April 2007

Perry Diaz

The Philippines, circa 1752 (Bellin)

The Philippines, circa 1752 (Bellin)

Philippine history books have been saying that Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines. But was he really the one who discovered the Philippines?

Long before Magellan landed in the Philippine archipelago, visitors and colonizers from other lands had come to our shores.  The earliest evidence of the existence of modern man — homo sapiens sapiens — in the archipelago was discovered in 1962 when a National Museum team led by Dr. Robert Fox uncovered the remains of a 22,000-year old man in the Tabon Caves of Palawan.  The team determined that the Tabon Caves were about 500,000 years old and had been inhabited for about 50,000 years.

In the late 1990s, Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at UCLA and winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, and Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the Australian National University, postulated that the Austronesians had their roots in Southern China.  Diamond said that they migrated to Taiwan around 3,500 B.C.  However, Bellwood believed that the Austronesian expansion started as early as 6,000 B.C.  Around 3,000 B.C., the Malayo-Polynesians — a subfamily of the Austronesians — began their migration out of Taiwan.  The first stop was northern Luzon.  Over a span of 2,000 years, the Malayo-Polynesian expansion spread southward to the rest of the Philippine archipelago and crossed the ocean to Celebes, Borneo, Timor, Java, Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, and Vietnam; westward in the Indian Ocean to Madagascar; and eastward in the Pacific Ocean to New Guinea, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Marquesas, Cook, Pitcairn, Easter, and Hawaii.  Today, the Malayo-Polynesian speaking people have populated a vast area that covers a distance of about 11,000 miles from Madagascar to Hawaii, almost half the circumference of the world.

In 2002, Bellwood and Dr. Eusebio Dizon of the Archaeology Division of the National Museum of the Philippines led a team that conducted an archaeological excavation in the Batanes Islands, which lie between Taiwan and Northern Luzon.  The three-year archaeological project, financed by National Geographic, was done to prove — or disprove — the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis for the Austronesian dispersal.  The archaeological evidence that they gathered proved that the migration from Taiwan to Batanes and Luzon started about 4,000 years ago.  For the next 500 years after the arrival of the Malayo-Polynesians in Batanes and Northern Luzon, native settlements flourished throughout the archipelago.

The Philippine islands’ proximity to the Malay Archipelago, which includes the coveted Moluccas islands — known as the “Spice Islands” — had attracted Arab traders who had virtual monopoly of the Spice Trade until 1511.  By the 9th century, Muslim traders from Malacca, Borneo, and Sumatra started coming to Sulu and Mindanao. In 1210 AD, Islam was introduced in Sulu.  An Arab known as Tuan Mashaika founded the first Muslim community in Sulu.   In 1450 AD, Shari’ful Hashem Syed Abu Bakr, a Jahore-born Arab, arrived in Sulu from Malacca.  He married the daughter of the local chieftain and established the Sultanate of Sulu.

In the early 16th century, Sharif Muhammad Kabungsuan, a Muslim preacher from Malacca arrived in Malabang in what is now Lanao del Sur and introduced Islam to the natives.  In 1515 he married a local princess and founded the Sultanate of Maguindanao with Cotabato as its capital.  By the end of the 18th century, more than 30 sultanates were established and flourished in Mindanao.  The Sultanates of Maguindanao and Sulu were the most powerful in the region.  Neither of them capitulated to Spanish dominion.

Chinese traders — who were also involved in the Spice Trade — started coming to the Philippine archipelago in the 11th century.  They went as far as Butuan and Sulu.  However, most of their trade activities were in Luzon.

In 1405, during the reign of the Ming Dynasty in China, Emperor Yung Lo claimed the island of Luzon and placed it under his empire. The Chinese called the island “Lusong” from the Chinese characters Lui Sung.  The biggest settlement of Chinese was in Lingayen in Pangasinan.  Lingayen also became the seat of the Chinese colonial government in Luzon. When Yung Lo died in 1424, the new Emperor Hongxi, Yung Lo’s son, lost interest in the colony and the colonial government was dissolved.  However, the Chinese settlers in Lingayen — known as “sangleys” — remained and prospered.  Our national hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal descended from the sangleys.

The lucrative Spice Trade attracted the European powers.  In 1511 a Portuguese armada led by Alfonso d’Albuquerque attacked Malacca and deposed the sultanate. Malacca’s strategic location made it the hub of the Spice Trade; and whoever controlled Malacca controlled the Spice Trade.  At that time, Malacca had a population of 50,000 and 84 languages were spoken.

It is interesting to note that in 1515, Tome Pires — the apothecary of Portuguese Prince Alfonso and author of Suma Oriental (Eastern Account) — during his travel to Malacca, wrote: “The [Luzones] are almost one people, and in Malacca, there is no division between them…They were already building many houses and shops. They are a useful people; they are hardworking… In Minjam, near Malacca, there must be five hundred Luzoes, some of them important men.”  It would seem to me that those 500 Luzoes (Luzones) were the first recorded Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).

One of the officers under d’Albuquerque was Ferdinand Magellan.  Magellan stayed in Malacca for a few years and spent some time reconnoitering the surrounding areas.  He had an idea.  He returned to Portugal to convince the Portuguese king to subsidize an expedition to find a westward route to the Spice Islands.  The Portuguese king rejected his proposal and he went to Spain to get support from the Spanish king.  He succeeded in convincing the Spanish king.

In 1519, Magellan sailed westward from Seville in search of the Spice Islands.  On March 16, 1521 — on the Feast of St. Lazarus — he landed in the Philippine archipelago.  He named the archipelago “Islas de San Lazaro” and claimed it for the King of Spain.

What Magellan found in the Philippines were a peaceful people with all the trappings of a civilized society.  When he arrived in Cebu, the Cebuanos welcomed him and his party, and lavished them with hospitality.  The Cebuanos were easily converted to Christianity and they pledged allegiance — without bloodshed — to the king of Spain.  However, Lapu-Lapu, the chief of the neighboring Mactan island refused to pledge allegiance to the Spanish king.

On April 27, 1521, irked by Lapu-Lapu’s rejection, Magellan attacked Mactan.  Lapu-Lapu and his warriors met them on the shores of Mactan.  Magellan was killed in battle; thus, ending his dream of reaching the Spice Islands by way of a westward route. History has been kind by crediting him for the “discovery” of the Philippines… or rather it should it be the re-discovery of the Philippines.


Perry Diaz

Maria Rosa Henson

Maria Rosa Henson

An issue that has been simmering in the cauldron of international debate for the past 15 years was the “comfort women.” The comfort women were mostly young women — some were as young as 13 years old — who were forced to work as sex slaves in “comfort stations” established by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.

Although the existence of comfort women was known to the public, it was never discussed publicly, particularly in the Philippines where the stigma of shame — hiya — could hurt not only the former comfort women but their family members as well. For almost 50 years after the end of World War II, the surviving sex slaves had to endure living in Hell with their dark secrets in order to protect the reputation of their families. In most cases, their family members were not even aware of what had happened to them during the war.

But in 1991, three former Korean comfort women broke their silence and filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government. That incident was like a crack in a dam that eventually broke wide open letting out a torrential flood of protests from around the world.

In December of that year, an international conference on human trafficking was held in Seoul. The conference was attended by several Filipina feminists. It was at this forum that the issue of “comfort women” was brought to the forefront of public debate. Within three months, several women’s groups met in Manila and formed the Task Force on Filipina Comfort Women. Their mission was to look for surviving comfort women. They used radio programs to appeal to the survivors to come out. Maria Rosa Henson heard their broadcasted appeal. Several weeks later, she told one of her daughters that she was forced to work as a comfort woman during the war. For her it was a moment of deliverance.

Henson contacted the Task Force and a press conference was held to tell the whole world her story as a teenaged woman raped and forced into slavery as a comfort woman. Her coming out led other comfort women to come out as well. Finally, the stigma of shame was no longer important. By coming out, they freed themselves from the demons that had been gnawing at their souls. This was a closure… an act of cleansing.

But Henson wanted more than closure. She demanded that justice be served. In 1993, Henson and the other comfort women who came out filed a compensation suit against the Japanese government. In addition, they wanted an apology from the Japanese government. That same year, the Japanese government apologized for the Japanese Imperial Army for its role in establishing the “comfort stations.” However, the apology was carefully worded so as to deny legal responsibility for the comfort stations; claiming that these “did not constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity.” Known as the “Kono Statement” — named after former Japanese cabinet minister Yohei Kono in whose name the apology was made — the Japanese government admitted the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in establishing comfort stations; however, it denied that the comfort women were forced to provide sex. It was an ambiguous “yes and no” statement which, in my opinion, means nothing.

In 1995, the non-government and privately financed Asian Women’s Fund was formed to provide financial assistance to the surviving comfort women. Two million yens were offered to each surviving comfort woman. At first, Henson refused to receive money from the fund. Instead she decided to write her life story. In 1996, however, she changed her mind and decided to be a beneficiary of the fund. She completed her autobiography — “Slave of Destiny” — before she passed away in 1997. In life and in death, Maria Rosa Henson became the beacon of hope for the surviving comfort women.

Last January 31, 2007, US Congressman Mike Honda of California introduced House Resolution 121: “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the Government of Japan should formally acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility in a clear and unequivocal manner for its Imperial Armed Forces’ coercion of young women into sexual slavery, known to the world as ’comfort women’, during its colonial and wartime occupation of Asia and the Pacific Islands from the 1930s through the duration of World War II.” Upon introducing the bill, Rep. Honda noted that “the purpose of the resolution is not to bash or humiliate Japan.” He said that the legislation “seeks to achieve justice for the few remaining women who survived these atrocities, and to shed light on a grave human rights violation, that has remained unknown for so many years.” Last February 15, 2007, the US House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Global Environment held an open hearing and heard the testimonies Rep. Honda and several other individuals including three surviving comfort women — two Koreans and one Australian.

On March 1, 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in reaction to Rep. Honda’s Resolution 121, issued a statement denying that Japan forced women into slavery as “comfort women” during World War II. He said that there was “no evidence or testimony” to support claims that the Japanese military forced the women into slavery. Abe’s denial sparked an international furor. In an act of defiance, Abe declared that “Japan will not apologize even if the resolution passes the US Congress.” But on March 26, 2007, Abe buckled under pressure and offered a carefully worded apology, saying: “I express my sympathy toward the comfort women and apologize for the situation they found themselves in.” Again, as ambiguous as the “Kono Statement” in 1993, Abe’s apology fell short of acknowledging responsibility in a “clear and unequivocal manner.” .

Japan needs to put a closure to this horrendous chapter in human history and should — nay, must! — take full responsibility for the atrocious acts of the Japanese military during World War II. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but as someone once said, “Sometimes truth is bitter but better.” What Maria Rosa Henson and thousands of other comfort women had gone through should never happen again.