Throughout its six years in office, the Duterte administration paid scant attention, if at all, to the anniversaries of the 1986 “People Power” or EDSA I “Revolution.”
Only platitudes and motherhood statements emanated from Malacañang Palace during those occasions. It was as if the former President and his minions feared that saying something meaningful could enlighten the mass of the citizenry enough for them to harbor such ideas as that they are the true sovereigns of this country and that government officials serve only at their pleasure. That, after all, is the central lesson of EDSA 1986 — and neither the Duterte regime nor its predecessors were comfortable with it.
The Marcos Jr. administration is even less likely to note, least of all celebrate, its 37th anniversary this year, since that Feb. 22-25 civilian-military uprising overthrew the Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. dictatorship and forced him and his family into exile in Hawaii, USA.
Consigning it into the limbo of forgetfulness has never been as likely of success than today — but not just because another Marcos is once again in the country’s highest post. It is also because EDSA 1986 has become, particularly for those Filipinos who trust and approve of him most, just another incident in history whose meaning eludes them.
Their overwhelming satisfaction with Marcos Jr. that a recent survey by Social Weather Stations (SWS) found defies understanding. Exactly why someone in history qualifies as a hero is something they haven’t bothered to find out either. They think of Jose Rizal as no more than a playboy who had a girl in every port, or of Gregorio Del Pilar as just another misguided anti-American. As for EDSA 1986, they think it an incident that ended the “Golden Age” that “the best president the Philippines has ever had” made possible.
But what makes celebrating EDSA 1986 less than attractive even for the better informed is that, while often described as a “revolution,” it was hardly that. It did not dismantle or even truly reform the feudal system. The land tenancy anomaly in fact survived it and even emerged stronger than ever. Inviting foreign investments into the country is still the main development strategy of the successors of Marcos Sr. as it has been since 1946; and industrialization has never been seriously contemplated as economic policy.
That “revolution” was no social upheaval either. It did not end the vast inequality, the social injustice, and the poverty that still afflict millions of Filipinos. And the most that it did politically was to replace one wing of the ruling elite with another. It did not replace the dynasties that have monopolized political power in this country for decades, and in fact eventually allowed the representatives of their most backward, bureaucrat-capitalist faction to eventually regain and keep power indefinitely.
But EDSA 1986 was nevertheless a historic moment, though brief, of mass empowerment. After decades of tolerating corrupt and incompetent misgovernment from 1946 onwards, some two million Filipinos braved the guns, the tanks, the helicopter gunships, and the mercenary soldiery of the dictatorship. They had had enough of the arbitrary arrests, the torture, the enforced disappearances and the extrajudicial killings of the regime, and knew that it was time to end the kleptocracy that had brought only dishonor to their country and suffering to its people. It was revolutionary in that sense — and it is for that reason that, while they have never found the words to say it, the ruling dynasts and power elite fear it.
But Duterte is not alone in wanting it and its lessons away, and neither is his successor. Their predecessors were equally focused on getting the people to forget it — and for entirely the same reasons. He was one of the leading figures of EDSA 1986, but the late former President Fidel Ramos repeatedly muted its significance and warned against its repetition supposedly because the political instability it would generate would discourage foreign investments. Joseph Estrada’s removal from office via EDSA II understandably 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.
He was accused of fomenting a military putsch during the presidency of the late Corazon Aquino. Former Senator — and now Legal Counsel of the son of the President he helped depose — Juan Ponce Enrile quite logically encouraged the Filipino people to remember EDSA I differently instead of discouraging its celebration. Like Ramos, he was 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 Sr. in 1986 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 denies the crucial role of the millions of civilians who massed at EDSA from Feb. 22 to 25. Elements of the military were indeed involved in the uprising, but without the support of a sizable segment of the Filipino people, those rebel units would have been crushed by the superior numbers and firepower of Marcos’ military loyalists. It was unarmed civilians— nuns and priests, students, professionals and other middle-class folk — who faced Marcos’ tanks and prevented Ramos’, Enrile’s and their military cohorts’ annihilation in 1986.
But it could not have happened without the decade-long 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 denied them by the regime-controlled press that finally led even entire families to mass at EDSA from Feb. 22 to 25. The dictatorship would have prevailed without them — and the same dedication to good government of almost the same sectors assured the ouster of Joseph Estrada via EDSA II in the year 2000.
As contrary to the facts as Enrile’s re-invention of EDSA I may be, it seems that Duterte shared his view, although not necessarily because of his say-so, and without publicly admitting it. The same assumption of military primacy as Enrile’s was evident in his courtship of the officer 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 seemed that Duterte anticipated the possibility that the military might have had to shield him from the people.
His successor does not seem to share those fears, perhaps because it was his father who, after all, transformed the military from the fist of civilian authority into a power broker whose support has become vital to every post-martial law regime. As for another People Power uprising, that, too, seems unlikely despite the inflation, the hunger, and the rank injustice that afflict millions of Filipinos.
Mr. Marcos Jr. and his family are now in the same position as that of their late patriarch during his reign as President — that of being protected by the self-serving loyalty of the military — but with a further advantage. Added to that is the cluelessness and apathy of the heirs of a generation that brought down a seemingly invincible tyranny to which government was but a banquet for it to feast on. It is this latter fact that makes it so much the worse for the long-delayed and so problematic democratization of Philippine society and governance.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).