Asia’s first republic

Published January 23, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Manila Bulletin


Although the Filipinos, declaring independence from Spain, proclaimed a provisional government on June 12, 1898, it wasn’t until Jan. 23, 1899 that the first “proper” Philippine republic was inaugurated, following the promulgation of the Malolos Constitution two days before.

It wasn’t exactly Asia’s first republic. For one, ahead of it, Emilio Aguinaldo, its President, had founded a number of revolutionary governments, including the one at the Tejeros Convention in Rosario, Cavite on March 22, 1897 and the Republic of Biak na Bato in San Miguel, Bulacan on Nov. 1 of the same year. These revolutionary governments referred to themselves as República de Filipinas.

Also, other Asian republics, such as the Mahajanapadas of ancient India (600 BCE), the Lanfang Company in Western Borneo (1777), and the Republic of Formosa in Taiwan (1895), had been established prior to that of the Philippines.

But the government Aguinaldo led in 1899 in Malolos was Asia’s first proper constitutional republic, duly approved by a national congress, which aimed to be representative of each province of the country.

To Dr. Pablo S. Trillana III, a Littauer Fellow at Harvard University, “it was the glory days of independence,” if only because at that time, the close of the 19th century, it was only the Philippines in all of colonized Asia that was fighting for her independence. Most of her neighbors—the Cambodians, the Laotians, and the Vietnamese under the French, the Indonesians under the Dutch, and the Burmese and the Malays under the British—were pretty much under the spell of the colonial powers, whose strategy to achieve their principal goal of creating conditions for economic success in the colonies was to keep peace and order, what the Dutch called rust en ordre.

“The Malolos Constitution… established the nation-state with a government that was popular, representative, and responsible,” explains Trillana. “It divided the powers of government between the assembly of representatives elected in accordance with law (the legislature), the President of the Republic (the executive) elected by the assembly, and the Supreme Court and other courts as organized by law (the judiciary).”

Everything, including provincial assemblies for local governance, had been in place for the Philippine republic. All it needed was the recognition of the world’s free nations, which Apolinario Mabini was assigned to obtain as secretary of foreign affairs.

Alas, the republic had been doomed even before it was proclaimed. On Dec, 10, 1898, in the Treaty of Paris, Spain had agreed to cede all claims over the Philippines to the United States for $20 million.

Still, our first taste of freedom as a republic became a new weapon with which the Filipino revolutionaries faced a new chapter in their fight for independence, this time against the Americans. The Filipino-American War would last for three years, from Feb. 4, 1899 to July 2, 1902. It is said that the US lost 10 times more troops in the war against the Philippines than it did in bringing down the Spanish Empire.

On this day, as we commemorate the first Philippine Republic on its 123rd anniversary, what we must honor is our place in history as Asia’s cradle of freedom. More important, we must acknowledge and celebrate the early Filipinos’ capacity for constitution-making and nation-building in pursuit of independence.