The Changes the Republic of the Philippines Has Faced Over Time


The country of Philippines has gone through many changes ever since the first settlers made it their home 30 millennia ago. This amazing archipelago, rich in forests, different kinds of animal species, and dazzling beaches, continuously attracts visitors from all around the world.

Still, beyond the blinding beauty, many of us do not know much about it, its history and heritage. Here, we will take a look at the changes the Republic of the Philippines had to face since the prehistoric times until the present day.

First Settlers

Scientists believe that the first human inhabitants of the Philippine islands originate from somewhere around 30,000 years ago. At the time, migrations from Indonesia supposedly happened, and they continued in the following millennia.

In the course of time, the settlers of the Philippines evolved and started organizing into communities called “barangay,” which is a Malay word for boat. They lived in groups led by “datu,” i.e., the chief, and were significantly segregated by social roles — from landless and dependent agricultural workers to nobles and slaves. Over time, Chinese traders joined them. 

One of the major periods of development started when proselytizers and merchants introduced Islam to this island. Around 1500 years before Christ, this religion was established on the Sulu island, and it started spreading through Mindanao to Manila. And with the arrival of the Spaniards, this archipelago was introduced to Christianity.

Becoming a Spanish Colony

In March of 1521, one of the first world travelers, Ferdinand Magellan, reached the Philippines. In the name of the Spanish king, he claimed the land, yet a local tribe leader ended his life.

After several expeditions, Spaniards created their first lasting settlement in 1565 in Cebu. They overthrew a local Muslim ruler and also made Manila their capital in 1571. The Philippines became the colony of King Philip II of Spain. This changed the trading business in entire Europe since Spanish colonists worked their way to develop contacts with Japan and China. 

Besides the spice trading, which was the basis of the economy of the old continent in the 16th century, the objective of Spain was to convert settlers of their new colony into Christianity. Several orders of the Roman Catholic church continually worked on the Christianization of the island population. Colonists enforced a new form of a cultural community, keeping traditional village organization and local leaders, yet the Muslim population and tribes stayed alienated.

Once Spaniards started actualizing trading deals with China, they centered the trade in the archipelago around “Manila galleons” — ships that sailed from Acapulco with minted coin and silver bullion as cargo. These were mainly used in exchange for Chinese porcelain and silk.

The trade with Spain was never direct, and galleon trade was a major object of investment. And though the business was thriving, Chinese providers started backing out.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War 1756

In 1756, Spain and East India Company of Great Britain started a war in which British forces occupied Manila. Even though Spain gained back control over the Philippines by the end of the war, the new order was about to be established. During Spanish battles with the British, raids started in the north, and Muslims rebelled in the south. The Chinese community supported Britain with armed men and laborers.

Still, Spain regained control and started with reforms that would promote the development of the economy on the islands and make them independent from Mexico (Acapulco). The galleon trading ended in 1815, and the so-called Royal Company of the Philippines started a tariff-free and direct trade between Spain and the islands.

When Spain’s Latin American colonies got their independence, the profit made in the trade between them and the old continent diminished. In 1834, the free trade was recognized formally, and the Royal Company of the Philippines was canceled. With a harbor that was quite advanced, Manila became a trading center, and abaca, sugar, and tobacco were the three crops that were exported the most from of the Philippines.

Liberation From Spain and Declaration of Independence

During the 1800s, Chinese immigration grew, and Chinese mixbloods became part of Filipino society and economy. Also, the ilustrados (“enlightened ones”), the elite class of the Philippines, started opening to ideas of democracy and liberalism. 

Still, Catholic conservatives remained dominant in the Spanish ruling system. They were secured economically and resisted the idea of including native clerics. Despite their efforts of this kind, there were Filipino members of church orders who led local religious movements as well as rebelled against Spanish Catholics. Also, the mentioned ilustrados that were coming back from exile or studying abroad brought ideas that prompted a national resistance.

One of the most prominent figures of that time in the Philippines was Jose Rizal, whose writings about reforms in the country considerably impacted the awakening of the national consciousness. Rizal willingly went into exile overseas once his books were banned. He returned in 1892 and founded the Philippine League, yet he was exiled, and his organization was discharged.

Jose Rizal and the Secret Society of Katipunan


After Rizal’s exile, there was a split between reformers and those who were more independence-minded. They started joining Katipunan, a society that was secretly founded by Andres Bonifacio. This organization was committed to gaining national independence, and by 1896, they started a rebellion against the Spanish rule.

The same year, Rizal returned once again to his homeland, where he was arrested under indictment for participating in the rebellion. Even though this man was never a member of Katipunan, the government executed him on December 30. The rebels, now led by Emilio Aguilado, started another rebellion against Spanish troops. They lost, and Aguinaldo, who was the Filipino president at the time, and his government, in 1897, went to Hong Kong into exile. 

The War Between the US and Spain and the Philippine Independence 

In April 1898, a conflict broke out, i.e., the Spanish-American War, and Americans easily defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila. President Aguinaldo returned, and with a large number of troops, kept Spaniards captive in the Filipino capital until the U.S. troops came.

Nonetheless, Americans did nothing to include Aguinaldo’s efforts in their success. So as soon as the Spanish were defeated, the war between Filipino and American troops began. Aguinaldo presented a declaration of independence on June 12, 1898. But the Treaty of Paris signed in December the same year between Spain and the United States, handed out Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the U.S.

In February 1899, a battle started in Malolos, the city where Aguinaldo was inaugurated as president, and Americans won. Aguinaldo called his compatriots to put down their arms, but the resistance continued until 1903. Islamic population remained neutral during these events, but eventually started raids and was placed under the military rule of the U.S. until 1914.

The US Rule

There were two phases of the American regime in the Philippines. The first lasted from 1898 until 1935, when Washington prepared the Philippines for the independence of their colonial mission. This was the time when political organizations flourished. They all had immediate independence as the objective, yet many of their leaders collaborated with the U.S. After WWI, socialists and communists started supporting the resistance of farmers against the elite controlling the land. This led to occasional violence while the Great Depression was getting more intense and crop prices were dropping.

From 1936 until 1946, the second period of the U.S. rule lasted. During these years, the Philippine Commonwealth was established, and a Japanese occupation occurred. In 1941, Japan attacked the Philippines, and the next year, they occupied the archipelago. In October 1944, the allies invaded this country, but the Japanese did not surrender until September 1945.

Early Independence Years

World War II was a grim period on the islands, with constant shortages of food and excessive inflation. The leaders that collaborated with Japanese were purged by allies, and they did not have the right to vote in the first election after the war.

The long-awaited independence finally came in 1946, and Roxas became the first president. Still, the economy remained dependent on the U.S., which also maintained control over 23 military bases.

They signed a bilateral treaty in 1947, and thus, the U.S. carried on to provide military training, material, and aid. Since the Huk guerrillas rose against the new administration, the help from the United States ended. Guerillas by the name of People’s Liberation Army demanded general amnesty, the discharge of the military police, and political participation. They could not get to an agreement, so in 1950, a rebellion began in order to abolish the government. The next year, Huks turned to criminal activities directed toward peasants.

In 1953, Ramon Magsaysay was elected as president, and he started many reforms that would be beneficial to many farmers in the north, while also managing to worsen the relations with the Muslims in the south. Huk leaders were either captured or killed, and the organization completely vanished by 1954.

President Magsaysay died in 1957 in a plane crash, and Vice President Carlos P. Garcia took his place. He managed to reach the agreement with the U.S. to give back the land that they did not need for military operations anymore. Some years later, Diosdado Macapagal, a candidate of the Liberal Party, was elected. He worked on straightening the relations with their neighbors from Southeast Asia.

The Rule of Ferdinand Marcos

In 1965, the leader of the Nacionalista Party, Ferdinand Marcos, became prominent on the political scene. He was elected as president and stayed the most prominent figure in the Philippines for the next two decades.

The Rule of Ferdinand Marcos

With many ambitious projects, he had a plan to improve the quality of life in this country while providing many benefits for his friends as well. The land reform he advocated for included the alienation of the political elite, and that’s why it was never implemented.

Under his leadership, the Republic of the Philippines became the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) founder in 1967. He was the first re-elected president, but during his second term, the crime rate increased, economic growth slowed down, and optimism faded.

In 1968, a new communist revolt started that was led by the military of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The next year, the Moro National Liberation Front was established, and it began the rebellion in Muslim parts of the country. Left-oriented organizations were blamed for political violence, which was probably provoked by government agents and which led Marcos to stop arresting. This was the prologue to the martial law.

The Martial Law

In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law, which was in effect until 1981. While this period lasted, the president called for the beginning of the new society and self-sacrifice.

Nonetheless, in this “society,” the president and his wife, Imelda Romualdez-Marcos, a former actress, engaged in extensive corruption. The first lady of the Philippines had the support of her husband to build a power base of her own. She became the human settlements minister and Metropolitan Manila’s governor.

Decisions Ferdinand Marcos made lead to the politicization of the army, that was previously  a nonpolitical force. He gave his loyalists high-ranking positions. And in 1979, the U.S. reaffirmed dominance of the Philippines over American military bases and kept providing economic and military help to the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

The rule of Ferdinand Marcos started collapsing once Benigno Aquino, the political opponent who had been imprisoned by Marcos for eight years, was murdered as he was walking out of a plane at the International Airport in Manila in 1983. Though there were allegations against Marcos for this crime, they were withdrawn.

However, Aquino’s assassination enraged the public that was already tired of the corrupted regime. Different formations from the Catholic Church to the business elite and even armed forces factions started pressuring the government. Marcos, confident due to the support of Ronald Reagan, called for a presidential election in February 1986. The National Assembly pronounced Marcos the winner once again, and Cardinal Jaime Sin with military leaders gathered around Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, Benigno Aquino’s widow, who was the obvious winner of the majority.

Soon after the election, the movement that gathered ordinary citizens, priests, nuns, and even military units named the People Power expelled Marcos and started what seemed to be a bloodless revolution.

From Corazon Aquino to the 2000s

The Aquinos widow was widely popular, but she had no political organization. On the other hand, Salvador H.Laurel, Corazon Aquino’s vice president, had an organization but was not as supported. This was seen as a coalition government, yet there were several attempts to overthrow Aquino. She managed to survive her term, and in 1992, Fidel Ramos came as her replacement. 

Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

President Ramos worked to overcome the past divisiveness, and as a reconciliation act, he even allowed for Ferdinand Marcos’ remains to be returned to the Philippines in 1993 for burial. Five years later, Joseph Estrada replaced Ramos. He was the vice president during Fidel’s term and enjoyed wide popularity. Nonetheless, his popularity decreased within a year due to allegations of corruption and cronyism, as well as failing to find the solution for poverty. Once again, with Cardinal Sin’s help, Corazon Aquino was in the presidential chair.

In 2000, investigators of the Senate accused Estrada of accepting payoffs from illegal gambling businesses. And after the protests growing on the streets, Senate’s impeachment trial, and the withdrawal of the armed forces support, Estrada had to leave the office in January in 2001.

His successor was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was also his vice president. Her rule was later confirmed by local and congressional elections. However, the overwhelming victory of Macapagal-Arroyo’s coalition was followed by accusations of vote-buying, coercion, and fraud.

Her term was marked by military mutiny in July of 2003 in Manila, and this made her declare a state of rebellion that lasted a month. This resulted in charges filed against over 1,000 individuals. Even though back in 2002, the president promised that she would not compete in the 2004 presidential elections, she reversed her decision in 2003. In June of 2004, she was re-elected for another six years. Thus, Macapagal-Arroyo managed to move the economic and political reform that was stalled during the first term.

The Republic of the Philippines Today

The Republic of the Philippines

Today, the first man of the country is Rodrigo Duterte who replaced the Benigno Aquino III in 2016. Since he got the term in the office, the Philippines won the case against China considering issues in the South China Sea. He started an intensive anti-drug campaign because of his promise to wipe out criminal activities in six months. Due to this decision, the death rate in the Philippine Drug War was over 5,000 at the beginning of 2019.

In 2017, Duterte also started a project named “Build, Build, Build” with the objective to lead the Philippines into a new infrastructural golden age and open many job opportunities. This would also have a positive influence on the economic growth of the republic and reduce poverty. This project has 75 subprojects: 12 linked to railway transport, six to air transportation, and four to water transport. There are 11 irrigation and supply projects, four projects about power, and many others. Some estimations say that the republic will spend from 160 to 180 billion dollars on infrastructure until 2022.

The same year the “Build, Build, Build” began, Duterte approved the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act that gets Filipino students free education and discharges from the other public university fees. This law will also subside charges for higher education in private institutions.

The official languages of the Philippine Republic today are English and Tagalog, or Filipino, and 91.3% of the population identifies as Christians, while 5.5% are Muslims, and 3.2% are something else.

Some Additional Thoughts

As you could tell, changes in Filipino history were many, and some might say drastic. Though the country often suffered because of the power-hungry politicians, the people of the Philippines managed to preserve old traditions and accept the new.

The Republic of the Philippines has come a long way to its independence, and in the modern age, it is still struggling with many issues. Besides the mentioned drug war, it is facing other horrors of today, such as killings of the environmentalists and land defenders and human trafficking.

Deforestation is another big problem on these islands. Since the Philippines are home to many endemic species, there is a risk that some of them will be wiped out by illegal logging that is more than frequent here.

Still, the mentioned problems are not just one country’s issues. These subjects affect the entire world and, to be solved, changes need to happen on the global level. And though the Philippines have succumbed to so many changes in the last few decades, they are proof that humanity needs to continue growing.