MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has suggested renaming the country "Maharlika," a word originally meaning warrior class, to pay homage to the country's pre-colonial past.
Duterte has revived an idea advocated by Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines' former president and dictator who implemented martial law to keep himself in power for two decades. During his regime, Marcos popularized the word and named the state broadcaster, a north-south highway and a presidential hall after it.
Marcos promoted the term to mean nobility, but historians say Maharlika refers to the warrior class that served the ruling clans during pre-Hispanic times.
The name also referred to Marcos' fictitious guerrilla unit in World War II. A 1986 New York Times report said his fondness for using Maharlika was meant to honor his military experience, which army investigators later concluded was fraudulent.
"Marcos was right. He wanted to change it to Maharlika, a Malay word, and it means more of a concept of serenity and peace," Duterte said on Feb. 11.
Then Senator Eddie Ilarde first proposed the name change in 1978, citing the need to honor the country's ancient heritage before Western colonialists occupied the country. A Spanish explorer first named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas (Philippine Islands) in honor of Spain's King Philip II. Spain ruled the Philippines for three centuries, then the U.S. occupied it for 48 years.
"Someday, let's change it," Duterte said.
Wensley Reyes, a history professor at Philippine Normal University, said this move reflects both Duterte's admiration of Marcos and his aversion to Western interventions. Duterte has constantly attacked the U.S. and European countries for criticizing his human rights record and his deadly war against drugs.
"It seems like President Duterte is a staunch believer in the ideas of Marcos, and is taking the lead to concretize these ideas. Likewise, President Duterte's opinions also reflect his anti-colonial stand, thus his pronouncements against Western ideas and interventions," Reyes told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Realizing Duterte's plans, however, would take time. His proposal would require a constitutional change and an overhaul of government offices, businesses and documents that use the Philippines as the country's official name.
The Philippine Congress, in a related move, has also pushed to revive a pre-Hispanic alphabet called "Baybayin" as the Philippines' national writing system. The bill would require streets, public buildings and consumer products to use the ancient name.
Baybayin is an ancient script of 17 symbols before the country adopted the Roman alphabet as a writing system.
Reyes, the historian, said changing the country's name could lead to historical revisionism and misinterpretation.
"The pre-colonial past has its context that is different in our present-day situation. Studying the past provides lessons that could assist in nation-building. However, romanticizing the past may lead to sentimentalism and anachronism," Reyes said.
"Moving forward as a nation requires critical dialogue and understanding of our national history," Reyes added.