President Rodrigo Duterte described the civilian-military mutiny known as the “People Power Revolution” that overthrew the Marcos terror regime 32 years ago as among “the most crucial and trying (of) times” for the Philippines. But his communication people apparently don’t think so, and neither do their trolls, his followers, and his allies in the Marcos family.
Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, for example, sneered at the nuns’ facing the guns and tanks of the Marcos military then as a “drama,” or just for show, and even suggested that the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship was driven by “fake news.”
PCOO itself issued no statement to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of that event. Instead its trolls belittled it as something that benefitted only the Aquino family and the “yellows” of the Liberal Party. Mr. Duterte’s followers echoed that view, with some even declaring that to develop and achieve real change, the country needs another dictatorship. The Marcoses have been saying essentially the same things for years, except the last. They insist that what their late patriarch imposed on this country and its people from 1972 to 1986 wasn’t a dictatorship but a benign form of what Ferdinand Marcos himself described as “constitutional authoritarianism.”
But Mr. Duterte was nevertheless right in saying that those days in February (from the 22nd to the 25th) were crucial. If the nuns and priests, the students, the labor and peasant leaders, as well as the professional and middle-class people and the anti-Marcos wing of the military had failed to oust Ferdinand Marcos from power, the repression that would have followed would have been far worse than what had been taking place since 1972.
Rather than the restoration of the rights and institutions of liberal democracy — free elections, a free press, free expression and freedom of organization and assembly, and an independent judiciary among others — what would have ensued would have been the strengthening of a reign of terror that could still be in power today.
Despite his seeming recognition of the significance of the February 1986 civilian-military mutiny, for the second time since 2017 the sitting President of the Philippines did not attend any of the gatherings officially commemorating that “crucial” time. His non-attendance sent a far louder message than his statements did, suggesting, among others, that he wasn’t really as appreciative of the meaning of that event as he tried to appear to be.
His message nevertheless expressed the hope for solidarity among the people, and urged Filipinos to “enrich our democracy by empowering our citizenry, defending their rights, and strengthening the institutions that safeguard their freedoms.”
“The People Power Revolution,” said Mr. Duterte, “has become the enduring symbol of our determination to fight for what is right and to defend and uphold our cherished democratic values.”
Right again. Despite its glittering generalities and motherhood statements with which no one would have disagreed, the message was issued during an equally crucial time for this country, its people, and even the Duterte regime itself.
The 32nd anniversary of the 1986 EDSA event was marked by protests against Mr. Duterte’s policy decisions, among them the passage of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law, or TRAIN; the extrajudicial killings that continue to accompany the anti-drug campaign; the rush to a federal form of government and Constitutional amendments; and the extension of martial law in Mindanao.
Equally condemned across the archipelago were his acquiescence with, and pandering to, China’s construction of military bases on the West Philippine Sea; his jeepney modernization scheme; his attacks on press freedom and the independent press; his demonization of, and threats against, groups critical of his regime; his declared antipathy to human rights; his cancellation of the peace talks, which he himself had initiated, with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP); his minions’ orchestrated assault on the Chief Justice; his shockingly anti-women statements; etc., etc.
Not only the number of issues that have been raised against him is significant. Equally important is that the solidarity Mr. Duterte said was needed for the people to “enrich democracy” and to defend their rights was evident among the various groups, institutions and individuals that in other times would have been at odds with each other.
What unites the labor, peasant, and indigenous people’s groups; the Catholic and Protestant churches; journalists’ and artists’ organizations; human rights defenders; women’s groups; non-governmental organizations; and academics and students from the country’s leading universities, is the common concern over the Duterte regime’s march to tyranny and abuse rather than the realization of its proclaimed commitment to empowering the people.
These are the very same formations, individuals and institutions that had been so decisive in the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship. The only sector missing among the current protesters’ ranks is the military. But its physical absence so far may not necessarily indicate its leadership’s sentiments.
Of even more interest is the growing international concern over what’s happening in the Philippines, as evident in, among others, foreign media’s relentless coverage of the extrajudicial killing of thousands of suspected drug users and pushers; the international human rights groups’ focus on the sorry state of those rights; corruption watchdog Transparency International’s finding that corruption in the Philippines is the worst it has ever been since 2012; and the International Criminal Court’s decision to look into the possibility that Mr. Duterte could be guilty of crimes against humanity.
In addition, the US intelligence community, which regards the regime’s supinely pro-China policy as contrary to US interests, has named Mr. Duterte a threat to democracy and human rights. It put him in the same company as Hun Sen of Cambodia and the military junta that continues to rule Thailand, despite US President Donald Trump’s expression of support for him because he’s the president of the “prime piece of real estate” that the Philippines is to the United States.
Both the unity of various local groups, sectors and forces as well as international concern over what’s happening in this country of uncertainty are occurring a mere 20 months after Mr. Duterte came to power. The same thing happened to Marcos, but only after the assassination of the late Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. in 1983 — or eleven years after his declaration of nationwide martial rule.
The causes of this rapid decline in the Duterte regime’s standing before the sectors that really matter in Philippine affairs as well as the rest of the world are obvious. The reasons lie in the appalling impact of his policies on the people, among them the escalating cost of prime commodities, the rampant violations of human rights, the continuing poverty and hunger among millions of Filipinos, and the fear that now haunts poor communities because of the use of force rather than the rule of law in the “war” on drugs.
The growing protests against it both here and abroad and the attention being paid to it internationally are auguries of things to come. But the regime can still correct and preserve itself by, among other measures, being true to Mr. Duterte’s message on the strengthening of those institutions vital to democratization such as the free press — to start with, by just letting journalists do their job without being banned and harassed — and demonstrating that it is committed to empowering the people rather than itself, its allies, and its minions in the upper levels of the bureaucracy.
But whether it will have the insight and the determination to do so is far from likely. What is certain is that if it doesn’t change course now, it will meet the same fate that befell the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. That kleptocracy collapsed despite its millions, its seemingly stable military support, its unquestionably more capable and far more intelligent bureaucrats and allies, and Marcos’ own personal closeness to then US President Reagan, who, like Trump, was also fond of his man in Manila.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Arkibong Bayan.