Corazon Aquino
Corazon Aquino swears in as President of the Philippines at Club Filipino, San Juan on February 25, 1986 (Malacañang Photo)

The 35th anniversary of the 1986 civilian-military mutiny known as EDSA I — or as its participant-adherents then called it, the People Power Revolution — that overthrew the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and forced him and his family to flee to Hawaii, USA came and went this year with hardly anyone noticing.

February 25 has become for most Filipinos just another anniversary of this or that incident in history whose meaning has eluded them for years, or the birth or death date of someone they were told in elementary school did something that made him a hero. Exactly why an incident or a certain date is important is something they haven’t bothered to find out. Jose Rizal? Didn’t he have a girl in every port? Tirad Pass? Is that where that anti-American guy died? And EDSA 1986? Wasn’t that the incident that ended the administration of the best president the Philippines has ever had?

As in previous years, only the usual platitudes and motherhood statements emanated from Malacanang Palace. It was as if the biggest bureaucrats in government feared that saying something meaningful could educate the mass of the citizenry enough for it to harbor such dangerous ideas as that they’re the true sovereigns of this country and that government officials serve at their pleasure. That’s as likely to happen as this country’s making it out of the Medieval Ages and into the 21st century, but one could almost hear President Rodrigo Duterte asking his staff if it’s that time of the year again, and can’t we just forget about EDSA I?

Not that Mr. Duterte has ever given the event any importance. Since 2017 he has studiously avoided attending any ceremony marking its anniversary, thereby pointedly sending his followers the message that it is really nothing to celebrate.

It makes perfect sense for a president who counts the surviving Marcoses among his most reliable partisans and closest allies. But beyond the demands of that alliance — and even his declared preference for defeated 2016 vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. to succeed him should he decide not to complete his six-year term — is the fear of an EDSA I repetition, or even of the year 2001’s EDSA II, when another president, Joseph Estrada, was also removed from office through direct people’s action.

Although referred to as a “revolution,” EDSA 1986 was true to that word only in one sense. It certainly was not an economic revolution, since it didn’t transform the economic system. The land tenancy anomaly survived it and even emerged stronger than ever; inviting foreign investments into the country is still the main development strategy of Marcos’ successors as it has been since 1946; and industrialization has never been seriously contemplated as economic policy. Neither was that “revolution” a social upheaval: it did not end the vast inequality, the social injustice, and the poverty that still afflict millions of Filipinos.

But it was a moment of mass empowerment, the precedents of which go back a hundred years to the Reform and Revolutionary periods of Philippine history. For the first time since the country declared its independence, and after decades of tolerating corrupt and incompetent misgovernment from 1946 onwards, some two million Filipinos braved the tanks, the helicopter gunships and the mercenary soldiery of a murderous dictatorship to declare that they had had enough of the human rights violations, the torture, the enforced disappearances and the extrajudicial killings of the regime, and that it was time to end the lies and the deceit of a self-serving kleptocracy that had brought only dishonor to this country and suffering to its people.

It was in that sense that EDSA 1986 was truly revolutionary —and it is for that reason that, though they have never found the words to explicitly say it, the power elite fear it.

Mr. Duterte is not alone in wishing it and its example away. His predecessors were equally focused on getting the people to forget both EDSAs, and for entirely the same reason.

Although he was one of the leading figures of EDSA 1986, former President Fidel Ramos, for example, repeatedly discouraged its repetition supposedly because the political instability it would signify would discourage foreign investments. Joseph Estrada’s removal from office via EDSA II naturally made him, his family and his allies leery of anything similar, while Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo allegedly contemplated declaring martial law out of fear that an EDSA III could depose her.

Himself accused of fomenting a military putsch during the coup-plagued presidency of Corazon Aquino, former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, instead of discouraging the celebration of EDSA I as well as EDSA II, encouraged remembering both differently. Like Ramos, he was, after all, also one of the 1986 event’s leading figures, and apparently believed that something similar could propel him to power. Rather than admit that what overthrew Marcos in 1986 and Estrada in 2001 was the people’s direct action, he declared at some point when he was eying the Presidency that it was the military that had done the deed.

That claim is only partly true, however. Elements of the military were indeed involved in both uprisings, but without the millions massed at Quezon City’s Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue between Camps Crame and Aguinaldo, those rebel units would have been overrun by the superior numbers of Marcos’ military loyalists. It was civilians — nuns and priests and middle class folk — who faced Marcos’ tanks and shielded Ramos, Enrile and their military cohorts from being attacked and annihilated in 1986.

It was also an event 14 years in the making. Without the heroic efforts of Church people, journalists, writers, teachers, students, artists and many other sectors to provide the citizenry from day one of martial rule the information that finally led millions of men, women and even entire families to mass at EDSA from February 22 to 25, the dictatorship would have prevailed. The same commitment of the same sectors was similarly indispensable to the success of EDSA II.

As untenable as Enrile’s re-invention of EDSA I and II may be, it seems that Mr. Duterte is of the same view, although not necessarily because of Enrile’s say-so, and without publicly admitting it. The same assumption of military primacy as Enrile’s is evident in his unending courtship of the officers corps — his packing his government with retired generals, and his putting the interests and welfare of the soldiery above those of everyone else’s in terms of perks and salaries. Rather than the people shielding him from the military, it would seem that Mr. Duterte is anticipating the possibility that the military might have to shield him from the people.

But could he be mistaken in assuming that the military will be true to him no matter what the cost? There are no indications so far that it won’t be. And as for the possibility of something like another People Power uprising occurring, that, too, seems hardly likely. After decades of disinformation and forgetfulness, the Filipino masses have yet to learn the revolutionary lesson as well as meaning of both EDSA events.

Mr. Duterte and company are in the rare and privileged position of being protected by both the seemingly boundless loyalty of the military and the cluelessness and apathy of the heirs of a generation that brought down a seemingly invincible tyranny. That makes it so much the worse for the future of the interminable work-in-progress that is Philippine democracy.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Malacanang.

Luis V. Teodoro

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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