The Philippines is fighting a brutal war on drugs that some have termed “out of control.”  Recently elected President Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a promise to fight drugs in the country and is leading a bloody crackdown that many say is encouraging vigilante execution of drug dealers and addicts.  Join Active Minds as we review the history of the Philippines in an attempt to understand the context for the current situation and gain insight into where this important U.S. ally in the region may be heading in the future.

Key Lecture Points

  • The Philippines is an archipelago made up of over 7,000 islands in Southeast Asia.  It is a diverse country with Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American influences.  It has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
  • The Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew were the first Europeans to visit the Philippines in 1521.  Magellan claimed the land for Spain but was killed by a Filipino chief.  Other Spanish expeditions followed.  The Spanish established control over the islands in 1571 when Lopez de Legaspi founded the Spanish city of Manila.  Although the Philippines did not have spices or gold and silver, its value to Spain was trade.  By the end of the 16th century, Manila had become a major commercial center.  Spanish galleons transported silver from Mexico to Manila where it was traded for silks, spices, porcelains and other luxury goods which were then carried back to Europe and the Americas.  As much as one third of the silver mined in Mexico and Peru went to the Far East.
  • The Spanish-American War of 1898 originated in the Cuban struggle for independence but was also fought in the Philippines.  After its defeat, Spain ceded Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the US, turning the US into a world power with overseas possessions.  However, in 1899 Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, rose up in a rebellion against US rule.  It took the US two years to quell the rebellion.
  • The US declared the Philippines a commonwealth in 1934, setting a timetable for independence after a ten-year transition period.  However, in December, 1941, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, forcing the Americans to retreat.  Many Philippine Scouts remained and fought on against Japanese occupation.  American forces re-landed on the Philippines in 1944 and fierce fighting ensued until the Japanese surrendered September 1945.
  • The Philippines became independent July 4, 1946 with Manuel Roxas as the president of the new republic.  During the post-war period, the Philippines had a firm anti-Communist foreign policy and became a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.  But, there were tensions with the US over the American military installations in the country.
  • Ferdinand Marcos became president in 1965.  His second term was marked by communist and Moro separatist insurgencies as well as labor strikes and protests about the economy.  He declared martial law in 1972.  In 1986 the People Power Movement deposed Marcos and he fled to Hawaii where he was given asylum.
  • In 2016 Rodrigo Duterte was elected president after a campaign heavily focused on his war on drugs.  His unpredictability as well as his populist and nationalist message has drawn comparisons with President Elect Trump.  He has delivered on his campaign promise to kill drug users and drug sellers—more than 3,000 were killed by police and vigilantes in the first months of his presidency.  He raised alarm in the US when early in his presidency he traveled to China seeking a closer economic alliance and saying he wanted a “separation” from the US—a major shift in Philippine foreign policy.

Exploration Questions

  • Name three major events in Philippine history and describe how they have influenced current Philippine political events.
  • Describe the current state of US-Philippine relations and US concerns with President Duterte.

Reflective Questions

  • What do you think of Duterte as a leader?  Do you think he is good for the country or bad?
  • Have you been to the Philippines?  What did you find most interesting about the country?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Francia, Luis H.  History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos. Overlook Press, 2014. 368 pages.  This book traces the history of the Philippines from the first European contact in the 16th century to the present.
    Click here to order
  • Rizal, Jose. Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not).  Penguin Books, 2006. 444 pages.   Considered the great novel of the Philippines, this love story takes place against a background of colonial repression and is the first major artistic manifestation of Asian resistance to European colonialism.
    Click here to order