For millennia, the Philippines have been a landing point for peoples from many parts of the Pacific, from the Negritos, who reached the islands across ancient land bridges, to seafarers from Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and the Malay peninsula. These peoples eventually blended into a unique Filipino culture. They brought their skills with them, including techniques for irrigating rice terraces, iron smelting, weaving and pottery making.
The islands developed into a pattern of small, politically independent communities. Many peoples in the south were Muslim; the central and northern islands followed traditional religions until the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Although people never fully accepted Spanish rule, the Spanish presence had profound effects: most Filipinos adopted Roman Catholicism, except in the Muslim south.
In the 19th century, isolated revolts led to widespread agitation for political reform and freedom from Spain. Organized armed opposition began in 1872. Central to the reform movement was Josť Rizal, an eye surgeon and novelist who helped create a national spirit; his 1896 execution by the Spanish made him a national martyr and intensified resistance to Spanish rule.
During the Philippine revolution, the Spanish-American war broke out. On June 12, 1898, General Emilio Aguinaldo declared the Philippines independent and proclaimed himself president. On the verge of official defeat, Spain ceded and sold the islands to the United States, which ruled the Philippines for another 48 years.
The Filipinos did not accept re-colonization; one-seventh of the population was killed fighting the Americans. Northern forces surrendered in 1902, while the Muslim south continued fighting until 1913. Americans introduced the English language and American-style democracy to the islands. They built roads, schools and hospitals, and created thousands of jobs. However, they also allowed the landed elite to maintain their economic status and grow in political power.
After experiencing Japanese occupation during World War II, the Philippines finally achieved independence in 1946. However, the U.S. retained rights to many natural resources and still maintained army bases on the islands. The new government's failure to reform the land ownership system led peasants into several armed conflicts. Under Ferdinand Marcos' rule, which began in 1965, the gap between rich and poor widened. Declaring that the nation was threatened by communist insurgency, Marcos imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981. The 1983 assassination of opposition leader Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino and the anti-government stance of the Catholic Church helped unified opposition parties to lead a series of peaceful, anti-Marcos protests. Confronted by a massive revolt in February 1986, Marcos departed for the U.S.
In March 1986, Corazon Aquino, Ninoy Aquino's widow, assumed power and restored democracy. A six-year term limit was imposed on the presidency. However, her years in government were marred by several coup attempts and growing antagonism toward her policies, particularly her government's failure to enact land reform. Subsequent governments have attempted to address government corruption and calls by Muslim rebels for a free Muslim state. Rebels have been carrying out a guerilla war since 1972, despite a 1996 peace agreement that provides for a Muslim autonomous region. The country's current president is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.