Philippines or Maharlika? The Legal Implementation and Implications of Changing a Country’s Name

By Rafael Santa Maria (PO ’20)

Rodrigo Duterte, the current President of the Philippines, regularly garners controversy for his profane speech and uncompromising policies. From instigating a violent war on drugs to spurning the U.S. in favor of closer diplomatic ties with China, Duterte challenges the legal and political status quo of the Philippines with questionable justifications and a gung-ho attitude commensurate of his “Punisher” nickname. Duterte’s latest informal policy idea—to change the name of the Philippines to “Maharlika”—follows this eye-catching trend.

In truth, Duterte’s proposal is merely a revival of the same name change proposal introduced by Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator of the Philippines through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Like Duterte, Marcos favored strongman approaches to leadership and sought to reject elements of the Philippines’ colonial past. This rejection of the colonial legacy inevitably targeted the archipelago’s name, which was titled in honor of King Philip II at the beginning of Spanish colonization. Both Marcos and Duterte believe that their favored name, “Maharlika,” refers to the old, native nobility of the islands prior to the arrival of the Spanish; however, historians and academics dispute this etymology.

Compared to his previous domestic and foreign policy decisions, Duterte’s offhand proposal seems innocuous, if unnecessary. Furthermore, Duterte did not commit to the idea in any practical sense, instead presenting it like his usual provocative ramblings. Still, his idea calls into question the legality and implications of changing a country’s name, quite literally overnight.

Duterte himself provided no insight on how to turn his idea into concrete policy. Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo noted that it would be up to the Philippine Congress to introduce and pass a bill for a formal name change and then submit it for a popular referendum. However, Panelo also acknowledged such legislation (or even an executive order changing the name of the country) could face legal opposition since the name “the Philippines” is explicitly used in the Constitution. Therefore, the most robust method for changing the country’s name would be through a constitutional amendment, although this method would likely require more deliberation and political strategy than a bill and referendum.

Either way, legally changing the name of a country presents numerous challenges that may not be worth the trouble. Moreover, formally passing a policy is often simpler than implementing it on the ground. Even if a bill renaming the Philippines to Maharlika is passed in Congress and approved by a majority of the population, the government would then have to “rebrand” the country.

As a precautionary example, the small southern African country of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, faces these ongoing challenges of name change. After being renamed to Eswatini last year, the government has had to systematically change the name of institutions and materials, ranging from its Twitter account to banknotes and coins. Predictably, the costs of implementing this process concerned skeptics and drew criticism from political opposition.

The difficulty and costs of implementation would likely be more burdensome for the Philippines, which has a much larger population and area, spread out over 7,641 islands. And unlike Eswatini, where the people already used what is now the country’s formal name colloquially, many Filipinos have little knowledge of the word “Maharlika” nor its supposedly noble connotation.

This implies that usage of Maharlika and its derivatives would not see common usage and would be rendered pointless. Consequently, this raises the likelihood that legislators or future presidents would consider overturning a successful name change from under the Duterte administration.

Ultimately, this hypothetical scenario not only calls into question Duterte’s latest left-field policy aspiration, but also the role of law and public policy more broadly. Under normal circumstances, do lawmakers and political leaders have any business changing matters of national identity—and by extension, certain perceptions of language and history—to match their ideology or worldview? Is there a practical legal, political or economic reason for passing and implementing such policies, or are they simply distractions meant to draw attention away from more important issues?

Given the plethora of controversies surrounding Duterte’s previous actions, the latter certainly seems plausible.

Leave a Reply