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The beginning

Thanks to 'Tabon Man', who left a bit of his (or her, according to some) skull in a cave in Palawan at least 47, 000 years ago, a sliver of light shines into the deep, dark prehistory of the Philippines. The oldest known human relic of the islands, this bone fragment suggests that the Tabon Caves helped early Homo sapiens survive the last ice age.

The ocean and the boat have always been powerful symbols in the Philippines. The word barangay, which refers to the basic Filipino social unit or a community, is derived from the ancient balangay, or sailboat.

The longest-held theory on the origins of Tabon Man is based on distinct waves of migration. Assuming that much of modern-day Asia was linked by land bridges, this theory posits that around 250, 000 years ago our earliest human ancestors simply walked over to what is now the Philippines.

About 200, 000 years later, in strode the nomadic Negrito groups from the Malay Peninsula, Borneo and perhaps even Australia. After an interval of roughly 2000 years, the Neolithic Age arrived in the form of the seafaring, tool-wielding Indonesians. The Indonesian groups brought with them formal farming and building skills.

It's fair to assume that this bunch was busily carving out the spectacular rice terraces of North Luzon some 2000 years ago. With the Iron Age came the Malays. Skilful sailors, potters and weavers, they built the first permanent settlements and prospered from around the 1st century AD until the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived. The wave migration theory holds that the Malays arrived in at least three ethnically diverse waves. The first wave provided the basis for the modern-day Bontoc and other tribes of North Luzon. The second laid the foundations for the most dominant of modern-day indigenous groups - the Bicolano, Bisayan and Tagalog. The third wave is thought to have established the fiercely proud Muslim Malays.

But written records are few, and wave migration is only one theory. An alternative proposed by some Philippine scholars suggests that the early inhabitants of Southeast Asia were of the same racial group (the Pithecanthropus group, to be exact), with more or less the same traditions and beliefs. Over time, they say, divisions formed according to the demands of the environment.

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The Chinese became the first foreigners to do business with the islands they called MaI as early as the 2nd century AD, although the first recorded Chinese expedition to the Philippines was in AD 982. Within a few decades, Chinese traders were regular visitors to towns along the coasts of Luzon, Mindoro and Sulu, and by around AD 1100 travellers from India, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Siam (Thailand) and Japan were also including the islands on their trade runs. Gold was by then big business in Butuan (on the northern coast of Mindanao), Chinese settlements had sprung up in Manila and on Jolo, and Japanese merchants were buying shop space in Manila and North Luzon.

For several centuries this peaceful trade arrangement thrived. Despite the island's well-known riches, the inhabitants were never directly threatened by their powerful Asian trading partners. The key, particularly in the case of China, was diplomacy. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the tribal leaders of the Philippines would make regular visits to Peking (Beijing) to honour the Chinese emperor.

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The Spanish era

In the early 16th century, the Philippines began receiving visitors who would have far more long-lasting consequences. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed at Samar at dawn on 16 March 1521. He claimed the islands for Spain and named them the Islas del Poniente (Western Islands). Soon after, the Portuguese arrived from the east and declared the islands to be the Islas del Oriente (Eastern Islands). Undaunted, Magellan set about giving the islanders a crash course in Catholicism and winning over various tribal chiefs before fatally taking things one step too far on Mactan Island.

Determined to press its claim, Spain sent four more expeditions; Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, commander of the fourth expedition, renamed the islands after the heir to the Spanish throne, Philip, Charles I's son. Philip, as King Philip II, sent a fresh fleet led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to the islands in the mid-16th century with strict orders to colonise and Catholicise. In 1565 an agreement was signed by Legazpi and Tupas, the defeated chief of Cebu, which made every Filipino answerable to Spanish law.

Legazpi, his soldiers and a band of Augustinian monks wasted no time in establishing a settlement where Cebu City now stands; Fort San Pedro is a surviving relic of the era. First called San Miguel, then Santisimo Nombre de Jesus, this fortified town hosted the earliest Filipino-Spanish Christian weddings and, critically, the baptisms of various Cebuano leaders. Panay Island's people were beaten into submission soon after, with Legazpi establishing a vital stronghold there (near present-day Roxas) in 1569.

The indigenous islanders - who by tradition were loath to work together anyway - were no match for the Spanish and their firearms. Spain's greatest challenge came from an old enemy - Islam. To Spain's horror (having recently booted out the Moors at home), the Muslims had a big head start: Islamic missionaries from Malacca had established towns in Mindoro and Luzon almost a century before the Spanish arrived. Legazpi finally succeeded in taking the strategic Muslim settlement of Maynilad (now Manila) in 1571, hastily proclaiming it the capital and building over the kuta (fort) of Rajah Sulayman. This was eventually to become Fort Santiago.

So began a 300-year-long religious war that still smoulders in Mindanao, the spiritual home of Islam in the Philippines. The Spanish recruited newly Christianised Filipinos to help fight the Moros (as Muslim Filipinos were dubbed), many of whom earned a violent living as pirates. Meanwhile, Spain was courting the Chinese through trade. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain's galleons - many of them built in Cavite near Manila - also specialised in taking spices, silk, porcelain and gold to the New World, and returning with Mexican silver. Moro pirates dodged many a cannonball to claim a share of these riches.

By the 18th century, Spain's grasp on the Orient was slipping. It was sharing its traditional trade routes with colonial rivals. It was at war with England and fast running out of friends and funds.

Before long, with a big shove from the powerful East India Company, Britain invaded Manila in 1762. But their arrival sparked the same sort of antipathy a busload of hooligans sparks today, and less than two years later the British were chased out of Manila Bay by a homegrown resistance. This action was to have long-lasting consequences, as it marked the start of a united, nationalist spirit. Anticolonial sentiment was reaching new heights as friars and other Spanish colonisers increasingly used brutal methods to try to retain control. By 1894 there were incidents of open rebellion.

A powerful group of nationalist heroes soon emerged. The greatest and most famous of these was Dr José Rizal, doctor of medicine, poet, novelist, sculptor, painter, linguist, naturalist and fencing enthusiast. Executed by the Spanish in 1896, Rizal epitomised the Filipinos' dignified struggle for personal and national freedom. Just before facing the Spanish firing squad, Rizal penned a characteristically calm message of both caution and inspiration to his people: 'I am most anxious for liberties for our country, but I place as a prior condition the education of the people so that our country may have an individuality of its own and make itself worthy of liberties'.

By killing such figures, the Spanish were creating martyrs. Andres Bonifacio led an aggressive movement called the Kataastaasan Kagalanggalangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Highest and Most Respected Society of the Sons of the Nation) - better known as the Katipunan or KKK. It secretly built a revolutionary government in Manila, with a network of equally clandestine provincial councils. Complete with passwords, masks and coloured sashes denoting rank, the Katipunan's members (both men and women) peaked at an estimated 30, 000 in mid-1896. In August, the Spanish got wind of the coming revolution (from a woman's confession to a Spanish friar, according to some accounts) and the Katipunan leaders were forced to flee the capital.

Depleted, frustrated and poorly armed, the Katipuneros took stock in nearby Balintawak, a baryo (district) of Caloocan, and voted to launch the revolution regardless. With the cry 'Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!' (Long live the Philippines!), the Philippine Revolution lurched into life following the incident that is now known as the Cry of Balintawak.

The shortage of weapons among the Filipinos meant that many fighters were forced to pluck their first gun from the hands of their enemies. So acute was the shortage of ammunition for these weapons that some (many of them children) were given the job of scouring battle sites for empty cartridges. These cartridges would then be painstakingly repacked using homemade gunpowder.

After three years of bloodshed, most of it Filipino, a Spanish-Filipino peace pact was signed and the revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo agreed to go into exile in Hong Kong in 1897. Predictably, the pact's demands satisfied nobody. Promises of reform by the Spanish were broken, as were promises by the Filipinos to stop their revolutionary plotting. The Filipino cause attracted huge support from the Japanese, who tried unsuccessfully to send money and two boatloads of weapons to the exiled revolutionaries in Hong Kong.

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The American era

Meanwhile, another of Spain's colonial trouble spots - Cuba - was playing host to an ominous dispute over sugar between Spain and the USA. To save face, Spain declared war on the USA; as a colony of Spain, the Philippines was drawn into the conflict. Soon after, an American fleet under Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and routed the Spanish ships. Keen to gain Filipino support, Dewey welcomed the return of exiled revolutionary General Aguinaldo and oversaw the Philippine Revolution mark II, which installed Aguinaldo as president of the first Philippine republic.

The Philippine flag was flown for the first time during the proclamation of Philippine Independence on 12 June 1898.

After a bitter struggle, Spanish troops in Manila and outlying towns were crushed by allied American and Filipino forces and Spain's 400-year-long occupation came to an end. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the Spanish-American War ended and the USA effectively bought the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico for US$20 million.

Back in US-occupied Manila, tempers were rising. Filipino revolutionaries were openly defying the Americans, and the Americans were antagonising the Filipinos. Any dreams of impending Filipino independence were shattered in 1899 when Malolos, the makeshift capital of President Aguinaldo's Philippine Republic, was captured by American troops - led by General Arthur MacArthur.

By 1902 the first Philippine Republic was dead and buried and a succession of American neocolonial governors-general ensured it stayed that way. The main intention of the Americans, like the Spanish, was to serve their own economic needs, and by 1930 they had engineered an industrial and social revolution, with two of the biggest booms coming from mining and prostitution.

Not until 1935, once it had firmly lassoed the country's resources, did the USA endorse the Commonwealth of the Philippines, along with the drafting of a US-style constitution and the first national election. On paper at least, democracy and freedom had at last come to the Philippines, but, as WWII was about to prove, they came at a terrible price.

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World War II

When Japan bombed Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in 1941, other forces attacked Clark Field, where General Douglas MacArthur was caught napping, despite many hours' warning. Within two days, Japanese troops landed at Vigan in North Luzon, eventually driving the allied Filipino and US troops to the Bataan Peninsula, opposite newly occupied Manila. From here, soldiers and civilians alike faced not only relentless bombardment but also hunger, disease and disillusionment.

MacArthur, holed up on nearby Corregidor island, made his now famous promise to return, and fled to Australia.

Ordered to maintain a 'holding action', MacArthur's abandoned troops soon fell to the Japanese with the unconditional surrender of around 76, 000 people - 66, 000 of them Filipinos. Those still able to walk began the 120km 'Bataan death march' from Bataan to San Fernando, and on to prison camps in Capas, Tarlac. As many as 20, 000 people died along the way and another 25, 000 died while imprisoned. This event is honoured with the annual Araw ng Kagitingan (Bataan Day) public holiday on 9 April. From 1942 to 1945 the Philippines endured a brutal Japanese military regime. Unlike the previous colonial forces, the Japanese actively encouraged Filipino languages as part of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan's scheme of keeping Asia Asian. In 1944 MacArthur landed at Leyte, determined to dislodge the Japanese. The main battleground in this onslaught was Manila, where defenceless residents suffered horrifically in the ensuing crossfire during February 1945. By the time MacArthur marched into the city, at least 150, 000 civilians were killed and a city that had been one of the finest in Asia was destroyed. In total, over 1.1 million Filipinos were killed during WWII.

In early 1946 Japan's General Tomoyuki Yamashita was tried as a war criminal and hanged by order of MacArthur. In July of the same year, Manuel Roxas was installed as president of the Republic of the Philippines under the auspices of the USA, and the immense task of rebuilding a war-torn nation began. Far from free, the Philippines faced crippling high-interest loans in the form of US 'aid', and its society (including more than three-quarters of its schools and universities) lay in ruins.

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The Marcos era

First elected in 1965 under the seductive slogan 'This nation can be great again', the charismatic former lawyer Ferdinand Marcos became the first president to win two terms in office. At first it indeed was a new era, and Marcos and his even more charismatic wife Imelda went about trying to bring back some of Manila's pre-war energy. Imelda drove projects like the Cultural Center for the Philippines, which got lots of international attention but, as they say, didn't put food on the table. By 1970, widespread poverty, rising inflation, pitiful public funding and blatant corruption triggered a wave of protests in Manila. When several demonstrators were killed by police outside the presidential Malacañang Palace, Marcos' image as a political saviour died with them. However he still had a hugely powerful backer in the form of the US military, whose Clark and Subic Bay bases were vital to the Vietnam War.

Citing the rise of leftist student groups and the New People's Army (NPA), Marcos imposed martial law on the entire country in 1972. Normally a constitutional last resort designed to protect the masses, martial law was declared by Marcos to keep himself in power (the constitution prevented him from running for a third term) and to protect his foreign business buddies. By this time, their formidable enemies included the anti-imperialist National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Islamic Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in Mindanao.

With martial law imposed, the Philippines was plunged into a darkness reminiscent of the Japanese occupation - only this time it was at the hands of a fellow Filipino. A curfew was imposed, the media was silenced or taken over by the military, international travel was banned and thousands of anti-government suspects were rounded up and thrown into military camps. An estimated 50, 000 of Marcos' opponents were jailed, exiled or killed. Marcos then set about raising revenue by handing over great tracts of prime land to foreign investors and imposing heavy taxes on those who could least afford them.

When Marcos made a show of lifting martial law in 1981, to silence rising discontent, he reinvented himself and the constitution to form a sham of a democracy. Under this 'New Republic', Marcos won a mid-year election conveniently devoid of a free press or any real opposition.

In 1983, however, when thugs dressed as a military escort gunned down Marcos' political foe, Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr, as he arrived at Manila's airport on return from exile, a new Filipino martyr was created. The two million mourners who poured onto the streets to accompany Aquino's funeral cortege in Manila began a steady march towards a new era.

By 1986 even Marcos' long-time supporters were publicly questioning him, as were many embarrassed foreign powers. Another rigged election saw Marcos beat Ninoy Aquino's widow, Corazon 'Cory' Aquino, but this time the masses stormed the presidential palace. Within days, virtually all members of the nation's armed forces had sided with the masses, the Marcoses were spirited to Hawaii by the US Air Force, and Aquino was installed as president and national heroine.

Thus was the force of the 1986 'people power' movement, or EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos) Revolution.

Ferdinand Marcos died in exile in 1989 and his shoe-happy wife, Imelda, soon returned to the Philippines, where she somehow wriggled out of an 18-year jail sentence for graft. Despite evidence that she and Ferdinand helped themselves to billions of dollars from the treasury, Imelda remains free. She even ran for president in 1998 (she 'gave' the votes she garnered to the winner, Joseph Estrada, who in June 1998 asked the courts to give Imelda a presidential pardon; later that year the Supreme Court acquitted Marcos of corruption charges).

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Political upheaval & high jinks

The cataclysmic eruption in June 1991 of Mt Pinatubo, northwest of Manila, ended another long chapter in Philippine history. Showered in volcanic ash and refused a new lease agreement, the US military bases at Clark and Subic Bay were closed down and the tens of thousands of US troops left. It was a heady moment for the Philippines, which had turned its back on over US$100 million a year in rent from the Americans. The 12 senators who voted to oust the US military became national heroes.

But if people thought that ousting both the Marcoses and the Americans would lead to period of political stability, they were wrong. Cory Aquino had helped shepherd through a new constitution that greatly limited presidential power to do undemocratic things like declare martial law or appoint oneself president for life. The first real presidential elections were held in 1992 and showed how messy democracy could be. Aquino's endorsed successor, Defense Secretary Fidel Ramos, won with barely 24% of the vote. This lack of a resounding mandate left people restless.

Ramos for his part made national unity a priority. He tried to finally reach peace deals with the patchwork of communist rebels, Muslim separatists and disaffected soldiers who led a rag-tag existence throughout the islands and frequently resorted to violence to score some attention. Some treaties and agreements were worked out, but often as one group would agree to lay down its arms, the members would simply go off and start another conflict.

Meanwhile there was growing discontent among the populace as it became clear that just having your own constitution wasn't enough to shake off years of feeble economic growth. With an economy that had been dependent on the rent from the US bases and Japanese grants (which were cleverly designed to turn the Philippines into a market for Japanese goods rather than a competitor), the nation missed out on the economic boom that enriched its neighbours.

In 1998, the people turned to popular ex-movie actor Joseph Estrada and elected him president in a landslide. The colourful Estrada had promised riches for one and all, but the nation was soon to learn, as others have elsewhere, that being a movie actor doesn't necessarily prepare one for a life in politics.

The economy tanked and war broke out with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in central Mindanao. Then, in 2000, Estrada was accused of profiting from an illegal gambling racket. The House of Representatives impeached him but allies in the Senate managed to block his removal from office. In 2001, millions of Filipinos took to the streets and said 'enough'. Estrada and his family took flight and the vice-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (popularly called 'GMA') was sworn in as president.

Estrada tried a few ploys to regain power - like calling for yet another 'people's revolution' - but it was for naught. GMA quickly set about consolidating her power and she allowed the American military back into the country as part of the 'war on terror'. In 2004 she ran for reelection against an ensemble cast of characters that included another ex-actor, Fernando Poe Jr, and won by 1.1 million votes. Or did she? Shortly thereafter a recording emerged that purported to capture GMA ordering that the election be fixed. Political opponents seized on this and for the next year, much of the government's time was spent debating the charges of election fraud. GMA's opponents tried to raise the ire of the public - but perhaps jaded by the outcomes of previous revolutions, the populace mostly stayed off the streets.

By late 2005, GMA seemed to have survived this latest political upheaval, as the Philippines continued to suffer from high unemployment, poverty and other problems that have bedevilled it for decades.

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