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The Philippines in the Context of Southeast Asia’s History

February 8, 2012

By Steven Rood

One of the interesting things about team-teaching a course on “The Domestic Politics of Southeast Asia: The Philippines and Thailand” is that I myself have never taken a course on Southeast Asia. I was an American politics specialist as a graduate student, with a dissertation on “Interpretation and American Electoral Studies.”  On the Philippines in particular, and on Southeast Asia more generally, I am an autodidact – I’ve learned it all by myself through 30 years of experience in the country and the region, and by reading.

There are limits to this approach, though, in that I have been “present centric” – my studying tends to start with the current situation and/or problem on which I’m working (as a researcher into contemporary politics, or as a development professional concerned with better governance). Rarely do I work my way back to, say, a 14th century Javanese kingdom to which the kingdom of Buayan in Mindanao claimed connection.

This sabbatical, and this blog, will, I hope, be an opportunity for me to look at broader, contextual elements of Southeast Asia in a way that formally-trained Southeast Asianists might find natural. My co-teacher, Karl Jackson, has assigned some of the classics of Southeast Asian studies, and they certainly provide food for thought. Robert Heine-Geldern’s “Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia,” originally published in 1943, is ambitious in looking at the “cosmo-magic principle” of parallels between human reality and the universe. In “Indianized” states – those influenced by Hinduism or Buddhism – often there is a representation of the holy Mount Meru in the center of the capital city, in a temple or a palace. This allows the influence of the King to radiate outwards.

From the viewpoint of understanding the Philippines, it is important to realize that, unlike many other areas of Southeast Asia, there were no “Indianized” states when the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the colonial era. Remaining in kinship groups, the well-known “barangays” (villages, named after boats that would fit 100 people or so in which the group could travel), the Philippines’ 7,107 islands were not (with the exception of Islamized sultanates in the south) bound by larger ties. There are no ancient monuments in the Philippines like Cambodia’s Angkor Wat or Indonesia’s Borobudur. There are, in fact, many holy mountains that are actual mountains (not mere representations) – Mt. Banahaw being the best known since it is near the capital city, but in Mindanao we have examples in Mt. Diwata, Mt. Apo, and Mt Canatuan (all of which are subject to controversies about natural resource extractions).

What the Philippines did share with the rest of Southeast Asia are the small kinship groups that O.W. Wolters hypothesized in 1982, are led by “men of prowess” who, it was believed, had superior “soul stuff.”  I think he used the special term instead of others such as “big men,” because even though he states that “kinship is the idiom of social organization,” the actual attribution of prowess is not automatic within a lineage.

Take the example of President Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III in the Philippines. His ascent to the presidency is almost magical. His mother’s death (and the outpouring of grief at her funeral) changed the presidential race entirely. Then-Senator Aquino had not even been mentioned as a potential candidate, but immediately became the favorite as he inherited what Heine-Geldern calls “regalia” – the symbols of power – such as the color yellow or his martyred father Ninoy’s iconic black-rimmed eyeglasses for campaign paraphernalia.

If in the middle of the 1500s the Philippines did not have “Indianized” states, this means that the Hindu/Buddhist idiom of governance in consonance with the universe had not established itself. What did arrive, with Muslim traders and Spanish conquistadores, were the two large monotheistic religions with their own idioms of governance. Islam spread from the Malay archipelago into the southern Philippines (of course, no such geographic place name yet existed), with the sultanate of Sulu being established circa 1450 and that of Maguindanao c. 1525. While the Islamic idiom of governance was different from “Indianized” ways, the effect would be the same – to increase the power of those at the center (in this case, the Sultan) with respect to other surrounding “men of prowess.”  Through such processes do states develop.

The Spanish method of rule – since one of the main justifications was to Christianize the populace – largely turned colonial power over to the friars in all the towns. Given how thinly spread Spaniards were (in 1810 there were 4,000 spread over the 7,107 islands of the Philippines), usually the only one the average resident of the islands saw was the friar in the local parish. And these friars were in “orders” – meaning they did not even report to the local bishop, much less to the central governor-general in Manila. (The extreme expression of this independence was when Governor-General Bustamante in 1719 was assassinated in a dispute with the clergy.)  In short, what the Spanish colonial version of the Catholic governance idiom did was to ensure that the central state apparatus in Manila was very weak.

A provocative way to summarize the current situation in the Philippines is that we have a man of prowess presiding over a very decentralized political system that is at the peace table with the Moro National Liberation Front (whose center of gravity is in Sulu) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (headquartered in Maguindanao). Such continuity over hundreds of years should give pause to those of us in the development profession implementing projects of one, two, three, or even 10 years. Fundamental change comes slowly – so we need to be clear on what we can achieve in a short time.

This is the third posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Regional and International Relations


  1. Steve, although there were indeed no Hindu/Buddhist moniuments in the Philippines, the extent of Indianization is greater than was once believed. I wrote an article on this myself some years ago, but at that time there was no “smoking gun.” Since then a “smoking gun” has been discovered in the form of a Laguna copper plate, written in Old Malay with a number of Sanskrit words, which through its date along with local place names clearly ties the Philippines in with the Idianized states of Southeast Asia. The initial translation and interpretation of this was done by Antoon Postma, who published at least two articles on the topic.



  2. Malcolm,

    Thanks for pointing this out.

    The sentence is correct as written (“there were no “Indianized” states when the Spanish arrived at the beginning of the colonial era”) but can leave a misimpression about a lack of influence of the sub-continent.

    Postma’s interpretation is disputed in but what cannot be disputed is that traces of Sanskrit are found in language (one estimate is that 25% of Tagalog words comes from Sanskrit).


  3. Hi Steven. I enjoyed reading your blog. I was wondering if you could tell me about the loosening ties of the Philippines and US and its friendship with China? thank you very much.

    Jon Oliver

    • Jon Oliver — the short version is that after a pro-US tilt under the Aquino administration, President Duterte’s administration looks as if it is following the previous Arroyo’s administration’s balancing between the two giants.


  1. Have Philippine Presidents Overcome the Governance Impact of the 'Hollywood Years?' | In Asia - [...] governance impact of the Spanish friarchy (a decentralized state with a weak center) was treated in last week’s post.…
  2. Political Families in the Philippines: Where Are They Now? | In Asia - [...] that I’ve written that kinship is the idiom of social organization in the Philippines, it’s probably not [...]

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