Last Tuesday, 23 January, Dr. Jose Vicente Torres of the Department of History of De La Salle University posted on FB that it was the 118th anniversary of the First Republic of the Philippines. “Ating ipagbunyi ang mga sakripisyo ng mga Pilipino para sa Kalayaan ng Ating Bayan.” As usual, there was no national commemoration to remind us Filipinos that, once upon a time, we were the first to establish a republic in this part of Asia.
Although Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, our first president, appears like the villain of the 20thcentury, especially in that riveting movie “Heneral Luna,” I believe he should be remembered with a measure of reverence. After all, against all treacherous odds, he pushed the establishment of that First Republic; though ephemeral, it was the fruit of the Philippine Revolution and the entire patriotic struggle that led to it.
Upon his return from Hong Kong aboard the USS McCulloch (a portentous decision), he somewhat hastily declared Independence on 12 June 1898, from his house, instead of at the municipio or the public plaza, or any other place that symbolized Spanish colonial power. He formed a Revolutionary Government and on the 18th and 19th of the same month signed two decrees drafted by Apolinario Mabini (who had already been summoned to his side) forming local government units throughout the archipelago. With a strategist’s eye, Aguinaldo saw that Spain’s defeat was irreversible, so Filipinos had to be ready to govern themselves and what better way than to begin at the local level.
Inevitably, most were headed by military men: Manila was under Gen. Artemio Ricarte; Bulacan had Gen. Gregorio del Pilar while Gen. Mariano Llanera held sway in Nueva Ecija; Gen. Tomas Mascardo (General Antonio Luna’s foe) was assigned to Pampanga; Gen. Miguel Malvar held command in his native Batangas while Gen. Manuel Tinio was sent to the Ilocos provinces. Gen. Paciano Rizal liberated Laguna from its Spanish tormentors.
However, when possible, civilians were appointed as town heads like what occurred in certain areas in Cavite, Zambales, Bataan, Morong, Mindoro, Olongapo, Pangasinan, and Tayabas. By 1 December 1898, 30 more provinces and districts, including all of Luzon and some islands in the Visayas, had their own local government units
Significantly, on 13 August of the same year, a “Battle of Manila” was cleverly choreographed by the USA and Spain (similar to what they had done in the Caribbean). The Americans forbade the Filipino Revolutionary Armed Forces to enter the Walled City, ostensibly because they had heard that Aguinaldo and his men were on a vindictive rampage, eager to inflict unspeakable atrocities on Spanish nationals holed up in Intramuros. The truth was that the Spaniards wanted to be spared the humiliation of surrendering to the despicable “indios” and for their part, the Americans were showing their true colors — they did not come to help but to crush the Philippine Revolution.
To this day, historians wonder why Emilio Aguinaldo did not even try to breach the Walled City; instead, he took the Revolutionary Government to Malolos, Bulacan, beyond the reach of American gunboats anchored in Manila Bay. The Malolos Congress was convened on 15 September, a fledgling government began to work on a Constitution and the First Republic of the Philippines was inaugurated on 23 January 1899, with Emilio Aguinaldo as president. That republic was, proudly so, the first of its kind in Asia.
The reorganization fever, that had begun after Independence was declared, continued with Cavite taking the lead, followed by Batangas and Pangasinan where local officials were elected and military governors replaced by civilians. According to eminent historian Dr. Teodoro Agoncillo, it was doubtful whether all liberated areas were ruled in strict compliance with the decrees issued by President Aguinaldo; conditions were volatile due to the Philippine-American War. But, Agoncillo emphasized that, most Filipino officials were imbued with genuine idealism and “ comported themselves in such a manner as to make the business of government a study in public morality.”
Dr. Agoncillo maintained that during the formation of the First Philippine Republic, Aguinaldo “acted scrupulously and honestly” and was counseled by Filipinos of integrity and vision like Apolinario Mabini and Felipe Agoncillo who never compromised integrity for popularity nor personal power.
The June (1898) decrees promulgated 45 rules on how to conduct town meetings, organize a police force for internal security, hold trials and local elections, compile an orderly civil registry of births, deaths, and marriages, and how to take a census. There were procedures for tax collection, administration of public funds, for fomenting commerce and industry. Officials in charge of administrative functions were called delegates; there were chiefs of towns, heads of poblaciones and provinces, each with their own job descriptions.
Nothing escaped the brilliant Apolinario Mabini. The decrees he drafted for Aquinaldo stipulated that popular assemblies were to be composed of all the above-mentioned delegates, poblacion heads and town chiefs who elected assembly presidents, vice-presidents, secretaries, and judicial delegates among their peers. Popular assemblies were consulted about the election of provincial chiefs and councilors. A provincial chief held office at the provincial capital and provincial councils supervised the implementation of government instructions and decrees in their areas of responsibility.The popular assemblies elected representatives to the Malolos Congress. Unfortunately, due to conditions of war brought about by the American invasion, not all provinces could hold elections before 15 September. Pres. Aguinaldo had to appoint delegates to represent provinces where peaceful elections were impossible.
During the passage of the last 118 years, national amnesia has grown very deep roots in the Filipino psyche, so the birth of the First Republic of the Philippines on 23 January 1899 has been obliterated from collective memory, never to be celebrated on a grand national scale which might remind us that, not too long ago and despite all odds, we Filipinos did it!
(source: Agoncillo, Teodoro. Malolos,the crisis of the Republic, University of the Philippines Press, 1960)