People Power Monument
The People Power Monument along EDSA. Credit:

“Low key” is how this year’s commemoration of the February 1986 civilian-military uprising known as EDSA 1 is being described by the Duterte regime. There will be none of the “Salubungan” (the meeting of the key leaders of the mutiny and defecting police and military officers) that had been part of the celebration since the overthrow of the Marcos regime. Instead of its being celebrated at the People Power Monument on Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in the vicinity of Camps Crame and Aguinaldo, whatever rites will mark that event 31 years ago will be held in the the latter military camp.

As of this writing (February 22), Malacanang had not even confirmed if President Rodrigo Duterte will be attending the downgraded ceremonies, the venue for which also suggests a revisionist emphasis on the supposed primacy of the military factor in the “success” of EDSA. Duterte spokespersons have justified the regime’s downplaying the event as moved by the desire to move on rather than being “stuck in the past.”

If that sounds like a lame attempt to justify diminishing the significance of the event, it’s because it is. But that excuse also meshes so well with the pronounced tendency among the population, especially in Philippine officialdom, to ignore history.

Remembering the past serves the eminent purpose not only of reminding everyone of its successes, but also of its errors — and the imperative, by not not repeating them, to do better. EDSA would not have happened without the sacrifices and dedication of those who fought the Marcos regime for 14 years — the human rights defenders, the students and progressive Church people, the labor and peasant leaders, the members of the underground movement, the Muslim and NPA fighters who constituted the resistance.

EDSA was a child of that resistance and a clear demonstration of how the collective power of the people can prevail over the tanks, helicopters and troops of the Marcos military machine. The people’s steadfast determination to remain on EDSA during those four days (February 22- 25) despite the threat to their lives led to enough erosion of the political, military and foreign support for the Marcos terror regime to yield, and for Marcos and his family to flee the country.

Current revisionism of what happened then has emphasized the role of the institutional Church, the members of the political opposition and even the military at EDSA over that of organized resistance, or else dismisses EDSA as of no consequence at all. But EDSA had behind it 14 years of struggle and resistance by thousands of men and women. In terms of significance, for one, the release of political prisoners during the Corazon Aquino administration that followed that of Marcos was a turning point in the restoration of democratic rights. It also made peace negotiations possible between the government of the Philippines (GPH) and the revolutionary and other groups in the armed component of the anti-dictatorship resistance. The talks encouraged hopes of realizing, should the negotiations progress to address the roots of conflict, the reforms that have eluded Philippine society for decades.

But the negotiations foundered on the shoals of elite, military, and foreign resistance to the changes that had seemed so imminent in the aftermath of EDSA. Resistance to the reform of the iniquitous social, economic, and political structures of Philippine society that for centuries had driven the rebellions that finally led to the Revolution of 1896 was evident in the violent dispersal on January 22, 1987 of a peasant demonstration demanding land reform. The Mendiola Massacre, in which 13 peasants were killed and dozens more injured when the police and military fired on the demonstrators, became the excuse for the scuttling of the talks and for the Corazon Aquino regime to declare “all out war” against the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-led New People’s Army (NPA).

The Massacre proved that EDSA was not the “revolution” that its most visible participants, such as then Defense Minister (later Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile and then Armed Forces of the Philippines Deputy Chief of Staff (later President) Fidel Ramos pretended it to be. Thanks to these defenders of the system as well as to Corazon Aquino herself, EDSA instead became no more than a restoration of the rule, the policies and the conservatism to the point of reaction of the landed, feudal wing of the ruling elite that the Marcos-led bureaucrat capitalists had disempowered when Marcos seized absolute power.

“Business as usual” was in so many ways the “new” regime’s virtual mantra. A tenancy system that has been described as among the worst on the planet remained intact; the country continued to provide the raw materials needed by industrialized countries while itself being at a pre-industrial stage; and Philippine neo-colonial ties with its former colonizer remained so strong the Aquino government even lobbied the Senate to sign a new treaty that would have extended the presence of US military bases.

The consequence of the restoration is in evidence today. Because economic growth has been limited and non-inclusive, poverty still haunts the millions who are prevented by the skewed system of wealth distribution from benefiting from the fruits of development enjoyed by a handful of families.

A dynastic system in place since the 300 years of Spanish colonialism still prevents the many from governing themselves and instead makes political power the monopoly of a few. So entrenched is the system that the Marcoses, their kin and their cronies have since recovered both their political pre-eminence as well as their economic power.

An agrarian reform program so full of loopholes it prevents the millions of tenant farmers from owning land, or else forces them to sell land they have acquired through the land reform law, condemns the countryside to perennial want.

Through such subterfuges as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), foreign troops, whose continuing presence was rejected in 1990 by a Senate aware of its implications on the country’s sovereignty and security, are still in the country in furtherance of US strategic goals in Asia while in violation of the 1987 Constitution.

Equally disturbing are the continuing and worsening human rights abuses by State security forces, and their dismissal by the current administration as a hindrance to its campaign against the illegal drug trade and even as a shield for criminality.

The possibilities for changing all these through the adoption of a mutually acceptable program of social, economic and political reforms that the resumption of peace talks between the GPH and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) had made so seemingly attainable have been dashed to pieces by the Presidency’s yielding to military and foreign pressure.

Thirty-one years after EDSA, the same problems continue to afflict Philippine society. EDSA was an opportunity missed. Its hijacking by a reform-resistant, self-aggrandizing elite, its police and military collaborators and its foreign patrons was the key to the subsequent failure to address the most critical development and other issues that have plagued Philippine society for over a century.

As speculative as it may be, the Filipino nation must remind itself during its 31st anniversary that EDSA could have led to the making of a people’s regime committed to the revolutionary transformation of Philippine society. The fact that it did not helps explain why, despite its signal achievement of overthrowing a despised regime, EDSA has been slowly losing its relevance as a model in addressing the pressing concerns of this country and its long-suffering people. They call it a Revolution, but it wasn’t. It should have been.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Official Gazette.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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