What’s in a rename?

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on February 22, 2019

New shot: Filipino strongman Duterte wants his country to be called the Republic of Maharlika   -  FILE PHOTO: REUTERS/ROMEO RANOCO

President Duterte wants the Philippines to shake off its colonial name and adopt one that reflects its indigenous past

Rodrigo Duterte, the strongman president of the Philippines, raised eyebrows recently when he suggested that the name of his archipelago nation be changed. Speaking to an audience in the southern island of Mindanao, he offered an eccentric reading of history. “It’s named the Philippines because it was discovered by Magellan using money from King Philip,” he said. “That’s why, when that stupid explorer came, he named it the Philippines.”

The “stupid explorer” Magellan died well before Philip II became king of Spain, but it is true that this nation of over 7,000 islands is united by a name it got from its three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. A self-described Filipino is always referring to the European monarch who lorded over the islands in the 16th century.

As an alternative, Duterte repeated the suggestion of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines in the 1970s and 1980s. The nation should be renamed the “Republic of Maharlika.” Duterte explained: Maharlika is a Malay word and it means serenity and peace.

Historians quibble with that definition of the term. Maharlika is a word that came to the islands via the Malay language and is originally descended from the Sanskrit maharddhika, which means “man of wealth, knowledge, or ability”. In practice, the maharlika were a free-born noble, martial caste group of the Tagalog people in the island of Luzon. Were India named in this manner, it might very roughly translate to “Republic of the Kshatriyas”.

Whatever the exact meaning of the word, its invocation has many uses. It strips away the baggage of the European colonial period and reaches back towards a more “authentic” indigenous past for the country. And as the term comes from the mouth of a strongman, it gestures to a manly, robust and independent vision of Filipino society.

The trouble, of course, is that before the Spanish there wasn’t a coherent state or society that could be described as a predecessor to the Philippines. The archipelago includes a welter of ethnic groups, religions, and at least 111 languages. It was never a political union, nor united by a single cultural identity.

The desire to rename a country points to the very strangeness of these modern nation-states in the first place, moulded into being by European colonial rule. Burma became Myanmar to conform better with Burmese pronunciation, to stretch the name of the country beyond the Burmese ethnic group, and to distance the nation from its legacy of English colonial rule (and English mispronunciation). A proposal was floated in 2015 in Indonesia to jettison the Dutch-era moniker and rename the country ‘Nusantara,’ an Old Javanese word for the Southeast Asian archipelago, but it was abandoned after concerns that Malaysia would lay claim to the term as well.

With few exceptions, Asian societies from the subcontinent to the South China Sea have long been diverse, inherently multicultural and cosmopolitan, unlike the 19th-century Europe that invented nation-states. It is difficult to find the national purity in Asia that European nations imagined of themselves. Territory, sovereignty and cultural identity never easily aligned and still struggle to come into some kind of contrived accord.

Asians are used to living among others, to belonging to complex communities. Like many island peoples, Filipinos have always been exposed and connected to others, long before the coming of the Europeans and Americans. As the Dutch anthropologist Niels Mulder relates, one common Filipino joke asks the question, “Who are we?” The answer: “A Filipino is an English-speaking, Roman Catholic Malay with a Spanish name who eats Chinese food.”

That half-facetious definition excludes the significant number of Muslim Filipinos in the south of the country, but it does point to the way modern Filipino identity is an assemblage, accumulated over time. It’s unclear whether there is real appetite among Filipinos to engage in the mytho-historical project of recasting the country. A whopping 87 per cent of respondents to an online poll in 2017 rejected the idea of creating a commission that would rename the Philippines.

But wait one moment. What is wrong with renaming a country? If nations are invented anyway, if they are just convenient fictions, why can’t they be reinvented?

It’s important to always look at the motivation behind the politics of renaming. In India, for example, the quest to replace Muslim names with Hindu ones is inevitably tied up with an agenda of asserting a majoritarian Hindu nationalism. In dictatorships like 1980s Myanmar, the project of renaming was bound to the mobilising of the citizenry against an imagined foe. It is telling that authoritarians in the Philippines like Marcos and Duterte both dabble in the politics of renaming. Leaders vilify colonial history to raise the spectre of an abiding enemy of the people, distracting them from the travails of the present.


Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories, a collection of short fiction


Published on February 22, 2019

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