The Volatilian™ View

Game of the name

Philippine Congressman Gary Alejano believes that the Philippines should change its name
Philippine Congressman Gary Alejano believes that the Philippines should change its name

Publicity-seeking congressman, Gary Alejano (photo), believes that the Philippines should change its name. He wants a “geographical renaming commission” to be set up to study his idea and assess its feasibility. Oh yes, and he wants the government to allocate PHP30 million for the commission to carry through that work.

Alejano – the House of Representatives party-list member for the nationalist Magdalo Group of which he’s the founding president, spokesman, organiser, policymaker, leading light, main man, activist, agent provocateur, among other things – seems to have two main passions: a love of his own voice, particularly when cameras are present, and a loathing of the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. Last month he filed an impeachment complaint against the president, only to have it thrown out on a vote of 42 to zip. But he got his publicity and that’s the main thing.

Now he wants more. So fresh from his abject failure to remove the country’s president, he now wants to remove the country’s name.

As ever, there’s a backlog of legislative matters that need addressing in Congress – measures aimed at growing the economy and shrinking the scale of the poor – though Alejano seems to think precious time can be taken from those issues to set up yet another pointless commission. This isn’t serious politics; it’s political game playing.

According to Alejano, he wants the Philippines to change its name because he believes it can’t be “truly independent” if it doesn’t. Apparently, it’s a cause of great concern to him that his country opted to “keep the name given by our Spanish colonisers”. The bonds of colonialism must be discarded by establishing a national identity, he says. “For our country to advance, we must have a name that genuinely reflects our national aspirations, our values ​​and our self-determination,” he adds.

How can people be or feel independent, he seems to ask, if the country’s saddled with a name somebody else gave it? Yet Americans – North, Central and South – don’t seem too bothered that their national identities derives from that forename of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who discovered the New World around 20 years before the Spanish found their way to the Philippines.

The cloud of Spanish colonialism, which for Alejano still lingers over his country, is a big deal. It offends him that it was named as Las Islas Filipinas in honour of King Philip II of Spain some 475 years ago. However, following the Philippine Revolution (1896-98) – a war against the Spanish rulers which ended in a Filipino victory – the name was changed. The country became República Filipina. Of course, that merely compounded the fracture. Had Alejano been present at the time no such travesty would have occurred we can assure you.

Perhaps the congressman should lead by example though, and change his own name which is undoubtedly Spanish. There are plenty of Alejanos in the former motherland of Spain as there are throughout the Spanish-speaking world – such as in Mexico, the heart of the colonial empire; the Viceroyalty of New Spain from which his forebears may well have come. After all, that’s where many of the progenitors of Filipino families of Spanish extraction set off as either conquistadors, merchants or priests to seek prosperity, power and prestige in Las Islas Filipinas.

Maybe his fellow Magdalo representative, Francisco Ashley Acedillo, might want to do the same. His ancestors undoubtedly would have come from the old country – possibly from Acedillo in the Castilla la Vieja region of northern Spain. Acedillos are not in short supply in Mexico either; nor next door in California, once a territory of New Spain.

And why just change the name of the country. What about the cities? Legazpi in Albay province is named after Miguel López de Legazpi, the Spanish conquistador who in 1565 annexed the archipelago to the Spanish Empire. Alejano can’t be a fan of his – or of Félix Berenguer de Marquina, the Spanish Governor-General of the Philippines and later Viceroy of New Spain after whom Marikina City in Metro Manila is named.

Then there’s the two San Fernandos, one in La Union; the other in Pampanga – both Spanish-named provinces – each ‘christened’ in honour of King Ferdinand III of Castile. And Isabella in Basilan named for Queen Isabella II of Spain, and Puerto Princessa in Palawan, named after her last surviving child, Princess Eulalia. The municipalities of Cadiz, Escalante and La Carlota in Negros Occidental, Lucena in Quezon, Toledo in Cebu and Valencia in Bukidnon – all bear the names of cities in Spain. The list is endless.

But how exactly does Alejano believe it’ll help the country? Spain itself – España – is derived from the Roman word for the Iberian Peninsula; Hispania. Would it really help that country, its people, their aspirations, the culture or anything else if it denounced its past as a vassal of Rome and rebranded itself as some place else? Just to put that in perspective, the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines lasted 377 years; Rome occupied Spain for more than 700.

Furthermore, has it helped any country by changing its name? The military government of Burma changed the name of its country to Myanmar in 1989; though 28 years later it’s still widely referred to as Burma – even in Myanmar. In fact, last year the country’s foreign minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, in attempting to calm passions on the subject, said: “there is nothing in our constitution that says you must use any term in particular”. Certainly, there are no Myanmarese cats or Myanmarese people for that matter. They’re all Burmese.

Staying in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is interchangeable with Kampuchea – the former being an anglicisation of the French word for the place, Cambodge. That said, while the rest of the world refers to it as Cambodia, in Cambodia they generally refer to it as Prateh Kampuchea, meaning the Country of Kampuchea. The name Laos – the more common way of referring to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic – again, is a gift from the French and refers to a portion of the colonial territories it ruled in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries in what was known as French Indochina. These are the poorest states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and they’re going to need more than a change of name to change that.

Over in Africa, following Rhodesia’s independence from Britain in 1980, the country’s name was switched to Zimbabwe – the idea, much like Alejano’s, was to throw off the yoke of the colonial past: Rhodesia was named after Cecil Rhodes, a British mining magnate who founded the territory.

Unfortunately, the name change didn’t help. The country went from being a prosperous booming economy to a failed state. By 2009 it had 5 billion percent inflation – at one point it was increasing at 98% a day – with the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe printing Z$100,000,000,000 bank notes worth 40 US cents each. US$1 = Z$250 trillion. Clearly, the country’s name wasn’t the country’s biggest problem.

In the Middle East, there’s no evidence to suggest that the people of Iran have benefitted very much – culturally or any other way – by the change of their country’s name from Persia. It may have undergone a bloody revolution to bring about the Islamic Republic of Iran but Persian cats and Persian carpets have still survived and most maps still refer to the Persian Sea.

Frankly, Alejano’s brainwave seems harebrain and would achieve little more than leeching yet more much-needed money from government funds. PHP30 million could ease a lot of poverty. And we’re pretty sure if you ask among the country’s 12 million extreme poor whether they’d like that money to be spent on finding a new name for the archipelago or use it to provide them with food and shelter, they’d be more than happy to stick with the Philippines label.

And anyway, what would it be called? There’ve been a number of suggestions in the past – Alejano didn’t originate this idea. These include: Republika ng Katagalugan (Tagalog Republic) though this would be unlikely to appeal to non-Tagalog citizens; the cringeworthy Luzviminda – a collapsing together of the beginning letters of the three island regions of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Or possibly, Mahárlika (noble warrior). That might appeal to the marine turned mutineer who in August 2003, along with 300 of his buddies, took over the Oakwood Premier Ayala Center in Makati in a flamboyant and theatrical protest against the corruption of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of whose security guard he was ‘nobly’ supposed to be a member. But maybe it wouldn’t appeal. In 1978, martial law president, Ferdinand Marcos – a man Duterte is likened to by his critics – supported a House Bill to rename the Philippines as Mahárlika.

So what then? “Ideally, the name of a country should define not only its land, but also its people and patrimony. In addition, the new name must also reflect our history, culture, society, and national sentiments,” says the congressman. That’s a pretty tall order for any country and we can’t think of one that’s even attempted it, much less achieved it.

But how about Alejanoland? The language could be called Alejano; the Filipinos known as Alejanos. Could it be something like that he has in mind? For him, at least, that would seem to meet all the criteria.

Seriously though, to “reflect our history, culture, society” cannot ignore the Spanish era – but to be ‘all-inclusive’, as populist politicians like to be, it should also incorporate the American era, the Japanese era and centuries of Chinese demographic input. Oddly though it already does that as the Philippines – a melting pot of all those cultures and peoples.

That said, there’s more than even chance that the name of the Philippines will be changed. This will come if Duterte’s ambitious plan to switch the country’s parliamentary system from a unitary presidential republic to a federal one is achieved. And ultimately that’s where serious discussions on this issue will take place.

But in all likelihood the name given by the Spanish will still be retained in the title – the Philippine Federation; the Union of Philippine Federal States; the United Philippine States; the United States of the Philippines, the Federation of Philippine States; the Federal Democratic Republic of the Philippines; the Philippine Federal Democratic Republic, etc.

In the end, a big factor is name recognition – something which the Philippines has globally and which Alejano seeks to gain through charades like this, at least nationally.

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