Among other arguments, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III’s privilege speech last Tuesday compared the Arroyo regime to the one that 24 years ago murdered his father.

Former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was shot dead on August 21, 1983 at the airport that now bears his name. The regime that did it had made arbitrary arrests, torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings so common they seemed part of the normal course of events. Despite Ninoy Aquino and EDSA 1, they have become as common and as “normal” today as they had been during the Marcos dictatorship.

When Ninoy Aquino stepped off the plane that 24 years ago had brought him back from exile in the United States, he risked either death or imprisonment as the preemptive options of an unstable regime. By choosing to kill Aquino, however, the Marcos dictatorship made a fatal mistake. The resulting public outrage was so huge it unified the fragmented opposition and encouraged the military coup plot that, once discovered, exploded into the civilian-military mutiny that in 1986 called out the millions that made EDSA 1 possible.

EDSA 1 put the phrase “people power” in everyone’s lips, and made gathering warm bodies the common recourse of almost any one with a real or imagined grievance. Suddenly it seemed that one had only to get a few hundred people together to confer some kind of legitimacy on what one wanted, whether to be retained in one’s post, or to protest an injustice.

The outward form of people power tended to obscure its substance–that of an awakened people taking its destiny in its own hands. But it did make democratic action real, and made a second EDSA possible–in 2001 when, in what then seemed a repeat of 1986, a combined though informal alliance of people’s organizations, opposition groups and a segment of the military brought down the Joseph Estrada presidency.

But EDSA 1 has never since been repeated, despite hopes for an EDSA 3 as the antidote to a regime that, while ironically the beneficiary of the direct, supposedly people’s action that EDSA 2 was, has morphed into an autocracy in many ways worse than the Marcos tyranny.

“Noynoy” Aquino sees a “chilling similarity” between the Arroyo regime’s unconcern over the extra-judicial killings and the Marcos government’s indifference to the killing of his father. He is mistaken on at least two points: the Arroyo regime is not so much unconcerned over the extra judicial killings as it is presiding over them. And whatever similarity there is between the two regimes ends where the current one has outstripped the other in the sheer number of extra-judicial killings during its relatively brief, supposedly democratic watch.

While over 2,500 men and women were the victims of extra-judicial killings during the Marcos regime, and between 700 to a thousand more disappeared, these occurred over a 16-year period–from 1970 when the first disappearances were recorded, to 1986. On the other hand, it is fairly established that over 800 men and women have been summarily executed from 2001 when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power, to the present. In terms of the killings (there is so far no comprehensive tally of the disappeared since 2001), the Arroyo regime record nearly matches the Marcos regime yearly average of 156.

Nearly, but not quite. The qualitative difference–what makes the Arroyo regime worse than the Marcos one in the human rights arena–is that the killings are an integral part of a policy to dismantle whatever else remains of the democratic and populist legacies of EDSA 1. The goal is to remain in power forever and ever–if time and public indifference permit.

Among EDSA 1’s legacies are the focus on human rights enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, its emphasis on the need to broaden in Congress the representation of marginalized sectors, and its numerous provisions that try to assure government transparency and accountability. Two presidencies—Corazon Aquino’s and Fidel Ramos’– took the Charter’s focus at least partly to heart. The Estrada presidency ignored it. The present one despises it.

In the place of the system the Charter created, the current regime would install a system of government secrecy and non-accountability. It would enhance the monopoly over power by a handful of political clans by–it is now well-established–savaging the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, of the press, and of assembly.

All these are taking place without the benefit of a martial law proclamation, which the 1987 Constitution has made much more problematic than the 1936 Charter did. At least Marcos had the decency to issue a proclamation. The present regime has blithely borrowed from him while paying lip service to people power and democracy as it merrily makes its way to 2010, with all the prospects that crucial year offers in terms of remaining in power. Subterfuge obviously has its rewards.


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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