The Volatile Philippines


A doleful eye weeps expressively down a foglamp on a Manila "jeepney". Lovingly decorated, these trucks are the capital's principal mode of public transport. They are the successors of old U.S. Army jeeps which were converted by the Filipinos into minibuses at the end of World War II.

To the Spaniards, who ruled over the Philippines from the 16th to the 19th century, the islands were not really a part of the Orient; Spain saw them, rather, as the westernmost point on the map, the farthest outpost of the great Spanish Empire in the Americas. The Imperial picture became an enduring truth. Although the Filipinos live not far from the Asian landmass, descend from Malay and Chinese stock and belong to ASEAN, they are set apart from other Asians by their three centuries of Spanish rule and nearly 50 years under the United States. Filipino society hovers between East and West.

   Other peoples in the region were also colonized, of course, but not so early or so thoroughly. In the Philippines, European rule was imposed before any centralized native state had emerged. The Philippines never had a chance to generate a Malacca or a Majapahit. They had developed no traditions of statecraft, no courtly culture; most of the natives had learnt no religion other than the nature worship practised by their far-off ancestors. They were very susceptible to new influences, and they found themselves governed in turn by two powers determined not merely to exploit the territory but to shape its people.

    The uniqueness of the Philippines is less apparent today than it was 50 years ago, largely because every other Asian nation has now felt the impact of Western culture. But some striking differences still separate the Philippines from their neighbours. Notable among them are an emphasis on education and the prevalence of English - both heritages of the American era. In the Philippines, a quarter of those aged between 20 and 24 are at university or college. Literacy is, at 87 per cent, as high as Singapore's and higher than that of most Asian countries. The archipelago has 77 native languages, of which one, Tagalog, is the basis of the official national language, Pilipino. But English is taught in schools as the universal second language, and everybody speaks at least a smattering.

    Another peculiarity of the Filipinos is their religion: they are the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia. The Spaniards converted most of them to Catholicism 400 years ago; in this century, American missionaries spread the Protestant faith among the remote tribal peoples. Today 85 per cent of the population are Catholics, 4 per cent worship in the schismatic Philippine Independent Church, which observes Catholic rites, and another 4 per cent are Protestant.

    Almost every town of standing in the islands is dominated by a florid baroque church. Parish churches are the hub of community life, and priests and bishops command great authority. The great folk festivals, often attended by hundreds of thousands of participants, are as crowded and colourful as those of Indonesia or India, but the images that are carried in procession are those of Spanish saints which would not be out of place during Holy Week in Seville.

    Enthusiasm is the hallmark of Filipino Catholicism. The faithful crowd the churches to pray before garish portraits of saints and light candles in profusion to their heavenly protectors. On Good Friday, penitentes actually have themselves bound to crosses, their hands sometimes even pierced with nails, to act out Christ's passion.

    The Spaniards not only gave most Filipinos their religion; they also moulded the very structure of society. They created a feudal hierarchy, totally alien to the co-operative traditions of South-East Asia, which has never been entirely swept away. As a result, abject need - a rarity even in poor countries elsewhere in the region - is widespread at the bottom of Filipino society. Those at the other end of the scale possess extraordinary wealth, power and scope for corruption.

Toting makeshift toy rifles, three sons of Communist sympathizers on the island of Negros reflect in play the violence that stalks the Philippines. During the mid-1980s, more than 15,000 Communist guerrillas were active throughout the countryside.

    Not surprisingly, Philippine politics have long been troubled and unstable. Most Filipinos take an intense interest in public affairs - to the point of insurrection if the path of democratic opposition is blocked. In this, too, they show themselves different from the South-East Asian norm. In neighbouring countries, dissent may be glossed over in an attempt to reach a workable consensus. In the polarized society of the Philippines, dissent will always come to the fore.


Discord is not a modern phenomenon in these tropical islands. According to myth, it engendered the very land itself. A creation legend describes how the islands of the archipelago were churned up from the ocean floor in the course of an argument between the sea and the sky - a dispute fomented by a mythical bird that was looking for a place to roost.

    Many of the 7,107 islands that make up the nation are, in fact, little more than bird rookeries: only about a thousand are inhabited. The total land area is 300,000 square kilometres, of which 11 islands constitute 94 per cent. The most important are Luzon in the north, Mindanao in the south and, between them, the Visayas group which includes Cebu, Palawan, Samar, Negros, Leyte, Panay and Bohol. Although the Philippines are comparable in area to Italy or the British Isles, their aggregate coastline is nearly as long as that of the United States.

    They are among the most spectacularly beautiful islands in the world - not least because most of them are clustered within sight of others, so that almost every palm-fringed coast affords a view across an azure sea to another island lying in the distance. The shallow waters between are a rich source of fish, and much of the Philippines' protein comes from the sea. Most of the larger islands have rugged interior uplands that rise to between 1,000 and 3,000 metres.

    Some of the more remote mountain regions are still inhabited by descendants of the earliest human beings to settle in the islands - the people known as Negritos. Most Filipinos, however, are descended from later waves of migrants who introduced a mongoloid stock to the islands - the peoples known as proto-Malays, also from the Asian mainland, and a subsequent group of Malay settlers who probably came by way of Indonesia. By about 300 A.D. the last groups of Malay immigrants were well established in the coastal regions of the Philippines.

    The ethnic mixture was further enriched by a steady inflow of other newcomers, especially Chinese who came for trade or plunder and then became enamoured of the islands' beautiful women. Muslime seafarers crossed over from northern Borneo in the late 15th century and brought Islam to Palawan and Mindanao - where the religion of Muhammad flourishes to this day. Within a century, Islam was gaining converts among the local rulers - known as datus - in settlements as far north as Luzon.

With umbrellas raised against an expected downpour, a family heads for shelter in Sabang-an, a hamlet in the mountains of Luzon. The home-made dwellings of corrugated iron and rough-hewn planks are typical of most parts of the Philippines.

    Before Islam could take a firm hold in the northern islands, the Europeans arrived. In the early 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan landed in the course of his epic bid to circumnavigate the world. Magellan and some of his lieutenants were murdered by Filipinos, but the surviving men, led by Juan Sebastián del Cano, achieved the expedition's goal, making their way back to Europe via the Moluccas and the Cape of Good Hope.

    Magellan had hoped to prove, on behalf of Charles I of Spain, that the Spice Islands lay in that part of the world which Pope Alexander VI had assigned to Spain when he divided up the still-unmapped continents between Spain and Portugal. For a while, Magellan's discovery remained a bone of contention between the two rival empires. The issue was not finally resolved in favour of Spain until after the accession of Philip II, in whose honour the islands were renamed the Islas Filipinas.

    In 1564, the Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi sailed with 400 men from Mexico to the Philippines. They arrived the following year and founded the first Spanish colony at what is now Cebu City. Later, Legazpi established a fortified settlement on Luzon at Manila, whose magnificient harbour made it the natural focal point of the islands. Legazpi extended Spanish rule by persuading many of the local chieftains to pledge their allegiance in return for retaining their regional power as datus.

    The Philippines turned out to have no spices worth exporting, but the five Augustinian friars who accompanied Legazpi found them a fertile field for saving souls. For the next three centuries, Spanish friars were to play a decisive role in the unfolding social and economic life of the islands. Not only the Augustinians but other monastic orders - notably the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits - established missions throughout the archipelago, learnt to speak the native languages, introduced new crops such as maize and cocoa from America and taught the "civilized" tribes more efficient and productive farming methods.

    Until then, most Filipinos were shifting cultivators who held land in common. The Spanish established a feudal system on the European model, and the hereditary chieftains or datus took advantage of the Western concept of private ownership to claim much of the land for themselves. A chasm grew between the local chiefs and the landless peasants, who now had only their new religion to console them. Except for the reclusive high-mountain tribes and the Muslims of the south, whom the Spanish never succeeded in subduing or converting, all Filipinos were eventually received into the Catholic Church - though they still clung to animist modes of thought. Notable among these was the concept of a bargain struck with God: the Filipinos continued to believe that if they made some sacrifice, they were then able to ask for a specific favour to be granted.

    Since most of the secular Spanish colonists congregated in Manila - in more than 1,200 villages there was no other Spaniard beside the priest - it was the friars who came to embody the Spanish presence elsewhere in the archipelago. For the most part they exercised a kind of benevolent despotism over the Filipinos, whom by force of Latin-American habit they called indios. The colonial government could hardly have functioned without the friars to maintain order among the indios and to report back to Manila on what was happening in the provinces. It acknowledged this dependence by putting the priests on its payroll: they became salaried government officials. In time, religious orders and individual bishops were granted great landholdings and became vastly wealthy.

A Christ-child in Spanish religious dress is borne aloft during a festival in Malolos, 150 kilometres north of Manila. The infant Jesus has been revered in the Philippines since 1521, when his image moved the pagan Queen of Cebu to cry out for baptism.

    The colonial government, modelled on that of Spanish America, functioned as a subcolony of the Spanish Empire in Mexico rather than as a direct dependency of metropolitan Spain. In theory, the Governor General, who was appointed by the king, held almost unlimited powers. Yet he could govern effectively only with the help of the friars, and with a military and civil bureaucracy staffed mainly with careerists from Mexico, Peru and Central America, who came to the Philippines to make their fortune. The tradition of using public office for private graft and family profit became ingrained; indeed, it persists to this day at all levels of government.


Economically, the Philippines were almost wholly dependent on Mexico. Cargoes originating in Manila did not go to Spain by the shortest route, round the Cape of Good Hope: by royal decree, designed to prevent Asian goods from competing directly with Spanish products, the Philippines could export only to Mexico. Moreover, Spain also tried, with considerable success, to limit trade to two government-owned ships - called the "Manila Galleons" - which carried East Asian manufactures, mainly Chinese silks, from Manila to Acapulco once or twice a year, and returned laden with silver bullion and minted coin. The profits from this monopoly sustained the Spanish community in Manila and the Chinese merchants who supplied the silks, but did nothing to stimulate local industries.

    As Spanish maritime power waned during the 17th and 18th centuries, so did the port's commercial importance. In the early 19th century the Mexican War of Independence finally forced the Spanish government to regard the Philippines as lying in the East rather than in the West, and to take a more active interest in the colony's affairs. Free trade replaced the old monopoly system in 1834. In the wake of increased immigration from Spain, secular culture began to make its appearance in the islands: between 1840 and 1872, 30 newspapers were founded.

    Around this time - earlier than in Indonesia or Malaysia - the Philippines saw the emergence of an educated native-born élite. It was made up largely of mestizos - a Spanish word that means "of mixed blood", though it bears little of the pejorative sense of the English term "half-caste". By mid-century about a quarter of a million Filipinos were descended from Chinese merchant fathers and india mothers: they lived in their own suburb of Manila, Binondo, and dominated many different aspects of trade and agriculture. Another influential mestizo community - about 20,000 strong - traced its descent to Spanish or Spanish-American forebears.

    Mestizo landowners played a leading role in developing sugar and indigo as export crops, and became major rice producers by leasing land from the friars and subletting it to local sharecroppers. Some of the newly affluent mestizos began to travel widely; a number went to Spain for their education. Mestizo intellectuals campaigned for political reforms and the abolition of the "friarocracy". The conservative Catholic establishment did its best to maintain the status quo: until 1898 the Church-run University of Santo Tomás in Manila taught essentially the same curriculum that it had in 1611, when it was founded by the Dominicans. The brilliant spokesman for change, the Chinese-mestizo physician and scientist José Rizal, had earned doctorates in both Spain and Germany. He wrote two novels dealing with the abuses of Spanish rule in the islands - Noli Me Tangere in 1886 and El Filibusterismo in 1891 - which were both banned by the authorities but successfully smuggled into the Philippines to become the twin bibles of an emerging national consciousness.

    Although Rizal advocated compromise and peaceful evolution, he was arrested on his return from Europe to the Philippines in 1892 and was then exiled to a remote town on Mindanao. Four years later, a group of radicals launched an armed insurrection that scored some initial successes against the Spanish troops on Luzon. Rizal was brought before a military court on trumped-up charges of having conspired with the insurgents, and was executed by firing squad on December 30, 1896. The Spanish succeeded in quelling the uprising, but only by paying its leader, Emilio Aguinaldo, 800,000 pesos in cash to retire to Hong Kong with 35 of his followers.

    Meanwhile the revolution that had broken out in Cuba, Spain's other major colony, led the United States to declare war on Spain. In May 1898, the U.S. Asiatic squadron, under Commodore George Dewey, destroyed the antiquated Spanish fleet in a one-sided engagement off the Philippines which cost 380 Spanish lives and only one American fatality. Aguinaldo and his men returned to the Philippines with the help of Dewey and liberated several towns south of Manila. In August the small Spanish garrison of Manila surrendered to an American invasion force.

    The Philippine revolutionaries were denied any part in the victory they had helped to bring about. The Americans told them they would be fired on if they entered Manila - an order that infuriated the Filipinos, who had already set up a provisional government and issued a Declaration of Independence. But President William McKinley had other plans. In accordance with the peace treaty that ended the Spanish-American War in December 1898, the U.S. formally annexed the islands together with Guam and Puerto Rico, and the Philippine revolution against Spain was thus transformed into the Philippine "insurrection" against the U.S. military government.

    When McKinley issued a proclamation defining American policy as one of "benevolent assimilation" in which "the mild sway of justice and right" would replace "arbitrary rule", Aguinaldo countered with a bitter denunciation of America's "violent and aggressive seizure". The army of the Philippine Republic took to the highlands and held out against some of the best troops in the U.S. Army for more than two years, at a cost to the Americans of about 4,200 lives. Aguinaldo himself was captured by a force of American-led Philippine Scouts in 1901, and issued an appeal to his followers to lay down their arms.

    The new civil government, initially headed by Judge William Howard Taft (afterwards elected President of the United States) did its best to persuade the Filipinos that the American role was to be one of trusteeship and tutelage. Millions of dollars were spent on roads, harbours, medical facilities and forestry development. A thousand American schoolteachers were sent to 500 towns to coach 2,500 Filipinos in English and to disseminate American ideas on education. This core of informed Filipinos rapidly spread literacy. Taft personally conducted the delicate negotiations with Pope Leo XIII concerning the expropriation of estates owned by the Catholic friars, most of whom had returned to Spain: eventually their lands were purchased from the Vatican for $ 7.2 million.

    The U.S. Administration, announcing that its aim was to prepare the Philippines for self-rule, also established a new judicial system and promulgated a legal code that included a bill of civil rights; in 1907, it inaugurated a bicameral Philippine legislature which had jurisdiction over regional affairs. The right to vote was initially limited to literate males - women first voted in 1938 - but popular democracy took root rapidly. During World War I, the civil service was deliberately "Filipinized": by 1921 there were about 13,000 Filipino administrators and only 600 American officials.

    But such gestures were not in themselves enough to ensure Philippine acceptance of the country's new masters. The Americans also paid a more insidious price. Though their democratic instincts were against the feudal system that had hardened under the Spanish, they knew that they needed the support of the most powerful members of Filipino society - the pre-Spanish aristocracy with their great landholdings and the new educated élite, composed mainly of mestizos. Thus, although Taft had originally intended to distribute the Church lands in smallholdings to the tenants who farmed them, a considerable portion of them were eventually sold on the open market and bought by the large landowners. And, despite the spread of education, families of the mestizos were allowed a disproportionate number of the key positions in administration. Although the Americans in many ways brought the Philippines into the 20th century, they failed to overturn the islands' archaic social order.

Trees and shrubs grant privacy to spacious villas in Dasmarinas Village, an élite area of Manila adjoining the financial district. The gap between rich and poor is wider than in most other South-East Asian countries; 10 per cent of the Filipinos earn over 40 per cent of the income.

    In 1934, the Americans took a decisive step towards handing over independence. Congress passed legislation establishing the Commonwealth of the Philippines, an interim form of government that was to prepare the way for full independence after a 10-year period of transition. The commonwealth received a Constitution and was self-governing, under a Filipino president, though for the time being foreign affairs and defence remained in American hands. The first commonwealth elections were held in 1935, and the Nationalist Party candidate, Manuel Quezon, who at one time had been an officer in Aguinaldo's revolutionary army, was elected president.

    Quezon's carefully laid plans for leading the nation to independence were cut short by the advent of World War II. Although he had taken the precaution of forming an Army of the Philippines and appointing retired U.S. General Douglas MacArthur as its field marshal, the Japanese attack on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, took both Filipinos and Americans by surprise. Ten hours later, the U.S. bombers and fighter planes stationed at Clark Air Base, near Manila, were caught on the ground and obliterated by a Japanese air attack. Though deprived of air cover, MacArthur - now in command of the combined U.S. and Philippine forces - conducted a brave defence when the Japanese landed an invasion force on Luzon. He set up his headquarters on the island fortress of Corregidor, at the entrance to Manila Bay, and concentrated his forces on the nearby Bataan Peninsula. For more than three months, his malaria-ridden troops defended a shrinking perimeter against a superior Japanese army, but their position was ultimately hopeless. Eventually the defending forces ran out of food and ammunition supplies.

    MacArthur had been ordered to Australia - promising, however, to return - by the time the general in command at Bataan surrendered on April 9, 1942. At the time of the capitulation, the defenders of Bataan numbered some 64,000 Filipinos as well as 12,000 Americans. At least one tenth of them subsequently died of starvation and disease, or were brutally murdered by their Japanese captors, on a gruelling 100-kilometre forced trek to prison camp which later became known as the Death March.

    A remnant of the army held out on Corregidor for another month before succumbing to heavy bombardment. The surrender of that force on May 6 officially marked the end of hostilities in the Philippines. Thousands of soldiers from units stationed elsewhere on the islands refused, however, to give themselves up; they simply melted into the mountains and formed themselves into the nuclei of guerrilla organizations. One of the most important was the Communist-led Hukbalahap - or Huks, for short.

    Just before the fall of Corregidor, Quezon left for America and set up a government in exile. Most of the remaining members of the Filipino élite collaborated with the Japanese who, anxious to enlist support in their military aims, declared the Philippines independent in 1943 and set up a puppet government under José Laurel. The country's new rulers ruthlessly stamped out any subversion, repressed religion and requisitioned rice. From the start of the Japanese domination the mass of the people looked eagerly for an American deliverance. Coast-watchers risked their lives to supply the Allies with vital intelligence about Japanese shipping movements. More than a quarter of a million Filipinos eventually joined the guerrilla groups, which harassed the Japanese army of occupation so effectively that by 1944 the Japanese had control of only 12 of the archipelago's 48 provinces.

At Palo on the island of Leyte, lifelike statues set in water commemorate the time General Douglas MacArthur redeemed his pledge to return to the land conquered by the Japanese in 1942. The ensuing year-long campaign cost the lives of thousands of Americans and a million Filipinos.

    In October of that year, MacArthur fulfilled his pledge and returned to the islands, landing on Leyte with four American divisions. Eleven months of bitter fighting followed before Japan surrendered. In all, an estimated one million Filipinos lost their lives during the war, a large proportion of them in the last months of combat; and the final battle for Manila left the capital one of the most extensively war-damaged cities in the world.


Although the Japanese-sponsored regime had been nominally a republic, true independence did not arrive until July 4, 1946, when Manuel Roxas was sworn in as the first president. The willingness with which the U.S. agreed to surrender its remaining powers left it on cordial terms with its former colony. One consequence was that the U.S. was able to use the Philippines as the centre for its military activities in the western Pacific. It was granted a long lease on Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, two huge installations which it had founded in the early years of the century.

    The Americans bequeathed to the Philippines a Constitution modelled on their own, with a president and a bicameral congress. During the first 20 years of independence, two parties - the Liberals and the Nationalists - alternated in power. Although the pattern superficially resembled that of United States politics, the reality was rather different. The parties' policies were almost indistinguishable, and politicians readily shifted allegiance from one to the other if it seemed to their advantage. Those in power automatically used their office to enrich themselves. However, elections were held regularly and the succession of new faces at the top gave perennial grounds for hope.

    The economic news also fostered optimism. At Independence, the country was overwhelmingly agricultural, growing rice and maize as staples and coconuts and sugar cane for export. But during the 1940s and 1950s, the economy began to diversify. Factories making textiles, shoes and cement appeared. Mining grew in importance. Gold had been extracted from Luzon since the 1930s, but copper production surpassed it in the early 1960s. And the tropical rainforests in the highlands started to yield valuable quantities of mahogany and other hardwoods.

    For the first eight years of independence, trade between the Philippines and the United States remained free, as in the colonial era; from 1954, both countries began to raise tariffs, but it was not until 1974 that Philippine products had to compete on equal terms with other foreign goods in American markets.

    The long period of preferential treatment helped the Philippines to grow at an average annual rate of 5 to 6 per cent in the 1950s and 1960s - faster than many of its neighbours. But this success tempted the governments of the time to avoid facing the country's grave underlying problems - an inequitable distribution of land, a burgeoning population and increasing violence in the cities.

    The land issue came to a head soon after Independence. About 60 per cent of peasants owned their own plots, most of them small; the rest were tenants, sharecroppers or paid plantation workers subsisting in miserable conditions. The wartime Huk guerrillas took up arms again in the name of peasants' rights and land reform. After years of sporadic fighting in Luzon, Ramon Magsaysay, a former non-Huk guerrilla who became defence secretary in 1950, succeeded in defeating the insurgents militarily. When he became president in 1953, he took a leaf out of the Huks' book and resettled thousands of landless peasant families from Luzon in uncrowded parts of Mindanao and Palawan. Magsaysay wanted to alter land distribution more dramatically by limiting the size of holdings and selling the excess from large estates to tenants. But entrenched interests opposed him, and when he was killed in an aeroplane crash in 1957 his more ambitious plans for land reform remained unrealized.

   Meanwhile, population pressures were aggravating the hardships of the poor. The census of 1903 counted 7.6 million Filipinos; 60 years later, the population had risen to about 28 million and was growing at one of the fastest rates in the world - 3 per cent per annum. The explosion was largely the result of the introduction of modern public health facilities at the turn of the century. Its effects were all the more serious because of the islands' rugged topography, which crowded people into the fertile valleys. But no government campaign attempted to reduce the birth rate in the Philippines; politicians were not prepared to take on the Catholic Church, which was opposed to birth control.

    Violence was in part a heritage from the American era; firearms had been available with few restrictions, as in the United States, and many people had acquired a gun. Landlords had taken to employing armed gangs to bully rebellious tenants. After the Americans left, street crime became a marked problem and lawlessness escalated during the 1950s and 1960s.

    In 1965, the Philippines elected a new president on the strength of his supposed ability to remedy such chronic problems as hunger, street crime and government corruption. Ferdinand Marcos, a wartime guerrilla fighter and a noted trial lawyer, earned a great deal of praise during his early years in office for building irrigation systems and introducing improvements in public health, transport and communications. He even achieved a limited measure of land reform in central and northern Luzon. He subsequently contrived to entrench himself in power, to become the most durable and problematical - and in many quarters, the most heartily detested - politician in Philippine history.

    In 1969, he became the first president to win a second term of office. The Constitution then in force limited the president to two four-year terms, but outbreaks of violence and civil unrest during the early 1970s gave him a pretext for declaring martial law in 1972 and forcing through a "reform" Constitution that allowed him to stay on indefinitely as head of state. He kept martial law in force until 1981, ruling by decree though buttressed by a series of referenda on specific points of policy. When his opponents, led by Senator Benigno Aquino, accused him of wanting to establish a "garrison state", Marcos proved them right by imprisoning hundreds, and ultimately thousands, of dissidents. Aquino himself was held in detention for eight years - until May 1980, when he was permitted to travel to the United States for open-heart surgery. In place of the Philippines' accustomed pluralism in party politics, the press and the labour unions, the country was now controlled from the centre, with the army and the security services as Marcos' main instruments of power.

    Meanwhile, the seeds of economic crisis were being sown. Marcos' ambitious development projects had been financed by large loans, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s were quite cheap to service. But after the shock to the economics of the Western world caused by the dramatic rise of oil prices in 1973, interest rates soared and the foreign debt of the Philippines increased cripplingly. And to make matters even worse, a slump in world prices for all major Philippine commodities - sugar and coconuts, copper and timber - also drastically reduced the country's foreign earnings.

On Negros, steam and reeking smoke belch from the chimneys of the Victorias Milling Company, one of the largest sugar refineries in the world. The island's economy has been devoted almost entirely to sugar production since the 19th century.

    Many industries were by this time in the hands of associates of Marcos, and being run extremely badly with the sole aim of enriching their owners. When they began to fail in the early 1980s, the government bailed them out, squandering huge sums of money. In the meantime, Marcos himself was abusing the Philippine economy on a scale only conjectured at the time. Through corrupt deals, he amassed a private fortune equivalent to one third of the national debt.

    After martial law was lifted in 1981, Marcos was re-elected as head of state. The vote for Marcos was no sure guide to the feelings of the Filipinos since the opposition, convinced that Marcos would rig the results, had boycotted the election. But the turning point in many Filipinos' attitudes came when Benigno Aquino returned from America on August 21, 1983. He was shot dead at Manila Airport as he left the aeroplane. According to the government, the assassin was a Communist agent, Rolando Galman, who was gunned down by soldiers on the spot. The political opposition claimed, however, that the government and the military were involved in Aquino's murder. A civilian fact-finding board concluded that the crime had been planned and executed by a group of conspirators that included many of the country's highest-ranking military officers. The Chief of Staff, General Ver, and 25 other military personnel were eventually put on trial for the shooting but were acquitted.

    In the weeks after Aquino's murder, nervous foreign banks withdrew their funds. The Philippines found itself massively in debt to the International Monetary Fund. At first the government refused to comply with the IMF's tough stipulations that public spending and the supply of money be cut drastically. As a result of the government's mishandling of the economy, inflation topped 60 per cent in 1984. When the Filipinos finally swallowed their bitter medicine, inflation came down sharply but most sectors of the economy sank into deep recession. In striking contrast with the burgeoning growth in most other Far Eastern countries, the economy of the Philippines shrank by 5 per cent in 1984, and by another 5 per cent in 1985.

    At the worst moments of the slump, one of the few saving graces in the economy was the generosity of Filipinos away from home. More than half a million expatriates work overseas. There are many in the Middle East, labouring on huge construction projects, and another large population in the United States, working at jobs that range from waiter or hotel porter to doctor and university professor. In many other countries, too, Filipinos' literacy and familiarity with Western ways open doors. In 1984, their remittances home were equivalent to 13 per cent of Philippine export income.

    The other bright spots in the economy were within the agricultural sector. The introduction of high-yielding rice strains and hybrid maize was transforming productivity. The heavy dependence on sugar and coconuts for export earnings was being progressively lessened by new ventures in coffee, rubber and fish farming.

    But the cheerful morsels of economic news were overshadowed by the strains of recession and weariness at President Marcos' long reign. Law and order began to collapse in many areas of the Philippines. Ordinary citizens in the 1980s increasingly found themselves caught in the crossfire between armed groups of the left and right - among them, private armies recruited by corporations or industrialists, miscellaneous bands of robbers and hired killers, as well as various factions within the army and the police force.

    Amid this confusion the Communist movement grew in strength. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New People's Army, were established in 1969 after a breakaway from the Soviet-backed Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas. Originally the CPP relied on modest Chinese aid. The funds ceased in 1975 but the CPP, by this time a powerful endogenous force, went from strength to strength. By the mid-1980s, the New People's Army had well over 15,000 guerrilla fighters and was operating in the majority of the country's 73 provinces, mainly in the countryside but also in some cities such as Davao in Mindanao. Where they deemed it necessary, the Communists used ruthless techniques to gain the ascendancy. They would shoot local mayors and heads of villages to terrorize the people and weaken the local administration.

    One of the few moderating influences on the political scene was the Catholic Church. Cardinal Jaime Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, offered constructive criticism of the Marcos regime, although not to the point of encouraging the extreme left. The Church was split between those behind Marcos and the majority who followed the Cardinal's middle way. There was also a handful, perhaps 1 per cent, who supported the Communists and even worked with them.

    Political passions in the Philippines were already running high when canvassing began for the 1986 presidential elections. In the course of a campaign marred by bloodshed and murder, Marcos' supporters subjected the electoral process to every kind of abuse from vote-buying to the theft of ballot boxes. Eventually Marcos proclaimed himself the winner, with 53 per cent of the vote. The opposition, led by the widow of the murdered Benigno Aquino, contested the result with massive, non-violent demonstrations.

    Two weeks after the election charade, a group of army officers, led by the defence minister Juan Ponce Enrile, proclaimed open revolt against the Marcos regime. Thousands of Manila's citizens thronged the road to the rebels' camp and prevented government troops from reaching it. As Marcos' position became untenable, Mrs. Corazón Aquino was sworn in as the Philippines' new president. Twelve hours later Marcos was persuaded to leave the country. No sooner had he gone than Mrs. Aquino opened his opulent Manila palace to the public so that ordinary Filipinos could judge the outrageously extravagant lifestyle of the autocrat who had ruled them for 21 years. They came by the thousand to gape at the lofty rooms and old master paintings - not to mention Mrs. Marcos' gold washbasin and 2,700 pairs of shoes.


Mrs. Aquino drew support from all over the Philippines, but nowhere was the commitment stronger than in Manila, where every class from the business élite to the poorest of the poor had glimpsed the excesses of their former leader and his family. It was the people of Manila who were at the centre of the struggle to oust Marcos, and they who rejoiced most ecstatically at the change of rule.

A crowd awaits the start of a cockfight in a Manila pit. The fights, held on Sundays, are big business throughout the Philippines. Thousands of pesos are wagered on which of two birds, their right legs armed with blades, will vanquish the other after two to five minutes of flurried combat.

    Manila habitually sets the course for the rest of the country. It is not only the hub of Filipino politics but also the centre of the country's economy, religion, entertainment and communications. It is the home of two thirds of the Philippines' industries, and its harbour is the scene of a constant coming and going of cargo vessels from ports all over the world. Every year Manila draws hundreds of thousands of newcomers, who add to its already immense population and its burden of social problems. In 1903, Manila had a population of 220,000; modern Metro Manila, the term used to describe the conurbation which now links 13 suburban cities and towns with the Manila of old, has seven million inhabitants and is still growing fast. Its centre is full of reminders of the past - old Spanish forts, a Christian churchyard guarded by Chinese lions - yet the present intrudes everywhere. Like all great Asian cities, Manila is intensely dynamic, noisy, overcrowded, snarled in endless traffic jams, whose most eye-catching constituents are jeepneys - gaudily decorated trucks converted into bus-cum-taxis, that have become the unofficial emblem of the place.

    Metro Manila has more than 100 cinemas, and there is a thriving and sometimes innovative Philippine film industry. Another of Manila's addictions is the Basque sport of jai alai, one of the heritages of Spanish rule. The action is something like squash except that players wield crescent-shaped wicker baskets instead of rackets. Spectators place bets on the outcome of this fastest of all ball games.

Against a backdrop of high-rise hotels lining a waterfront boulevard, pleasure craft are moored in the Manila Yacht Club marina. The building dominating the near shore was built for the 1974 Miss Universe contest; it now serves as a theatre and cultural centre.

    For people with money to spend, there are avenues lined with restaurants famous for some of the finest cooking in the East, and nightclubs where Filipino jazzmen uphold their reputation as the best musicians in Asia. There is also a variety of pleasure dens and massage "clinics" where one can form relationships that, as one guidebook delicately phrases it, are "intensified by their briefness and generally monetary nature".

Makeshift ferries creep between banks of rubbish lining a canal in Tondo, Manila's most noisome slum. In the background are the shabby houses of its more fortunate residents; the vast majority have to live in cardboard shacks a mere six metres square.

    Not far from the glamorous boulevards of affluent Manila lies a very different world - the twisted alleys of Tondo, where around 250,000 squatters live jammed together in tin-roofed shanties. With virtually no plumbing, the stench is appalling, but television aerials rise high above many of the ramshackle dwellings to proclaim to the world that things are looking up. Many people manage to live an honest and quasi-normal life in these squalid surroundings, perhaps picking rags and scrap metal from the city's rubbish dumps, but many resort to prostitution and crime. Manila's slums are dangerous places, where outsiders only venture in broadest daylight and in groups of three or more. The litter-strewn alleys make a perfect hideout for fugitives, racketeers and malefactors.

    Those who have turned to petty thievery to rise above the anonymous poverty of the slums sometimes move on to grand larceny as a respectable way of life. Manila has long been a violent place and today it has organized gangsterism reminiscent of Chicago in the Al Capone era; there is said to be a murder every hour.

    The peasant life the Tondo squatters left behind begins only a short distance from the outskirts of the capital. Villages are mostly unplanned agglomerations of one and two-storey frame houses, some with corrugated-iron roofs and others with palm thatch. A good part of everyday life is lived in perpetually green gardens wreathed with vines and flowers, or on a sandy patch by the sea.

    If the village is large enough to warrant a town hall, a school or a hospital, it may also have a public park adorned with a statue of the scholarly revolutionary José Rizal, bending over his writing table with a kerosene lamp at his side. Nearby there will be the restaurants and cafés where people spend their free time sitting under awnings, sipping soft drinks and talking volubly: Filipinos have a lot to say to each other, even if they have been neighbours for 20 years. If there is a bus stop nearby, each bus will be greeted by girls offering bananas or oranges or home-made sweets to passengers through the open windows; competition is fierce but good-natured.

    For most rural families, the income from such commerce is a sideline to farming or fishing. On many of the smaller islands, where space is scarce, the land is divided into peasant smallholdings, each growing a variety of crops. The bulk of the Philippines' rice comes from the largest island, Luzon, whose extensive central lowlands permit large-scale agriculture.

A mountainside carved by hand into a stairway of rice terraces testifies to the labours of Ifugao tribespeople from northern Luzon. With their water-retaining dykes, the terraces have been lovingly maintained for hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of years.

    Most of the sugar plantations in the Philippines are concentrated in the fourth largest island, Negros. Until the 19th century, Negros was almost uninhabited, but by 1893 it harboured 274 steam-operated sugar mills, with hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar-cane fields to supply them and a vast population of agricultural workers who had immigrated from nearby islands. For decades the sugar industry gave a livelihood directly or indirectly to about 5 million people, but the decline in world sugar prices in the 1980s bankrupted many plantations. Few of the unemployed field hands have found alternative work; they face the choice between the squalor of a city slum and a life of desperate poverty in the lush green countryside. Eventually, some may be rescued by tourism, for Negros, seen from afar, is a Hollywood stereotype of an island paradise. Its purple mountains are capped with white clouds and descend to superb beaches and underwater gardens of coral reefs; hot springs and waterfalls abound in its forests.

    Some Philippine islands have already adapted themselves to the tourist economy. In parts of Cebu and Panay, for example, villages of nipah huts - a palm thatch and bamboo version of a motel cabin - have sprung up to accommodate the Swiss, Australians and Californians who represent the forward edge of the tourist invasion. Hotels and beach clubs follow hard on the heels of the huts, and in places only the old folk are left working the land, while all the young people are busy as waiters, massage girls or peddlers of coral necklaces.

    Still, there are communities in the Philippines that have not yet succumbed to the blandishments of modernism. The 1.5 million Muslims of western Mindanao, Palawan and the Sulu archipelago constitute a prime example of a fiercely independent people still clinging to the traditions they inherited from their ancestors. Other Filipinos call them the moros. The word is a misnomer, bestowed by the early Spanish colonizers, who had just finished driving the Moors from Spain, and to whom all Muslims were moros. Ethnically, the Philippine Muslims are scarcely less Malay than the rest of the islands' population, though their aquiline noses suggest an admixture of Arab stock. Ideologically, however, they are a race apart. They have never been reconciled to any central government, and in the 1970s they began a simmering guerrilla war against the republic's authority. In 1976, the government agreed in principle to grant the Moros considerable regional autonomy, including their own judiciary, legislature and security force. So far, however, little of substance has been devolved.

    The Moros wear the most striking costumes of the Philippines - the men, sarongs with braided waistcoats and wide cummerbunds, topped with a fez or a turban; many are armed with a more than merely decorative dagger. The women wear trousers with sari-like robes or brocade jackets whose golden threads and shining buttons sparkle in the sun.

    The Moros live in hierarchic communities under sultans and datus who also administer the religious courts known as agama. They practise polygamy, which is technically illegal but is tolerated by the government, and observe the Koranic law by which a man can repudiate a wife whenever he wishes. Yet women are much freer to come and go as they please than women in most other Islamic societies, and the literacy rate is as high among Moro women as among Moro men.

    The Muslim coastal tribes - Samal, Yakan and Tausug - make their living from the sea, mainly as fishermen but also as inter-island traders, and occasionally as smugglers and pirates. The southernmost islands of the Sulu archipelago are considered bandit country and no-go areas for outsiders without the proper introductions. The Samal travel for hundreds of kilometres in home-made boats that are often only hollowed-out logs buoyed by twin outriggers, fitted with a single sail. During World War II, an outrigger manned by escaping Samals and Americans made the 5,000-kilometre crossing to Australia under sail.

    The Filipinos with the closest ties to the sea, however, are the Bajau Laut - a group of no more than 20,000 to 30,000 people, many of whom spend all of their lives on small houseboats. The whole of their sea-gypsy life is governed by the tides. When typhoons lash the islands, they will ride out the storm aboard their boats rather than try to seek safety on land: terra firma makes them feel "landsick". Children are born, love affairs are consummated and marriages are celebrated aboard the boats. Hardly touched by the modern world, the Bajau Laut rarely know how old they are or what year it is.


Other Filipinos might envy the detachment of the Bajau Laut. Most of the islanders - city-dwellers and country folk alike - have been unable to escape the momentous upheavals that have buffeted their country in recent years. The martial law of the 1970s, the economic crisis of the mid-1980s, Marcos' sudden departure in 1986, generated waves that reached almost every corner. Communist insurgency has represented a far more serious threat to the status quo here than in other ASEAN countries. Elsewhere, Communism has normally been associated with ethnic minorities - such as the Chinese in Malaysia - or has been bolstered from outside. But under Marcos' repressive yoke, Filipino Communism burgeoned as a native movement with growing popular support.

    Even if democracy in the post-Marcos era succeeds in quelling extremism, the reconstruction of Filipino society is bound to be a long and painful task. Under 21 years of Marcos' rule, every institution from village headships to the supreme court was filled from the ranks of his cronies. Until the institutions are again representative and viable, the Philippines is unlikely to find the will radically to tackle economic and social problems.

    The other members of ASEAN are nervously watching their volatile neighbour. During Marcos' last years in power, the Philippines came to be seen as the odd man out in the group, and the other heads of state avoided Manila. While taking advantage of the economic weakness of the Philippines to expand their own trade, its partners feared contagion with the Communist Insurgency. The more authoritarian among them were disconcerted by the popular movement that swept Corazón Aquino to power. Indonesia and Malaysia, intent on keeping religion out of politics, looked askance at the Church's prominent political role. If the Philippines succeeds in regaining its equilibrium, its neighbours will sigh with relief to find that ASEAN's most serious internal threat to stability has at last been overcome.


South-East Asia; Time-Life, 1987