by Peter Jaynul V. Uckung and Mona Lisa H. Quizon

During the close of the 19th century, South East Asia was heavily colonized by Europeans. The French had Indochina, which included Camboadia, Laos and Vietnam. The Dutch controlled Indonesia and forced the natives there to grow crops the Dutch wanted, like coffee and indigo. The British colonized Burma and the Malay Peninsula, setting up plantation and mining the large tin deposits there. The Philippines was then under the Spanish Empire. The difference, however, was that the Philippines was fighting for her independence.

      Actually, the Philippines had already declared her independence on June 12, 1898, with Emilio Aguinaldo as president. Realizing the need for recognition, Felipe Agoncillo was appointed as Philippine diplomatic representative and was ordered to participate in the Paris meeting of the United States and Spain. In Paris, Agoncillo detected the first hint of an American turnabout. He was not even invited to witness; much less take part in the treaty signing, in which Spain handed the control of the Philippines to the United States for the sum of twenty million dollars.

        Suspicious of the true design of the erstwhile ally, the leaders of the Philippine Revolutionary Government decide to assemble a national congress. The president immediately decreed the appointment of representatives of each province of the Philippines.

       On September 15, 1898, the cream of Filipino intelligentsia assembled at the church of Barasoain. And the world marvelled at the “impudence” of these “puny” Filipinos in creating the congress of an independent state.

       The first act to be ratified by the Malolos Congress, as the body was known, was the independence of the Philippines on September 29, 1898. But the Malolos Congress is remembered more for framing the first constitution in Asia.

        There were people who believed that the Malolos Congress should not yet pass a constitution, as Philippine independence was not yet recognized by any free nation of the world. Apolinario Mabini, chief counsel of Pres. Aguinaldo, was one of those who believed that the constitution would greatly curtail the president’s power, power needed in a coming confrontation with the United States.

      Among the members, however, the paramount perception was that the framing of a constitution would strengthen the country’s assertion of freedom. Pres. Aguinaldo sided with the pro-constitution group and appointed Felipe Calderon to lead the writing of the constitution.  

       Mabini and Pedro Paterno, Congress President, each gave their own version of the constitution, evidently based on the Spanish Constitution, which Calderon found unacceptable. He made his own based on the constitution of the free countries of South America. His constitution called for a unicameral legislative, the purpose of which was the swift passing of bills. It also gave judicial and executive power to the Congress of Malolos. It emerged as the most powerful branch of the government.

       The reason for this, as Calderon explained, was to prevent the army from ever becoming too powerful-an army headed by brash young men, believers of force. His constitution was accepted by the members of the congress, except for the provision concerning religion.

        Calderon’s constitution declared Roman Catholicism as the official religion of the Philippines. Accordingly, the government would also find the church ministries. Many of the members vehemently opposed the provision.  Manuel Gomez and Calderon reasoned that the government needed the support of the Catholic Church as they play a big role in the influencing people, and most of the Filipinos were Catholics anyway.

        This was countered by Tomas del Rosario and Arcadio del Rosario by invoking the principle of the separation of church and state. And wasn’t it unfair for the government to support only a single religious denomination. On November 29, 1898, the bloc supporting the separation of church and state won by one vote.

       Mabini counselled the congressmen not to pass the constitution. At least not yet, as it would erode the power of the army and that of the president. He believed that the executive branch needed more power to consolidate the gains of the revolution and for maintaining peace and order on a land still reeling from the war for independence. Mabini also feared that the Catholic leadership would withdraw its support once the constitution declaring the separation of church and state is approved. This led to the indefinite suspension of that particular article.

       American President McKinley confirmed American intention concerning the Philippines with the December 21, 1898 declaration of the Benevolent Assimilation. So on January 20, 1899 Pres. Aguinaldo accepted the Malolos Constitution and on January 23, 1899 congress inaugurated the Philippine Republic in Malolos, Bulacan. It also declared the presidency of Aguinaldo. Congress was then renamed the National Assembly.

         With the Filipinos proclaiming the Philippine Republic and the Americans claiming sovereignty over the islands, a situation was created in which the only solution was military confrontation.

         With the Filipinos steadfastly clinging to their newfound Republic, the Americans needed a breakthrough rather quickly to bring their meaning of “benevolent assimilation” to the Filipinos before the world began recognizing the independence of the Philippines. It might generate a negative public opinion of American intervention. Back in the United States the opposition to the American occupation of the Philippines was snowballing.

        So news was trumpeted, and unfortunately believed, that an American soldier shot a Filipino soldier who did not understand the meaning of “halt”. The shot brought forth the Filipino-American War. The Republic was doomed.