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(This article is updated from the original posted on February 21, 2011.)
Twenty-five years ago the Filipino people invented People Power—a nonviolent, peaceful popular movement (so big it could be taken for a revolution) to topple a dictatorship.
Historically, they did not. Blacks and whites liberals anticipated people power during the Civil Rights Movement, as Ninoy Aquino himself recognized, taking Martin Luther King for his hero, culminating in the Million Man March on Washington D.C. where King famously said, “I have a dream.” The most beautiful speech ever written and delivered in the history of the human language.
The American Civil Rights Movement had it far, far worse than our or any other nation’s people power. They were not fighting a tyrannical government; they were not fighting specific tyrants.
They were up against every white person in the south and north that hated the colored man for his chromatic difference. They were doing the un-American thing: imposing their view on a racist's conscience because they also have one, and thereby violating the spirit of the Constitution.
The civil rights movement was fighting an entire white nation and an attitude as solidly based on reason as Darwin’s infamously correct theory of evolution and as long established as white men have noticed the colored people who served at their tables.
Survival really belongs to the fittest. The only thing the whites got wrong about that was that the fittest are not those who drive around in cars, go to exclusive country clubs, or are allowed to carry rifles, get fat on beer, live in trailer parks and lynch an uppity nigger from time to time. The fittest are those who are in it for the long haul, who never stop and, though deathly fearful, as they should be, never give up against impossible odds.
And yes, everyone flinches from gunfire, as at Kent State, and stand their ground only against water cannons and not the regular kind. The only ones who may have confronted cannons face-to-muzzle were the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square, but that was only because the tanks were moving too fast for them to get out of the way. Only the Chinaman in short sleeves and black trousers, apparently on his way to the office with a briefcase in his hand, stood before a column of battle tanks and stopped it as it was either coming from or going to the slaughter of thousands of students at the square. When the lead tank tried to get around him by swerving left, he stepped to the right to block it again.
The only thing close to the American civil rights achievement was the African National Congress's assumption of black rule in apartheid South Africa through sheer guts and doggedness in the face of rising casualties, and until white South Africans came to the realization that they were going to be part of a black African nation -- just another tribe albeit white out of so many others all black -- or they were, as the movie title goes, Out of Africa. Like the French pied noirs out of Algeria.
Historically again, the Filipinos did not invent People Power in its now classic description. The Portuguese military did when the Army of Africa returned to the home country and, disgusted with the way the war went in the colonies, decided to take it out on the longest lasting fascist dictatorship in history, that of Salazar.
When the tanks rolled out into the streets of Lisbon, they were led by the handsomest, most dashing tank commander in history, with the Shakespeareanly romantic name of Colonel Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who also happened to be a card-carrying member of the Portugese Communist Party (adding more glamour). The pretty women of Lisbon came out, threw their arms around his troops, and suggestively inserted carnations (thank you, John Nery for that delightful detail) in his cannons. Otelo was the last member of the communist party anywhere who wasn’t so flat out ugly that the only recourse to the total lack of an active social life was going to the hills. In his fashionable fascist tank commander’s uniform, artfully shorn of any insignia of politically incorrect rank and former fascist affiliation, Otelo was irresistible. The government fell.
The soldiers returned the hugs of the women and never let go; so the dictatorship fell from want of any troops to prop it up. Hence, the expression: Latin Lovers.
Too enthralled with their sudden sex appeal, the Portuguese military forgot to take over the government. They had no Cory Aquino to give the government to, so they held democratic elections and gave it to the winner. The result is that Portugal passed swiftly into freedom, boredom and an anonymity broken only by the occasional Nobel Prize for literature. It has been reduced in recent years to housing corrupt Third World democratic leaders hiding their ill-gotten wealth abroad.
The real and unique Filipino invention was People Power 2 to topple a democratically elected president. Joseph Estrada was elected by the largest margin of victory in the entire history of democracy around the world. He was toppled because the only constitutional way to remove him (by impeachment in the House and trial and conviction in the Senate) was not going according to the popular desire. Or at least the desire of part of the populace (and not the fiercest part, even, as People Power 3 showed when the really poor stormed the stolen Palace to take it back.)
The senators were in a quandary. If the impeachment trial failed, the impeached president would still be popular with the masses; that ensured that the senators would lose the next election. So they were afraid to vote to convict him or, for that matter, to acquit him because civil society and the media would certainly trash them with the same dismal electoral result.
And so it was that the common people went to the EDSA Shrine in their tens of thousands, incensed by the revelations of really just one man, Sen. Joker P. Arroyo, who brandished a check that wasn’t even in the name of, or signed by, the impeached president. It was enough that there was a check with an alias. Rock bands joined in a conscious imitation of the US strategy to oust the drug-dealing Panamanian US puppet Noriega by bombarding his residence with rock music played at full ear-shattering volume.
Meanwhile, leading figures of civil society met with retired figures of the former Ramos military in a location I shall never reveal because it is not a confidence I will ever break. As the names of generals and the locations of their battalions were ticked off one by one (to assess their capability to intervene effectively), ending with the name of PNP Chief Panfilo Lacson (Rene de Villa vouched for Lacson's passivity when the moment came), it was clear to everyone in the room that the moments, not the days, of the Estrada Administration were numbered.
The result was that the Philippine military withdrew its support from the impeached president, who, oddly, left the Palace on a barge, even waving goodbye—which is a no-no—though he claimed to be just visiting his old house in San Juan and wasn’t relinquishing the Presidency. Even his eventual successor agreed with him at the time, and initially refused to be sworn in as anything more than Acting President. But after the first olive is pulled out of the bottle, the rest tumble out easily. Or like virginity: once in, you’re not anymore.
Although the world watched in awe and wonder as People Power 1 had unfolded, when it was repeated three years later in Eastern Europe, no country gave the Filipinos credit for inventing People Power to topple dictatorships: least of all the countries that followed our peaceful but compelling example. Maybe Portugal was too close to overlook as the real pioneer.
When we pulled off People Power 2, toppling a democratically elected president, the world watched with nausea.
Three years later East Germans tore down the Berlin Wall, exactly as Cory Aquino had predicted standing amidst the ruins of the Reichstag two years before, intoning that “I feel the winds of freedom blowing freely from the Urals to the Atlantic because the Wall is down.” She called it two years ahead, whereas Ronald Reagan merely expressed the rhetorical desire to see it happen, if ever. Upon what Cory based her foreknowledge is another confidence I shall take to the grave.
Democracy was restored in Germany, neo-Nazi skinheads emerged and anti-Semitism was again in full flower. Fortunately, they had killed all the Jews already.
The Philippines Free Press editorially observed in its 25th EDSA Anniversary issue that the Romanians, backed by the military, pulled down Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 and shot him mainly for building the world’s biggest sports stadium according to a US architectural plan which collapsed under the weight of snow on the roof. Hungary followed and reinstated anti-Semitism, blaming the already extinct Jewish population for their slow economic recovery.
Next followed four Baltic countries: Latvia and Poland cut their chains to the Soviet Union in 1990. Estonia and Lithuania, occupied by the Soviet Red Army for beating even Nazi Germany's record in the percentage of Jews they exterminated, threw the Soviets out in 1991. By then Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika—openness—had emboldened even Soviet citizens to rip the Soviet empire apart.
Under the leadership of Moscow’s alcoholic mayor, Boris Yeltsin, the Russians forced the Soviet Union out of business in 1991, shed the Communist Party and peeled away the Czarist Russian empire, and opened the way for an incompetent democracy that cried out to be stifled after imported American economists like Jeffrey Sachs prescribed shock therapy and implemented mass joblessness and mass starvation, encouraged organized crime, incentivized a black market ten times bigger than a nonexistent private market, mass prostitution and contract killing as a quick cure to the sickness of a communist command economy.
Ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin obliged. He ran, won, and turned Russia into a Spanish-style fascist dictatorship and not even a smartly turned out Nazi one. The Russian military and police still sport the worst tailored uniforms and the shabbiest riding boots in the history of haute military couture.
In all these cases, including People Power 1 and 2, the military held back when it did not go over to the revolting people—recalling in this context the old joke: “Sire, the people are revolting,” said a minister to the King of France. “Yes, they should take a bath.”
Because of the impassivity if not cooperation of the military, People Power won—by default in the Philippines and in the Warsaw Pact countries. By bold initiative way ahead of everyone else in Portugal.
To be sure, radio broadcaster Dodo Dulay insists that even if a fragment of the military—the RAM officers led by Gringo Honasan and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile—had not mutinied and divided the Marcos military into inanition, impassivity and finally active collaboration with the people on the streets, the Marcos government would have disintegrated.
We tend to agree. Marcos did not so much fall as he was already picking up the pieces of his shattered dictatorial rule with a small brush and dustpan—shattered by his ill-health, his thieving coterie, his debilitating illness, his wife’s tasteless ostentation, and finally by what we suspect was his abysmal boredom with the 13 year dictatorship he had erected.
When Marcos shot Ninoy, the bullet ricocheted. Everyone knew, if not that its days were numbered, then its short remaining years. Hence the arrogance with which ordinary folk (and I witnessed this) spoke openly and loudly for Marcos men nearby to hear that the day of reckoning was nigh. It is by these signs that I accurately predicted the future without fail.
And that is why I was never afraid during EDSA and why we in the Cory camp initially viewed Enrile, Ramos, and Honasan's mutiny with dark suspicion. And why Joker Arroyo and I made separate plans with other generals if our suspicions were confirmed.
Cory announced her electoral victory on the radio within hours after the polls closed and when the count had barely started. That threw Marcos off balance and grasping to explain why, no, it was he who won the snap elections.
The next moment, Rene Saguisag, as "presidential spokesman", casually referred to Cory Aquino as "Her Excellency".
The Cory camp knew that it had the Marcos regime on the ropes. As Cory Aquino told Philip Habib when he asked her to enter into a power sharing deal with Marcos, since who could tell how long the old dictator could hold out and popular demonstrations continue: "No."
When Habib asked her how long she could keep up the mass demonstrations, she answered coolly: "One week, one month, one year, two years, three years..."
Her voice trailed off as though she had lost interest in the conversation with the top American emissary. This delivered the frightening message to the Americans that she would continue to destabilize Philippine society while the Communist Party of the Philippines -- what Ross Munro dubbed the new Khmer Rouge -- waited in the wings to take over if she failed.
We were overdue for a democratic restoration, complete with democratic corruption and inefficiency after a six-year respite of sanctimonious though sincere and saintly suzerainty that is still remembered with nostalgic affection. Hence, the election of the present president.
Perhaps it was indeed a restoration more than a revolution. That is still something to be proud of, as the British are with the return of the Stuarts to power after Cromwell (after whom and the consul Napoleon Marcos modeled himself in my conversations with him), though they are prouder of the final expulsion of the Stuarts therefrom through the glorious revolution that established England as an incontestable aristocracy for two and a half centuries.
But at Tiananmen Square, the army fired on the crowds and tanks ran over protesters’ skulls under their iron treads. People reported the loud pop as skulls were crushed. In Bangkok the military crushed a vastly popular movement to install back in power a beloved plunderer, Thaksin Shinawatra. Freedom is fragile.
It seems that the secret of People Power’s success is the impassivity if not active cooperation of the military. After all, it was the military that first staged a revolution to topple a dictatorship and install a democracy in its place: the Carnation Revolution (Thank you, John Nery, for that detail) in Portugal earlier described.
No wonder Gringo Honasan and the RAM, bloodied by our own colonial war against Muslim Filipinos, resented the civilian government that lorded it over the country after his mutiny had given a focus to and inspired the EDSA People Power uprising that broke the stalemate between an electorally “defeated” Cory Aquino and the putative victor Ferdinand Marcos who cheated in the 1986 Snap Elections.
Without the military revolt of Honasan and Enrile, a sunburnt Cory Aquino would be out leading rallies in the streets and Marcos would still be cowering in the Palace well to the end of the 80s. Though the Marcos regime would not be governing. The country would not have a government. And we may well have missed the six-and-a-half years of official incorruptibility that actually transpired.
The key role of the military element was illustrated yet again when the people of Tunisia ran the dictator Zine el Abidineh Ben Ali out of the country while the army stood down and refused to fire a shot at the crowds of what has come to be known as the Jasmine Revolution. Actually, it was a Harvard Business Review Revolution because it was sparked when a Tunisian street vendor refused to surrender his pushcart to a kotong cop who upended his cart and carted it away. The small businessman was so incensed he poured gasoline on himself and set himself alight. The fire caught on and soon the country was enflamed against the dictator even though he offered to either buy a new pushcart or auction off the old one to his cronies for vast sums of money to be given to charity.
In a week, the dictator was fleeing for his life. It was the first businessman’s revolution in history and should be staged in Metro Manila and other cities where mayors regularly shakedown pushcart vendors for a sliver of their small profit or steal their barbecue recipes and sell them at the weekend markets when they aren’t demanding a condo or two gratis in luxury developments. But we are more sensible. We probably won’t torch ourselves if we can torch the mayor.
Two weeks after Ben Ali fell on January 14, the Egyptians laid siege to the regime of octogenarian Hosni Mubarak. This time the crowds got seriously hurt as he unleashed on them hardened criminals released from the jails, where they attacked the protesters with screw divers and even screwed a pretty CBS news anchor into the bargain.
To be sure, the army just watched while the carnage was going on. But neither did it join in perpetrating the carnage.
In little over two short weeks, a million-strong citizen upheaval proved too much for Mubarak, who had held Egypt in his grip for 30 years, and he fled in a helicopter just like Marcos and Imelda—but only to his country estate an hour away from Cairo. None of the protesters dared leave the main square of Cairo to pursue him. The army will not touch and will not allow him to be touched. No PCGG crap for the Egyptians. Although I may have misjudged the affection of the military for their old chief given recent talk of outright seizing his property, a suggestion of mine after EDSA which was stoutly ignored, along with another suggestion of mine to use the Bureau of Internal Revenue and permit the breach of the confidentiality of bank deposits for the same purpose.
The Egyptian army has taken over the government with a promise of democratic elections by and by.
The spontaneous combustion in the Middle East has many strongmen in presidential palaces throughout the Arab world shaking in fear or wonder. Libya’s sadly out of fashion strongman, Muammar Ghaddafi or Khadafi—he can’t seem to decide on one spelling—who still wears polyester Nic-Nic shirts from the 60s—is facing down riots and unleashing his police on them. They are breaking quite a few heads. It is a braver show the Libyans are putting on because their total population is 5 million, which means the protesters number only thousands. Easy to kill or incarcerate. But we predict the end of the Libyan strongman who, by the way, quickly forgot the charms of then First Lady Imelda Marcos who swears he was smitten by her. Our question, for we met him face to face, whether he recalled her drew only a blank. But then he had diarrhea at the time, as a close aide of his informed us.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh is promising reforms and not to run in the next elections, which is like a political postdated check on his departure from power.
Facing demonstrations, the sheikh of Bahrain turned generous and decreed a cash-transfer program. Bahrainis, though threatening to take to the streets starting Monday, are accepting $2,500 per family. In Jordan, King Abdullah II is shaking up his government and promising reforms.
Though the fate of Egyptian liberty remains unknown, the Egyptian achievement is far greater than that of any other People Power revolution for one simple reason: the people rose up against a long standing dictator, who unleashed all the crude and cruel power at his command, such as hardened criminals from the jails. The people took the blows, not to mention the stabs with screw drivers, and suffered many casualties—but they did it their way all alone. No military help. As one American Hollywood lawyer remarked, “While it is true that Marcos also used some muscle to quell the protesters, he never sent in cavalry in camels.” True.
The Egyptians overthrew a 30-year autocracy in three weeks. It took Filipinos three years to topple a 13-year dictatorship, the last three only only after a resistance hero had to be assassinated and his widow picked to replace him in the firing line. In those last three years, Marcos called for parliamentary elections in which the opposition did not win, gaining no more than a third of the seats. When Marcos called for what turned out to be his doom in snap elections, the result was a statistical tie.
There is also this to be said for the moral preeminence of the Egyptian example. Every Egyptian interviewed by the foreign media as to why they were protesting and what they hoped to achieve gave intelligent answers, in coherent sentences, about the need for democracy, the end of kleptocracy, the imperative of a rule of law, economic reforms to free up Egyptian free enterprise, modernize education while doing away with a vociferous but minority Islamic fundamentalist commitment to push neighboring Israel into the sea.
In the Philippines, the stock answer was, “Deus lo volt.” God wills it but not in Latin. More like, “Eh, kasi nandito na tayo, bakit hindi, mabantot si Marcos, pangit naman si Imelda, hindi naman pangit, medyo tumaba lang siya, bakit nila pinatay si Ninoy, sino ba si Ninoy, cute si Cory,” and more along those lines. And there was even a moment when a prominent Protestant protester hugged for protection a statue of the Virgin Mary. For Chrissakes! They don’t believe in the Virgin Mary. But at least it alliterates.
In the end, without help from an indomitably united military, the Egyptian people—not just in Cairo, as it was only in Metro Manila, but in all the cities of Egypt—toppled one of the most powerful strongmen in history and they did it their way: with just the power of their words, their convictions, their bodies, their limbs, their lives, and their guts.
On the 25th anniversary of People Power in the Philippines, we who stood before immobile tanks, most without gasoline or lacking spare parts, tanks with no intention of running anyone over; we who would have scattered to the four winds at the first shot; we should bow our heads if not in shame then in tribute to the first true People Power revolution in history.
It may well be that Enrile and company were really afraid for their lives, but there was something contrived about their fear and emphatically cinematic about their reactions. Juan Ponce Enrile, speaking to Christian Science Monitor correspondent Paul Quinn Judge, terminated the interview with the dramatic words whose provenance in cinema escaped no one in the room of journalists at Chito Ayala's mansion in Davao.
"Time to die," said Enrile, taking the words from the mouth of the cyborg in Bladerunner.
Others may well have felt profoundly uncertain and deeply afraid. Their accounts are as valid as the utterly accurate and forthright recollections of those who were the architects around Cory Aquino of that revolution.
Each story tells certainly a lot about the one telling it.
But the revolution was not those four days in February but the 90-day snap elections campaign whereby Cory pushed Marcos into a corner and pummeled the hardy old fighter senseless.
He might have taken the blows indefinitely but he would have ceased to govern in martial law or any style.
In the snap elections campaign we were fighting a shattered regime. The army, I repeat, would never have fired on that crowd or any other crowd. And Marcos, it must be remembered -- for sometimes we are honored by our enemies as we are afflicted by them -- would never have ordered a bloodbath.
It may be that it needed a little stroke of a tiny hammer to shatter the cracked regime. That was supplied by Enrile and Honasan's mutiny. I had predicted years before to then-Prime Minister Cesar Virata at a private dinner in Washington, D.C., that the end will come when the army draws its sword against itself, washing the stain on the blade with the blood of its own kind. If not, I said, our country will not explode in a revolution but will slide inexorably into the condition of Africa -- destitute, desiccated, and dead.
But perhaps I am wrong to be too hard on ourselves on this matter of People Power, for Cory Aquino was right at the start to compare the struggle she was leading to the flight of the Hebrews out of Egypt. The exodus was marked as much by cowardice as by bravery, by irresolution as by daring, by repeated complaints and hankerings for the predictability of the devil long known to the uncertain future that an unarmed angel in yellow pointed to as she led us who knew not where except that there would be freedom -- though for how long was anyone's guess.
And it took Filipinos longer to return to the freedom that was their original homeland by the grace of America, than the Hebrews to the new land they had only been promised. It took us longer by three years. Today's Egyptians took 21 days.
And it happened in a country without any experience, history or even a lived notion of democracy, liberty, individual rights or self-entitlement of any kind, and without a woman leader who could be a convenient target for the dictator’s ire rather than ourselves; a country in fact that started off recorded history by hosting the first and longest autocracy and totalitarian society, all of four or five thousand years: Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs. Happy 25th anniversary greetings from People Power 1 in the Philippines to People Power in Egypt.
And there you have a really rambling version of the original that consciously cultivated the dense and elliptical style of Malraux and Camus for which the writer, at a very young age, was praised by the editor of Le Monde. My suggestion is to read this long drawn and spelled out version if you didn't get the point of the original. And then forget it and return to the original which is impossible to improve upon but for the felicitous detail of the carnation supplied by John Nery.