EDSA 1986: Unifying the People’s Power

Aside from a national holiday that people look forward to, there is much to celebrate as we commemorate the 34th anniversary of the 1986 EDSA People Power, an annual event that has become so anemic and paltry under this administration. One aspect of EDSA that is often overlooked is its role in the broader democratization movement in the world. After all, EDSA 1986 is the father of people power revolutions, notably in Eastern Europe and Asia. At the same time, we should take note that the very ideals that these revolutions hold dear or represent are currently under attack.

Let us start with a short anecdote. While held up in Camp Crame during the four-day uprising, a politician managed to get access to the nerve center and asked Enrile on previous plans to set up a 5-man junta the military rebels would have wanted to install in lieu of Marcos. In his retort, Enrile pointed out that power now rests not with the military but on the people outside protecting them. At about the same time, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, another major player in the event, told the press that the power of the people in foiling attacks by the loyalist Marcos forces could never be underestimated. Thus, the term People Power came to fruition. In so doing, the idea of peaceful, popular revolt in ousting authoritarian or totalitarian regimes would become a template that would serve as a model for other countries to follow. Up until this time, the model for overthrowing dictatorships and authoritarian regimes could either be a protracted people’s war like China’s or an insurrectionary warfare of which the Sandinistas of Nicaragua were the exemplar.

An observer once said that if it took Poland 10 years to kick out communism and democratize, in Hungary it was 10 months. In the former East Germany, it was in 10 weeks and in Czechoslovakia 10 days. Last November, the Ateneo Martial Law Museum was part of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Velvet Revolution and the Fall of the Berlin Wall. But much as we would like to brag that ours took only four days, the truth however is that EDSA 1986 was the apogee of the people’s struggle that started with the declaration of authoritarian rule in 1972. A series of interconnecting events precipitated the subsequent downfall of the dictatorship so that the military coup of February 22 was but the final act that finished the Marcos regime.

Why it took so many years to end Marcos’ martial law may be explained by the fact that it stood on pillars of support that came from many sectors – middle class, business, the international community, a number of churches, among others.

In its initial years, opposition to the dictatorship came mostly from the more organized forces like the MNLF and the CPP dominated national democratic groups. Beyond those were a small group of social democrats, left-of-center formations, and an even smaller number of pre-martial law politicians. With the signing of a peace agreement with the MNLF in 1976 in Libya, the Marcos regime earned an opportunity to concentrate more on other dissidents.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency marked a departure from previous Republican administrations. His emphasis on human rights as a foreign policy planked created a narrow political space with the opening of the legislature. However, the first electoral exercise in 1978 for the Interim Batasang Pambansa only demonstrated the futility of reforms when Marcos blanked the LABAN slate headed by Ninoy Aquino, the central figure of the opposition party. This futile political exercise strengthened the resolve to abandon the ballot in favor of the bullet in seeking change. Soon a group of US-based Filipino oppositionists and their local counterparts organized the Light-A-Fire Movement and burned down symbols of the regime – the COMELEC building, office of the Daily Express and even the Floating Casino. Another group, the April 6 Liberation Movement, conducted a series of bombing campaigns. This group got its name from the highly successful noise barrage on the eve of the IBP elections.

If there is a saving grace to Jimmy Carter’s presidency, it is that it brought a modicum of relief for a number of high-profile political prisoners who were released upon the prodding of some legislators and civil libertarians. After serving more than seven years of incarceration, a sick Ninoy Aquino was permitted to avail of medical treatment in the US. His determination to come back in August of 1983 and unite the fractured opposition would prove to be the turning point in resisting the dictatorship.

Like anyone involved in long term social transformation the initial reaction to Ninoy Aquino’s assassination was one of disbelief but also of inconsequence. Extrajudicial killings of opponents were the norm at that time. Those who worked in rural areas were witness to the horrors of the military’s counterinsurgency campaign. The overwhelming grief and pakikiramay demonstrated by Filipinos from all walks of life during the wake but most especially the funeral signaled that this is the start of something new.

Political repression coupled with disastrous economic policies pushed the basic sectors and the Catholic church on a collision course with Marcos. After Ninoy’s death, two more important segments of society would join the growing ranks of the opposition – the middle class and the business community.

Even within the military establishment, a deep crevice had begun to appear with the formation of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM. And if demonstrations before August 1983 were mostly led by the Left and attended mostly by the organized labor, peasant and student organizations, similar actions held afterwards now saw a new crowd. Makati professionals in their barong or skits and high society matrons suddenly showed up. The mood however was uncharacteristically festive as office workers shredded the yellow pages of telephone directories and showered the protesters along Ayala and Buendia. The placards and slogans too were different, far from the dogmatic sloganeering and chanting by the Left. This is an indication of a very important shift in the country’s politics – that the center of opposition is now slipping away from the national democratic left and moving towards the left of center – a broad coalition of social democrats, liberal democrats, popular democrats, to politicians from newly-formed political parties and who would be called Cory’s forces or the yellow army.
The communist party’s eventual decision to boycott the snap elections of 1986 only added to their further marginalization.

By late 1985, a sick and exhausted Marcos was challenged in US media about his legitimacy to govern the country. Ever the strongman, he called for a snap election to be held in February of the following year to demonstrate that he still has the mandate of the Filipino people. A surprised opposition now faces the dilemma of whom to field as a candidate to run against Marcos. A successful signature campaign convinced Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s widow, to
take up the challenge. The match up was more than a David against a Goliath. An inexperienced housewife against the most powerful president this country had ever seen. Finally, the opposition had finally found a figure they could rally behind. After all, she was the binary opposite of Marcos.

As one story goes, many Liberal Party stalwarts would often meet at the Aquino residence in Times Street in Quezon City to talk politics. All of them relished the thought of occupying Malacanang someday. Not one of them however was the chosen one. Rather, it was the simple wife who, after serving dinner and coffee, would retire to her room. And Cory also remarked that whoever replaces Marcos would have a difficult job of rebuilding the country, not knowing that it was she who was destined to play that role. Truly, becoming president of this country may be more a matter of fate or destiny.

The brazenness by which fraud and violence committed by Marcos forces were more than enough to convince the international community that Marcos no longer has the mandate to govern. Without this pillar of support, the Marcos regime had only the military to cling to survive. Thus, the military coup launched by Enrile and the RAM cracked open the deep divisions within the military. The ensuing defections of units within the Armed Forces to the rebel side was the final message for Marcos, his family, cronies and henchmen to leave.

EDSA 1986 was a time when a powerless and abused people finally found the moral courage to stand up to the dictatorship.

In conclusion, two points need to be highlighted. The first is that EDSA People Power became a blueprint for other peaceful revolutions during the third wave of democratization. Czechoslovakia, East Germany and many other countries in Eastern Europe proved that EDSA-style people power was indeed an effective tool in ousting authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Yet, it was not always met with success. In the student-led 8888 demonstrations in Myanmar, people power failed to persuade military rulers from ceding an iota of power to Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. A more violent response awaited students and workers who went to Tienanmen Square in the summer of 1989 to demand for what may be called the Fifth Modernization.

The second is the view that EDSA 1986 is just a revolt but not a revolution. EDSA 1986 is not the kind of revolution as previously imagined. It is not a revolution along the lines of Marxism-Leninism, or a horizontal revolution wherein the oppressed classes overthrows the elite. Be that as it may, EDSA 1986 was revolutionary, a novelty because it demonstrated that overwhelming popular support can now cancel out the coercive powers of the military. We cannot measure and judge EDSA 1986 for what it is not.


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