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Commentary

The dilemma that is the Philippine flag

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As we celebrate another Independence Day (65 years from the United States; 113 from Spain), the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Can this country be a nation?”

Does this country called the Philippines have in fact a consciousness of being Filipino? Or are we Filipino only by the accident of birth?

Nations are built on the idea of shared language and culture. For a country as diverse as the Philippines, we still tend to think along ethno-linguistic lines (e.g., Ilocano, Tagalog, Bicolano, Ilonggo, Cebuano, Waray) rather than as a Filipino nation.

The scholar Benedict Anderson imagines a nation “as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep comradeship of people … coming together in fraternity not so much to kill, as to unwillingly die for such limited imaginings.”

The concept of nationhood is an important driver in the shaping of the modern nation-state. In a world that is globalizing with great speed, Thomas Friedman writes of national differentiation between what is distinctly local with what is purposely global and using this distinction to draw the lines around a national consciousness. The Indians of India are Indian by distinguishing themselves against the global competition, as do the Chinese.

Symbols of nationhood are a key to the way we build our imagined community. They convey meaning to our mental maps about who we are and what we represent. Foremost among these symbols is the national flag.

If the national flag is intended to be a unifier among all Filipinos, as it should be, then we might have to rethink the details of our flag because it might be a symbol of exclusion rather than inclusion.

Where lies the problem of exclusion in the Philippine flag?

The flag was first flown on June 12, 1898 in Kawit, Cavite, at Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s declaration of independence from Spain. Prior to this, there were versions of Katipunan flags, war banners, and personal emblems of revolutionary generals, some of which bore elements similar to today’s national flag.

While in forced exile abroad, the leaders of the nascent country debated on the symbols of state, particularly a new flag and a national anthem.

The design of the Philippine flag was decided after a great deal of discussion and submitted to Marcela Agoncillo, who was then living in Hong Kong with other exiles. Agoncillo sewed the flag with the help of her daughter Lorenza and Josefina Herbosa de Natividad, niece of Dr. Jose Rizal.

The original flag was made of silk with a white triangle containing a sun with eight rays. Three five-pointed stars were laid at each angle of the triangle. An upper stripe of dark blue and a lower stripe of red completed the design.

As intended by Aguinaldo, the white triangle represented equality; the upper blue stripe stood for peace, truth and justice; the lower red stripe for patriotism and valor. The sunburst was to be the mark of freedom while the eight rays represented the eight provinces that took up arms against Spain. The three stars symbolized Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Here lies the dilemma of this national symbol for me. While recognizing the critical role of the Katipunan in the fight for independence against Spain (the eight provinces represented by the rays are all from the Tagalog regions: Batangas, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, Manila, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, and Tarlac), Philippine history has recognized that there are parts of the archipelago that did not collaborate with Spain during the period of colonization and should be recognized for that. The flag thus reflects a Tagalog-centric view of Philippine history that is not in accordance with the imagined community we need to build.

As a national symbol, the Philippine flag must be inclusive to reflect the diversity of the country. At least two previous attempts in Congress to add a ninth ray to represent Mindanao have been rejected. This is a myopic view that history does not support.

A modest proposal would be to add as many rays to the sun as there are regions in this country (16, though Region 4 is listed as A and B). The design challenge could include eight large rays interspersed with eight smaller rays. The total number of 16 would represent the regions; the large eight could stand for the eight provinces in the current flag. This pattern of evolution of a symbol to keep up with the times is present in the American flag, the European Union emblem and the Asean banner.

The importance of inclusion cannot be overstated. To ignore regions of our country is to unconsciously bias our history toward Manila and the Tagalog region. Little wonder that the Visayas, Mindanao and non-Tagalog Luzon show less enthusiasm in celebrating Independence Day.

Until we make our national symbols more inclusive, this will be a dilemma lurking in our historical sub-conscious.

Juan Miguel Luz (juanmiguel.luz@gmail.com) is associate dean, Center for Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management and former undersecretary, Department of Education. The views expressed are the author’s only and represent no organization.


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