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Laya and layag

Updated: Apr 28

Perhaps it needs to be said again. The independence of las islas filipinas from Spain was declared on June 12, 1898. The first republic in Asia was born about 50 years before the anti-colonial struggles waged in the rest of the continent produced independent states.

The nascent Philippine republic was recolonized less than 6 months after its audacious declaration. The Philippines was to join the announcements of independence of Asian nations at mid 20th century.


The details of all this are best left to historians to parse and bring to today. The agonies that happened since then are best given to the ministrations of parents and teachers.

The changing meanings are for activists to argue, on behalf of Filipinos for whom independence has not been real.


The arguments are directed at the Philippine leadership today. On this Independence Day, 122 years after declaring its sovereignty, the nation is a debating arena about what sovereignty might now be.


President Duterte’s government contends that the rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China constitutes an independent foreign policy. The President’s tirades against the European Union and the United States are supposed to be understood as postcolonial critique.

For too many Filipinos, hunger makes independence a joke. Free to sniff glue to numb pangs in the pit.


And then there are enough Filipinos who are happy to trade freedoms for petty power. Or for a shred of security in a confusing time.


The shared misfortune is that the debates are framed badly. Demagogues such as the present head of state keep power by violently quarantining discussion to either/or boxes.

The simplest binaries are a joke. Either a war with China, or yield the West Philippine Sea to the neighborhood bully. Either Chinese offshore gaming is allowed, or there is no money for emergency operations during the pandemic.


The ridiculousness is only exceeded by the contempt for the public.

The public, on the other hand, includes many who indeed prefer simplification, because these reductions and fundamentalisms are abroad everywhere in the world; are comforting; and are as though signs that life might be better quickly.


But there are more insidious simplications. Harder to spot but more disdainful of any true measure of common good.


This one. Human rights are a foreign idea, Western, ergo, the Philippines is being liberated from the colonial past by embracing the Eastern. Even if Eastern despotism.


This, too. Sovereignty is only protected militarily. Outcomes are only dependent on superior arms.


Another. Sovereignty is a luxury only for rich countries. Vassalage is the single recourse of poor countries.


But none of these formulations accommodate the legacy of a century-old Republic that already had a Bill of Rights in its first Constitution of 1899; and that therefore guaranteed the right to liberty and freedom of expression before any other country in Asia.


These gross simplifications do not account for thousands of years of pacific trade between this archipelago and the Middle Kingdom, and the existence therefore of a cross-cultural sphere in this part of the world that did not involve conquest before 1521.


Neither is the current simplemindedness (or worse, duplicity) of government foreign policy hospitable to the incontrovertible fact that the peoples and cultures of this archipelago were masters of the seas and oceans from Madagascar to Easter Island for 4,000 years.

The peoples who eventually established a republic in Asia a century ago — who became the Filipino —are heirs to these seas and oceans in cultural ways that China (or any other superpower) can never claim to.


Filipinos built a sovereign Philippines on a cultural imagination that always included the seas and oceans.


Philippine independence would have to include the claim to express and protect this legacy of a vast maritime world.


The word laya, to be free, is nearly the same word as layag, to sail.


If acknowledged, such an imagination will open complex discussion about the future of Philippine sovereignty released from the confinements of this-or-that; from the literally forked tongue of despots.

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