Biac-na-Bato–belligerent status?

Let us get a handle on Biac-na-Bato, that tangled network of caves and rivers in San Miguel de Mayumo, Bulacan, 42 kilometers away from the Barasoain church of Malolos. Pres. Manuel Quezon declared it a national park in 1937 because of the historic events that unfolded there. In 1897, a battle-weary Revolutionary Army headed by General Emilio Aguinaldo trekked to Biac-na-Bato for much needed respite. After liberating Cavite and Batangas at such a high cost in human lives, supplies and weapons, the two provinces were recaptured by Spanish colonial forces, with contingents of native conscripts. In the sultry month of May, Aguinaldo established the Biac-na-Bato Republic with a provisional constitution patterned after Cuba’s 1895 Constitución de Jamaguayú.

I have always wondered about the Biac-na-Bato Republic. What was it for? Why go through all that trouble? In school, we glossed over it; many historians remain dismissive. I have conjectured that Aguinaldo, his close-in advisers and generals believed that the Revolutionary Army had to show (what the United Nations now calls) lawful belligerent status. After all, they were a Revolutionary Army, not a band of tulisanes wreaking havoc on the peaceful countryside. It was an organized resistance group in armed conflict with the colonial administration and with Spain itself; it was led by commanders responsible for their troops. Unlike the First Philippine Republic, Biac-na-Bato was not a working government, but it must have given Aguinaldo and the Revolutionary Army the trappings of a lawful belligerent, a ranking they needed to negotiate with the enemy on equal footing.

Apparently, belligerency was in vogue in the 19th century especially during a series of independence wars waged against Spain by its South American colonies. In 1861, during the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln granted belligerent status to the Confederacy. Today, belligerence is considered a thing of the past, yet in June 1979 the Pacto Andino (Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) recognized the belligerent status of the Sandinista National Liberation Front ( FSLN) of Nicaragua and demanded the resignation of its cruel dictator, Anastacio Somoza. Closer to home, in 1996, the National Democratic Front (NDF) applied for belligerent status on the basis of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and Protocol 1 of 1977. Whenever the NDF negotiates, it pointedly refers to the Philippines as GRP.

Allow me to rewind: On 2 July 1897, Governor-General Primo de Rivera issued a decree that enjoined those who had participated in rebellions to report to military authorities not later than 10 July, or suffer dire consequences. Inhabitants of rebellious areas were forbidden to leave their villages without a pass and a cedula. As it turned out, the decree had the opposite effect, it united the Filipinos behind Aguinaldo, even fence sitters decided to take a chance on the Revolution.

Gov-Gen. Primo de Rivera was desperate for a solution to end the Philippine Revolution; the Queen Regent’s cabinet was threatening a recall. Spain was up to its ears with conflicts in the kingdom’s three remaining colonies–Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Enter Pedro A. Paterno, a courtly, wealthy ilustrado, the maguinoo of Quiapo, who offered his services as negotiator to the Gov.-General. He claimed to love Mother Spain and to know the leaders of the Revolution, some he had met in Europe. He dropped names including Aguinaldo’s. He could bring them to the negotiating table, all he needed was a safety pass to Biac-na-Bato. A harassed Primo de Rivera agreed, his only condition was for Paterno not to compromise Spain’s honor.

Pedro Paterno arrived unannounced at Biac-na-Bato armed with a letter of self-introduction. He said the Governor-General was determined to implement reforms, but needed time to erase centuries-old impurities. He stressed that Cavite was recaptured in order to pardon everyone, even the deserters. He added that Prime Minister Segismundo Moret was set to grant Filipinos’ salient demands like representation in the Cortes and the expulsion of the religious orders. All rebels will be pardoned and given money to live in peace.

Paterno would probably not have found Aguinaldo without the Biac-na-Bato setup. The latter convened his field officers to weigh the advantages of peace overtures and continued warfare. The majority agreed to surrender in exchange for pardon and money, except for Generals Paciano Rizal and Miguel Malvar who exhorted everyone to continue with the armed struggle. The meeting became stormy, said Prof. Agoncillo, but Aguinaldo prevailed as he invoked Article 2, Section 3 of the provisional constitution. The Supreme Council sent the decision to General Artemio Ricarte, Captain-General of the Revolutionary Army, who added that the colonial government should leave two Spanish officials as hostages in Biac-na-Bato to guarantee the safety of rebel leaders while enroute to HongKong.

There was no formal recognition of belligerency as Spain had learnt its lesson in South America; but, one can argue that the Biac-na-Bato republic managed to negotiate on equal footing. Upon departure of the revolutionaries aboard a merchant ship, the Spanish government transferred to Baldomero Aguinaldo, through Pedro Paterno, a draft payable by a HongKong bank for 400,000 Mexican silver pesos in exchange for the surrender of rebels and of inventoried arms and munitions (225 firearms, 2,382 cartridges, 20 pieces of machinery from the Biac-na-Bato arsenal). After the surrender of 700 more arms, Pedro Paterno would release 200,000 pesos more. Safe conduct passes were issued to “insurgents”. On 15 December, Aguinaldo announced that whoever shall not surrender arms will hence be considered bandits.

Five hundred soldiers loyal to Aguinaldo escorted him and his chosen companions to the embarktion point in Lingayen. They were allowed to take revolvers and 2 rifles with them. How disquieting to know that the revolutionaries quarreled and sued each other over the division of spoils; neither did Spain fulfill its promises. However, Biac-na-Bato did serve a purpose.