DESPITE its failure to deliver on its promises, some Filipinos still hail the 1986 EDSA uprising as a model of how peacefully change can be achieved.
The shift in Thailand from military rule to democracy in 1992, and the fall from power of Indonesia’s Suharto in 1998, for example, were supposedly among the political upheavals the event inspired. Changes in other parts of Asia and in Eastern Europe have similarly been credited to the demonstration effect of Philippine People Power, or EDSA 1986.
These claims, however, were mostly based on the broad similarities between what transpired in other countries and what happened in the Philippines in 1986. By the 1980s the United States was abandoning its global anti-communist strategy of fomenting dictatorial rule in favor of supposedly supporting the democratic aspirations of the people its own previous policies had forced into such tyrannies as Pinochet’s in Chile and Marcos’ in the Philippines. This shift in US strategy resulted in a number of US-encouraged pro-“democracy” uprisings all over the world similar to EDSA.
Most of those who have been doing the hailing are also conservatives who define “change” solely in terms of the removal of Marcos from the scene, and who’re still trying to prove that the EDSA uprising was in that sense not only their sole creation, but also a rousing success.
But the suspicion that EDSA 1986 had not changed anything beyond removing Ferdinand Marcos from power didn’t take long to develop. The most visible leaders of that event, Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile, were after all also the most visible symbols of martial law when Marcos proclaimed it in 1972: Ramos as chief of the dreaded Philippine Constabulary, and Enrile as Secretary, and later Minister, of National Defense.
By the time of the Mendiola Massacre of January 1987, or less than a year into the administration of Corazon Aquino, the suspicion had turned into a conclusion. It was after all the very same police and military goons that during the Marcos dictatorship had suppressed protests that opened fire on the farmers massed at Mendiola street (only a few blocks from the Presidential Palace) who were demanding land reform, and killed thirteen of them, in a bleak demonstration that the same state apparatus of repression was still in place.
Today the country is still mired in poverty; the vast income gap between the very rich and the very poor is growing; elite rule has turned the country into a vast den of corruption; justice, whether social or the simple variety that punishes the guilty and exonerates the innocent, is as elusive as ever; and human rights are still being violated, in many cases so flagrantly the martial law period might as well not have ended.
That’s as far as the “change” part is concerned. The “peaceful” part is also contentious. EDSA 1986 occurred in the context of a 14-year struggle against the Marcos dictatorship by a united front of anti-dictatorship and democratic forces and people’s organizations, including the New People’s Army and the Moro National Liberation Front. EDSA did not spring out of nothing overnight, but was the culmination of a process that included mass protests and the use of revolutionary violence against state violence. In the five days of EDSA itself, the presence of about a million people constituted a physical threat against the soldiers manning the tanks of the dictatorship, who could at any time have fired into the crowds.
If successfully changing society is the criterion, EDSA 1986 would not be a model. But, warns Michael James Barker of the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict, what happened during and after EDSA does offer lessons to activists and revolutionaries in other parts of the world.
In his “A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People-Power in the Philippines,” Barker contends that even a powerful popular movement such as the Philippine resistance to dictatorship could be undermined and hijacked, and its reformist, even revolutionary agenda transformed into its opposite: the preservation of the limited , anti-people interests of the local and foreign elite.
Barker reiterates in this essay his argument in an earlier paper, “The American Hijacking Of The Philippines’ ‘People-Power’ Struggle,” that the United States undermined the nationalist and democratic aspirations of the anti-dictatorship movement and that this has to be understood if it is not to happen in the Arab Spring uprisings against dictatorships in the Middle East, specially Egypt. Otherwise, the end result would be similar to what happened in the Philippines.
Marcos’ overthrow was indeed the result of a popular uprising, says Barker, but official US circles prior to EDSA had been disturbed by the development of a broad political and social movement that among other demands wanted the US bases out of the Philippines and society restructured to reflect the hopes of workers and farmers for social justice and the equitable distribution of wealth.
“Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the poor and oppressed citizens of the Philippines had been gathering political strength. This emerging power was significantly bolstered by the August 1983 assassination of the most visible leader of the elite opposition, Benigno Aquino Jr.,” Barker points out, and there seemed little doubt by the mid-1980s that Marcos’ days in power were numbered.
To prevent the removal of Marcos from morphing into a real revolution that would democratize political power and restructure the economy and society, the US dispatched operatives to the Philippines to redirect the movement of popular resistance from the reform and revolutionary path to what was essentially the return to power of the wing of the elite Marcos had swept aside, and the preservation of US influence and military bases in the country.
Barker quotes University of California sociology professor William I. Robinson’s Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Robinson said in that work that in 1984, Corazon Aquino was working with other opposition leaders to develop plans that “spelled out a nationalist-oriented program of social reform and development and also called for the removal of US military bases from the Philippines.”
To prevent that from happening, the United States, says Barker, funneled financial and political support to the conservative and middle-class segments of the opposition. It also “dispatched (its) finest experts in conflict resolution to meet with Cory Aquino and the leader of the right-wing opposition, Salvador ‘Doy’ Laurel, to convince them to abandon the program and to keep the US bases in the Philippines.”
They did, and the result was a police and military still committed to preserving elite rule and foreign domination, the return of some of the very same personalities, including the Marcoses, who had been so instrumental in establishing the dictatorship and keeping it in power, and hence the preservation of the status quo of poverty, social inequity, injustice, mass misery, and limited democracy.
“US intervention,” Barker quotes Robinson, “was decisive in shaping the contours of the anti-Marcos movement and in establishing the terms and conditions under which Philippine social and political struggles would unfold in the post-Marcos period.”
“The Egyptian people,” Barker then argues, “need to learn from the Philippine experience, and to do all they can to keep (what happened in the Philippines) from happening.” In short, EDSA 1986 does have a lesson to offer other movements across the planet that are fighting for authentic democracy and social change: as a negative example of how NOT to wage a revolution.