THIS February the Philippines celebrates — if that indeed is the word — the 27th anniversary of the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. Although the institutions of liberal democracy, among them elections, have since been restored, the promises of EDSA 1986 have not been fulfilled, and are quite probably doomed to join the vast collection of lost Filipino hopes and opportunities that is so much a part of this country’s history.
Philippine elections themselves have been far from the democratic exercises that in 1986 the progressive forces of the anti-dictatorship resistance hoped would emerge from the martial law experience. They expected the flowering of authentic democracy with the political ascendancy of workers and farmers — the most marginalized sectors in Philippine history — for the sake of the just and equitable society that for three hundred years and despite the Revolution of 1896 had eluded the Filipino nation.
In fighting the dictatorship, the workers and farmers, the students and professionals that constituted the main force of the resistance were also fighting for a new beginning. What they got instead was the restoration of the pre-martial law ancien regime: of that distinctly Filipino phenomenon, elite democracy.
Elite monopoly over political power had denied the majority the right to shape their lives and future since the Commonwealth period. Marcos and the bureaucrat capitalists he represented may have been overthrown. But in 1986 the very same power brokers of Philippine society that had supported the dictatorship made sure that the poor and the powerless would remain as marginalized in the post-EDSA period as the latter had been before Marcos shattered the myth that the Philippines was the show window of democracy in Asia.
The same basic-sector forces had also fought for an end to the abductions, enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings in which the regime and its military thugs had become such experts. But even before Marcos had left for the embrace of his US allies in Hawaii, Juan Ponce Enrile was already instructing his RAM henchmen to secure the dossiers on activists and oppositionists military intelligence had been amassing for years and on which the arrests of 1972 onwards had been based.
Elements of the so-called Reform the Armed Forces Movement were to figure prominently not only in the attempts to restore authoritarian rule after EDSA 1986, but also in the assassination of labor and student leaders. Far from being reformed, the military has remained the same as it has been since Marcos gave it a taste of the wealth and power the use of force makes so easily available. Today the most corrupt of State institutions, it is also the most brutal in the use of the very same methods of suppression — abductions, enforced disappearances, torture and murder — it learned so well during the Marcos dictatorship.
One need not take up arms to be so targeted, as the cases of Jonas Burgos and other disappeared and tortured demonstrate. Such advocacies as environmental protection and the defense of human rights are enough. Indeed, even dissent and free expression — among the pillars of a truly democratic State — are still under threat today as they were 27 years ago.
The threat is as rooted in law as it is in State hostility to any challenge to the political, social and economic dominance of the few over the many. A police and military establishment that views citizen access to information, press freedom and free expression is today amply supported in both what exists in law and what does not.
Although the Marcos dictatorship collapsed in February 1986, or 27 years ago, at least two bills restrictive of access to information, free expression, and press freedom became law in August and September last year. Despite a two- decade campaign, the country still has no Freedom of Information Act. The killing of journalists is continuing, with 129 killed for their work since 1986. Harassments and threats including the filing of criminal libel suits to silence critical practitioners are similarly continuing.
The trial of a veritable handful of the hundreds suspected of masterminding, implementing and otherwise participating in the worst attack on the press and media in history — the Ampatuan Massacre of November 23, 2009 — is proceeding so glacially some witnesses have already been killed with similar impunity.
The persistence of impunity — the exemption from punishment of even the worst criminals — has been blamed on journalists’ lack of training — or on their being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or on their failure to scan their immediate surroundings for possible threats. As for activists who have similarly been victimized by local officials and warlords and by police and military men acting in collusion with them, the excuse is the same as it was during the martial law period — they’re trouble makers, communists, or even terrorists worthy of torture and assassination.
These assaults on whatever remains of democracy in these isles of fear are the direct consequences of a State whose fundamentals have not changed despite the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986. The rule of a handful of families — the political dynasties whose presence and dominance in government has become so obvious only the most stupid will deny it — continues because State violence has kept the majority powerless, and therefore unable to address the historic burdens of poverty, social injustice and structural violence that has been its lot for centuries.
Elections are contests among the moneyed and already powerful, and public office the domain of a handful. The fruits of economic progress, although nurtured by the labor of the many, are the monopoly of a few. A land tenancy system once described as among the worst on the planet is substantially intact, the efforts to reform it foundering on the shoals of a Congress dominated by landlord interests and their surrogates. Independence and sovereignty, today dismissed as luxuries no nation except the most powerful can afford, are habitually traded off for limited, even imaginary gains by a political class that has never been committed to either.
Every political upheaval from the Revolution of 1896 to EDSA 1986 has been driven by the aspirations for freedom, justice, prosperity and peace of the vast majority of the Filipino people, and by the promise of their realization. Each one has instead led to the frustration of those hopes — indeed to their very opposite. Could it be that this country is destined to remain in the margins of history, immune from the great transformations that have shaken other nations, and, despite its people’s best efforts, doomed to remain in the same place it has been for decades?