predominant Filipino language, and over ninety dialects of a Malay-Polynesian origin are found in the islands. Since 1937 one such dialect, the Tagalog tongue of Central Luzon, has been proclaimed an official language and today it is the first language of 20 per cent of the population and is understood by another 20 per cent. But the colonial language, English, was spoken throughout the islands. In more general terms, there remains a fixation with the usa within the ruling class which has certain effects even on the urban masses. The prevalence of us cultural forms and the recently seen movement to make the Philippines a us state are manifestations of this deleterious ideological inheritance of the imperialist period.

The Americans were the last in a line of powers that have shaped the Philippines. By the 9th century ad Arab traders had become a pervasive presence in South-east Asia, and as they gradually expanded their trade to Borneo, Sulu, and the Southern coast of Mindanao so too did Islam gain a foothold in those regions. By the 16th century the Islamic tide had reached as far north as Manila, where the Moslem kings and datus first met the Spanish conquistadores in the 1560s and 1570s. Spanish conquest of the Philippines halted the spread of Islam and aggressive Spanish proselytizing introduced Catholicism to Luzon and the Visayas. But South-eastern Mindanao and Sulu were never successfully subjugated and the Spanish managed to establish garrisons in the larger towns only as late as the 1850s. Filipino Moslems, who today number about 4 million, have traditionally referred to Luzon and the Visayas as ‘the conquered North’.

Early Spanish adventurers came to the Philippines looking for gold and other precious metals. Finding none, they were content with missionary work, and the use of Manila as an entrepôt for trade between China and Mexico. Commercial agriculture was not introduced until the late 18th century, when a tobacco monopoly was established. Manila was not opened to the trade of other nations until 1835. By the mid-19th century the older forms of colonial exploitation based on mercantilist principles began to give way to newer capitalist economic patterns based on agricultural commodity production for developing world markets. American and British traders began to take advantage of Spanish commercial weakness in the Philippines and the establishment of Western merchant houses after 1835 facilitated the growth of a capitalist agricultural sector. Sugar, hemp, tobacco and coffee became important export crops in the second half of the 19th century.