Feb. 22-25, 1986, were “four days that shook the world”—the words used by the late journalist and press secretary Teodoro C. Benigno to describe the Edsa People Power Revolution that ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The peaceful revolt was the culmination of a pent-up desire to get rid of Marcos short of an armed struggle.
Marcos imposed martial law in September 1972, less than a year before his second term as president was to expire. After securing his indefinite stay in Malacañang, he padlocked Congress, jailed his critics and opponents, and shut down the press.
Military rule and often brutal tactics scared many Filipinos into submission and muted public opposition, in the beginning.
In 2013, a law passed by Congress giving recognition and reparation to victims of human rights violations during Marcos’ martial rule affirmed the brutality of the regime. More than 11,000 were recorded to have been detained, tortured and murdered. Quite a number also were abducted by state forces and remain missing to this day.
The official number, indicating both the wantonness of the abuses and the broadness of the resistance against martial rule, could have been higher had there been no deadline set for the list-up.
That only one pro-Marcos soldier died during those four heady days of Edsa 1 was widely attributed by many Filipinos to divine intervention. Those who participated in the uprising included Catholic nuns and priests who were rallied by Cardinal Jaime Sin, the outspoken Archbishop of Manila.
Sin, since deceased, called on the public to come to the aid of mutinous troops led by Marcos’ martial law administrator, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Marcos’ cousin and vice chief of staff, Fidel V. Ramos, who publicly announced a break with the dictator on Feb. 22 after Malacañang uncovered a coup plot led by reformist military officers close to Enrile.
Shortly after Sin aired his message on the Church-run Radyo Veritas, small groups of people began to converge at Camp Aguinaldo to “protect” the rebel soldiers who were holed up at the military headquarters.
Those groups quickly grew into hundreds of thousands, and that part of Edsa where Camp Aguinaldo faces Camp Crame before the MRT 3 divided the highway became the epicenter of the four-day revolt.
Edsa 1 followed the fraud-marred Feb. 7 “snap” presidential election which was called by Marcos, who was challenged by Corazon “Cory” Aquino.
Cory Aquino was thrust into the role of leader of the opposition after the assassination of her husband, the former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., on his return from exile in the United States on Aug. 21, 1983.
Ninoy Aquino’s murder at the then Manila International Airport shocked Filipinos; they attended his wake in droves and, 10 days later, accompanied his body from Quezon City to the Manila Memorial Park in Paranaque in a funeral procession that took more than 10 hours.
Soon, marches and other multisectoral protest actions were being held in the metropolis and elsewhere in the country, becoming almost-daily occurrences.
In a massive rally at the Luneta held days before the start of Edsa 1, Cory Aquino accused Marcos of stealing the snap election. She called for civil disobedience and the boycott of banks, companies, and a newspaper owned by the dictator’s cronies. She also appealed to soldiers not to follow unjust orders from their superiors.
Her call for boycott proved effective.
On Feb. 25, after his inauguration as president again, Marcos and his family and several close associates were hustled off on US military helicopters to Clark Air Base in Pampanga. They were then flown out of the country to Guam and on to Hawaii, where American authorities found that they were carrying millions of dollars and pesos in cash and a cache of jewelry and other valuables including stock certificates.
Marcos died in 1989 in Hawaii, denying wrongdoing till the end.
Edsa 1 put the Philippines on centerstage and inspired largely nonviolent resistance in the world, particularly against communist rule in Eastern Europe.
After more than a generation, it still serves as an inspiration—and also a source of disappointment over lost opportunities.
Now, 37 years after Filipinos instituted regime change as the world watched in awe, the country has come full circle, somewhat. A Marcos bookended that period, first by the dictator himself, and now by his son and namesake, who won the 2022 presidential election by a landslide.
How did it happen? The Marcoses carefully nurtured a “rehabilitation” of sorts, starting slowly in the early 1990s when they were allowed to return to the country, and frenziedly during the presidency of Ninoy and Cory Aquino’s son, the late Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.
The Marcoses, especially the dictator’s widow, Imelda, once scorned for her extravagant shopping and shoe collection, no longer elicit the same public derision they once did among ordinary Filipinos despite the legally established ill-gotten wealth worth billions of pesos they had amassed over the 20 years that the dictator was in power.
The 1987 Constitution, which contains provisions to prevent a return of one-man rule, one on setting a single six-year term for a president and another curbing dynasties, is under siege.
A move to amend and revise the Constitution is gaining strength in Congress, the purported intention being to change the economic provisions to allow more foreign participation in the economy.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has not publicly supported the move, saying it was not his priority. But he has not opposed it, either.
In the turbulent early 1970s, activists called for a nonpartisan constitutional convention (con-con) to change the 1935 Constitution. But before their work was done, martial law was looming large over the con-con delegates, and when the Constitution was ratified in 1973, Marcos had already established himself as a strongman. A 1976 amendment formally allowed him to continue martial law and rule by decree.
Opponents of Charter change say that once it is opened for amendments or revision, there would be no stopping any effort, whether administration-sanctioned or not, to fiddle with its noneconomic provisions, particularly term limits for elected officials.
When Marcos declared martial law, he had the support of the United States, which relied on him to maintain the US military bases in the country as part of its mission to “contain” communism in this part of the globe during the Cold War.
Despite rising cases of human rights abuses throughout the martial law years, which the US Congress itself had recognized in various hearings, succeeding administrations in Washington kept more than friendly ties with the dictator until his rule became untenable.
During the years after the 9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, the security ties between the United States and the Philippines shifted focus from communist insurgents to Islamic extremists.
These days, Washington has become more friendly again with the Philippines under Marcos Jr.’s administration, compared with that of President Rodrigo Duterte, as a new Cold War has emerged between America and its allies on one side and China and Russia on the other.
The Americans lamented the loss of their bases in the early 1990s during the first Aquino administration, but quickly adapted to the situation with new military agreements with the Philippines.
The Visiting Forces Agreement was sealed in 1998 and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or Edca in 2014, during the second Aquino administration.
The two accords essentially provide a de facto basing agreement without violating the 1987 Constitution, which bans foreign military bases in the country without Senate concurrence.
The euphoria that enveloped the nation when the dictatorship was toppled and the Marcoses were driven out of Malacanang was accompanied by high hopes of a better life for the majority of Filipinos, as well as political reforms and transparent governance.
One major source of disappointment post-Edsa was land reform. The way it was carried out left much to be desired, especially in the lack of economic support for new landowners, which forced them to lease or sell their newly acquired farms.
The labor export initiated by Marcos in the 1970s continues to this day, the number of overseas Filipino workers growing over the decades. Yet all the succeeding presidents, including his son and namesake, have declared they wanted to see the day when Filipinos would leave the country to work abroad by choice and not out of need.
The new democratic space created after the dictatorship opened the political arena to multiple players and the resurgence of the old elites and political bosses—practitioners of patronage or traditional politics who made their way into local and national positions while gathered around a central political figure or party to which they promised allegiance and from which they obtained support.
The Marcos-era Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, which dispensed political largesse, has been replaced by “supermajorities” in the House of Representatives and the Senate, which adhere to the political agenda of whoever is president.
The 1986 revolt was seen as a movement for democratic restoration. But the military rebels chafing under a perceived loss of power mounted seven coup attempts against Cory Aquino’s administration, grievously damaging and blocking the economy’s progress.
“People Power 2” (or Edsa 2) in 2001, which was supported by Cory Aquino, toppled Joseph Estrada from the presidency over corruption charges. His successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, spent nine years in office that were likewise rocked by military rebellion and impeachment attempts over charges of corruption and vote rigging in 2004.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 2009, the late former Asian Studies professor Benito Lim attributed the social unrest, which intensified during the latter years of Marcos’ rule and continued after he was ousted, to the inability of the nation’s leaders mostly from the elite to solve poverty, corruption, injustice and inequality.
He said “people power,” as displayed in 1986 and 2001, was not “a genuine revolution” or “a common desire to institute common programs addressing issues and problems of the republic.”
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