Celebrating the First Philippine Republic

Last 23 January, we should have celebrated the 123rd anniversary of the First Philippine Republic with fireworks, parades, platitudes and flowered wreaths. You may have noticed that we have never done that, not even in Manila, the seat of government. Bulakeños call their province the nation’s cradle; they do commemorate the Malolos Congress and Constitution and with less flourish the First Philippine Republic. It was a government on-the-run, but it was a working one. The Malolos Congress comprised elected delegates from liberated areas and appointed ones who represented contested provinces. Sessions were held conscientiously at the Barasoain Church. Concerns and challenges were addressed like the formation of municipal councils, agrarian unrest, supply chains, arms and ammunition, international diplomacy. Newspapers were printed, educational institutions established. The Barasoain church is now a venerable museum about the First Philippine Republic. However, the train station where Aguinaldo arrived with pomp and circumstance is in disrepair.

In 1998, newly-elected President Joseph Estrada had a flash of inspiration, he decided to hold his inauguration at the Barasoain Church. A few of us freshly appointed cabinet members convinced him that that was the proper thing to do, in the spirit of historical continuity. After all, the Centennial of the Philippine Revolution had not yet ended so it was his duty to remind Filipinos of the First Philippine Republic, the precious fruit of our revolutionary struggle, the first constitutional republic in Asia. Every Filipino should be proud of that historic feat.

Lamentably, before we could get him to proclaim 23 January as “ First Philippine Republic Day”, a national holiday, President Estrada was overthrown by his vice-president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose father, erstwhile President Diosdado Macapagal, will always be revered for a historically correct decision he made in 1963. With the stroke of a pen, he restored our Independence Day to 12 June, the rightful date. Since 1945, we had been celebrating Independence on 4 July, a day significant only to the USA, not to us Filipinos. How happy Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo must have felt. I remember seeing him in full military regalia, sharing center stage with Pres. D. Macapagal at the Quirino Grandstand. He was beaming as he watched the Independence Day parade led by group of “veteranos de la revolucion”.

It was President Fidel Ramos who presided over the Centennial of the Philippine Revolution. There were international conferences with eminent guest speakers from Southeast Asia who lauded the Philippines for being the first constitutional republic in this part of the world. A mural painted by Carlos Francisco ( aka Botong), commissioned by Mayor Antonio Villegas in 1963, was the primary source of all iconic images. Although Botong’s mural was titled ”History of Manila” ( it started with Rajah Sulaiman and ended with Mayor Villegas) it was rechristened “Filipino struggles through history” because of the Centennial. Most famous were the panels depicting GOMBURZA, Jose Rizal as writer and martyr, an impassioned Andres Bonifacio leading katipuneros to battle. Some panels depicted scenes of the Philippine- American War, the arrival of Thomasites, “benevolent assimilation”, but none about the First Philippine Republic. Carlos Botong Francisco, posthumously National Artist, was a product of colonial education like most of us, so the most important event was relegated at an upper bubble, symbolized by an old church (Barasoin) in greyish shadows. You might miss it, if you don’t know your history.

The lack of knowledge about the First Philippine Republic has bridged several generations. Shockingly, in 1905, many students who took the government exams for medical school failed because they gave the wrong answers to questions about Philippine history. Private schools were reported to have fared worse than the public ones. In a 1919 text book, Filipino historian, Leandro Fernandez, confessed in the prologue that he purposely omitted “controversial views which might confuse young pupils”. The Bureau of Education was run by an American colonial official so Fernandez had to toe the line. The textbooks I used in high school and college no longer had disclaimers, but the authors glossed over the Philippine-American War and the First Philippine Republic.

It can be argued that aside from the deliberate obfuscation that occurred during American colonial times, the First Philippine Republic is conveniently ignored and not celebrated on a national scale because it is, unfortunately, associated with Emilio Aguinaldo, its president. Until the day he died, Aguinaldo was held responsible and never forgiven for the assassination of Andres Bonifacio and his brother, and of Gen. Antonio Luna and his aides. According to historian Teodoro Agoncillo during the formation of the First Philippine Republic, Pres. 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. I hope the next president of this Third Philippine Republic honors the first one by declaring a non-working national holiday.