Finding an Asian Identity After Years 'in Hollywood'

A Philippines success story has followed the closure of US bases

Returning last month briefly to Manila after 18 years, this visitor was struck by how the Philippines has changed.

In 1978, Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies were in power. It was difficult to see an early - or peaceful - end to his excesses. Relations with the United States were troubled, centering around the American need for major military bases and Filipino expectations of substantial compensation. The island nation was only beginning to reach out to find its Asian partners and its Asian roots.

Now the country is a vibrant democracy under President Fidel Ramos. Economic growth is apparent. The Economist, in a survey of the Philippines in its May 11 issue, calculates the current annual increase in the Gross National Product at 5.7 percent in contrast to negative growth 10 years ago. Investors are demonstrating greater confidence. While corruption has not been eliminated, it is deemed less of a problem than in some of the other countries of Southeast Asia.

What is particularly remarkable is the transformation of the US bases, especially the former naval base at Subic Bay. On the basis of experience in other areas of the world where Washington has relinquished bases, many expected that the properties would be severely looted and that Manila would have difficulty finding substitutes for the economic benefits of the large American installations. Richard Gordon, the mayor of Olongapo, the once- tawdry town that adjoined the base, determined that this story would not be repeated in his region. He mobilized 8,000 volunteers to protect the base property during the US withdrawal and worked with the central government to create an industrial zone. Today Subic Bay has become the distribution point for companies from many nations; Federal Express has made it its Asian hub. More than 40,000 people are employed - as many as served the base in the past.

Because of the devastation from a volcanic eruption in 1992, the other base, Clark Field, has not fared as well. But ashes are being cleared away to prepare for similar economic development.

The departure of the bases and the lessened dependence on the US have created a new sense of Asian identity among Filipinos. Such a sense is manifested by the growing search for Asian cultural roots, the greater predominance of the national language, Filipino, over English. The old adage that the Philippines was 400 years in a monastery (under Spanish rule) and 50 years in Hollywood (US rule) no longer holds. The Philippines in the next millennium will find its identity in Asia.

In its foreign affairs, Manila more and more sees its security in Asian terms, especially through its membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other Asian forums. These relationships not only provide important regional channels for discussions with major trading partners in Europe and America, but also provide the strength of group diplomacy in dealing with the problems of a sometimes aggressive China.

Ties with the United States are far from forgotten or neglected. On Mother's Day, it was difficult to get a phone line from Manila to the US; too many were talking to their families in America. And few countries deplored more the curtailment of visa services when the US federal government was closed down earlier this year. One still hears, as well, the lament that Washington pays too little attention to its former colony; but one has the feeling this will pass with the present generation.

The country is not without serious problems. Law and order is still threatened in many areas by a tradition of violent politics. Major families that have dominated political and economic life throughout the islands' recent history remain powerful. The gap between rich and poor remains conspicuously one of the widest in Asia. The article in The Economist notes that the average income of the richest fifth of Filipinos is 11 times that of the poorest fifth, one of the worst ratios in Asia.

Too many Filipinos must still find their future in servitude in other lands, especially in the Persian Gulf. The insurrection of Muslims in the southern island of Mindanao remains unresolved. Some uncertainty clouds the political future with questions about who will lead the country when President Ramos's term of office ends in two years.

Notwithstanding these problems, the visitor finds that a sense of hope now prevails, reinforced by political, economic, and social progress. That is a dramatic change from 18 years ago.

* David D. Newsom, currently Cumming professor of international studies at the University of Virginia, was US ambassador to the Philippines in 1977-78.

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