EDSA Revolution: A Look Back At The Historic 1986 People Power
This feature story was originally titled as One Shining Moment, published in the April 2006 issue of Tatler Philippines. It was written in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the 1986 EDSA Revolution and while Proclamation No. 1017 was issued by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The said proclamation declared the Philippines under a state of national emergency, thus the military is again asked to quell insurrection or rebellion and maintain law and order. Update: On March 3, 2006, by the virtue of Proclamation No. 1021, the Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo officially concluded state of emergency in the Philippines.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the first People Power revolution in the Philippines, history played one of its twisted ironies. The freedom gained on February 25, 1986 turned into freedom lost on February 24, 2006. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017 which placed the entire country in a state of emergency, giving her the power to temporarily take over public utilities, businesses and media facilities.
The justification for such an act that is seen by many as just a few steps shy of martial law was the claim by the President of the existence of a conspiracy to overthrow her administration. This conspiracy, she alleged, was hatched by an alliance of soldiers, opposition leaders and politicians, and communist rebels.
Immediately, leftist congressman Crispin Beltran and former national police chief Ramon Montano were arrested. Scout ranger Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim and marine colonel Ariel Querubin were placed under detention; and the office of the broadsheet Daily Tribune taken over by the Philippine National Police. In the days following, the commandant of the Philippine Marines Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda resigned (or was sacked, whichever side of the political fence one is on) and was replaced by Brig. Gen. Nelson Allaga; and the major players of the first People Power revolt - former presidents Corazon C Aquino and Fidel V Ramos - as well as recognisable faces of the protest movement of that time were back on the street, protesting this curtailment of the very freedom they had fought to regain 20 years ago.
As this is being written, events are still unfolding. Militant party-list congressmen Satur Ocampo, Teddy Casiño, Rafael Mariano, Lisa Maza, and Joel Virador have not left Congress as they await the arrest warrants issued against them. They are part of the Justice Department’s list of 16 leftist militants being accused by the police of rebellion. Chief of the Special Action Force Marcelino Franco had been placed under house arrest and the marine soldiers who protested the treatment by superiors of Maj. Gen. Miranda by holding a stand-off in their camp for a few tense hours had gone back to barracks, promising to follow the chain of command. Meanwhile, the media is holding endless debates on the pros and cons of Proclamation 1017.
The political crisis is, however, causing jitters in the business community. Already enjoying a rare economic respite with the strengthening of the peso and the assessment by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor of the country’s economic prospects as “stable”, the battered Philippine economy is again in danger of going back to its sorry, sordid state. Though the peso had bounced back to a strong P51.26 to the dollar and the stock market had risen to 16 points after the end of the crisis at the Philippine Marines camp, businessmen are still clamouring for the speedy lifting of the state of emergency. The fear, clearly, is on the possibility of foreign investments pulling out due to the unstable political situation.
There are no signs yet in Malacañan Palace as to when Proclamation 1017 will be lifted. The President is still assessing the situation, whether the reported conspiracy has already been contained. Nevertheless, the situation has created an uncanny parallel between the tension engulfing this seat of power today and two decades ago.
There was something oddly missing in the Heroes’ Hall of the Malacañan Palace when Philippine Daily Inquirer’s JP Fenix rushed through to cover the presidential inauguration of its beleaguered resident Ferdinand E Marcos. But it took the young reporter only a few seconds to realise what it was: the mounted frame holding the controversial Marcos medals was not in its proud position on top of the stairs. Of all his prized possessions, Marcos cherished most his World War II medals; but they were being attacked now by the opposition as to their authenticity. If the proud possessions were missing, Fenix thought, they must have been crated to be transported away by their proud owner, whose luck and options seemed to have run out. It was noontime of February 25, 1986.
Earlier that morning, the widow of the slain exiled Senator Ninoy Aquino was also sworn in as the 10th President of the Philippines by virtue of the first ever People’s Revolt of this young democratic nation. But the crowd and the luminaries who attended the presidential inauguration of Corazon C Aquino, who Marcos called “that woman”, outshone by far the few loyalists who trooped to be with Marcos when he took his oath. In fact, even his Vice President Arturo Tolentino was glaringly not in attendance.
Goaded by this suspicion that Marcos would soon leave the Palace as a sign of surrender to the people’s will, Fenix focused all his senses the rest of the day on this singular eventuality. And he would be on track. Before the day ended, at exactly 9:05 in the evening, Marcos and his family plus a few of his closest friends were flown to Clark Air Base in Pampanga by four helicopters provided by the Embassy of the United States.
The adrenalin rushed as Fenix tried to reach his editor Louie Beltran and file his report. Communication had been difficult. With phone lines cut or tapped, he was left to rely on the two-way radio purchased by his publisher Max Soliven that could only reach ham radio users tuned to the same frequency. The communication relay however sufficed. Beltran, glued to his office for days now, leaving only for a bath and a good meal in a nearby hotel room, received the glorious news with as much euphoria, perhaps more than the rest of the Filipino people who fought this four-day peaceful revolution.
Understandable. He was one of the many who were jailed when Marcos declared martial law 14 years ago. So when the report crackled through the radio base in the offices of the Inquirer in Port Area, Manila, Beltran boomed back: “Tell Fenix, I will write the story!”
The next morning, the headline screamed, by-lined Louie D Beltran, with reports from JP Fenix and the Inquirer staff: “It’s all over; Marcos flees!”
Four days before, on the early evening of the 22nd, Beltran sat in his office, waiting for opposition leader Ernesto Maceda to handwrite a statement for the media. The hard-hitting journalist had been informed earlier by Inquirer co-owner Eggie Apostol that Defence Minister Juan Ponce-Enrile had asked her to bring his wife Cristina to a safe place. Ponce-Enrile had decided to withdraw his support for Marcos when he learned that his Commander-in-Chief ordered the arrest of the bodyguards of Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin. To the old Marcos ally, this was a sign that a crackdown had started; and owing to the perceived allegiance to him by a renegade group of young officers known as the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM led by the charismatic Gringo Honasan, Enrile felt for sure he was high up on the hit list.
Suddenly a reporter went up to Beltran and whispered: “There are soldiers around us, sir.”
The crackdown had indeed started. Beltran stood up calmly and told Maceda to leave, for his own safety, through the backdoor of the Inquirer office and printing plant that sat on one whole corner block of the Philippines’ Fleet Street. He then ordered a woman editor to pile as many female staff into her small blue Volkswagen and drive them home or somewhere safe. He also went on radio to tell all reporters out in the field, Fenix included, not to report back to the office, as was their routine at the end of the day. This done, he told his deskmen and the rest of the male staff who chose to stay behind to brace themselves for a dangerous night. For himself, Beltran got into battle gear with his bullet-proof vest, his favourite Desert Eagle, and went back to sit behind his desk.
By this time, the rest of the country would be glued to the Catholic radio channel Radio Veritas, the only source of live feed about the defection of Enrile, now joined by Philippine Armed Forces Acting Chief-of-Staff Fidel V Ramos. The two had holed up in the adjoining Camps Crame and Aguinaldo, split by the long thoroughfare Epifanio delos Santos Avenue which would soon become the site of the historic People Power revolution.
Listening as well while at a dinner party was the brother of Ninoy, Butz Aquino. His sister-in-law was safe with opposition leaders in Cebu and though Cory’s call for a national boycott of products owned and produced by Marcos and his cronies (which included mostly everything) was gaining ground, he really could not tell if it was victory or death that was to be their fate.
Whatever it was, Butz knew it was not the time to be having a dinner party. “There is no time to waste here,” he wrote in a recounting of the event much later for the Sunday Inquirer. “I’m tired of all this talking. Let’s do something!” The decision was to heed the call for support by Enrile. Butz managed to go on Radio Veritas to ask people to assemble at the Isetann building in Cubao, Quezon City and march to EDSA’s rebel camps.
At 10:45 pm at the Isetann, Butz counted six people: himself, Tom Achacoso, and four others he had met for the first time. All of them heard his appeal over the radio. He made a second radio announcement and some more people trickled in. But when Manila’s archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin made the appeal, “even the doubters decided to go,” Butz recalled. “Go to Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo! Lend your support to Enrile and Ramos and protect them. And bring them food, they have nothing to eat,” the Cardinal’s words echoed in the night.
By midnight, the Isetann crowd numbered 10,000. Butz decided to march; and by the time they reached Camp Aguinaldo, there were about 20,000 people ready to throw their support behind Enrile and Ramos.
The crowd continued to grow, and thus unfolded what was to go down in history as EDSA 1.
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MOVING FENCES, CHANGING FACES
Though those four days have been frozen in history, the major players of EDSA 1 have since moved back and forth political fences, and have assumed different roles that an observer’s sanity is often put to a test.
In 1989, the dictator Marcos passed away, in sad exile in Honolulu, Hawaii. His family is back in the Philippines, and back in power, with son BongBong as governor of Ilocos Norte and daughter Imee a congresswoman. His widow Imelda has been leading a quieter life although she ran and lost in the presidential races of 1992 and 1998.
Aquino sat as president of the Philippines for a six-year term and survived seven coup attempts, laid low for several years, rose up to protest the administration of former President Joseph Estrada and to support the presidency of Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001. Today she marches against Macapagal-Arroyo and calls for her resignation.
Ramos served as president after Aquino, his term marked by comparatively less political crisis; after which he also threw his support behind Macapagal-Arroyo—until now, when he says his support is “waning, waning” because of Proclamation 1017.
Enrile is still serving as a senator and is now back with the opposition. Honasan and Butz who had both been elected to the Senate as well are likewise in the opposition camp. The eminent Jaime Cardinal Sin passed away one year ago.
The alliances have so changed that President Macapagal-Arroyo had allowed the 20th anniversary of the first EDSA Revolution to pass “without fanfare”. She, whose first ascent into the presidency was also via a people’s revolt, reasoned that she did not want “to add anymore controversy” by holding a big celebration. Unfortunately, issuing Proclamation 1017 had created more controversy than what she had perhaps bargained for.
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BOONS AND BANES
The almost bloodless revolution, save for the death of a sniper during the takeover of government television station Channel 4, brought down a military regime notorious for its human rights violations. It also brought the Philippines to the centre of the global stage, with the help of technology that beamed the scene on EDSA to households all over the world. As Filipinos stopped tanks with their bodies, as nuns offered flowers to soldiers whose guns were pointed at them, as military helicopters poised to attack the crowd turned around instead to join the rebel camp, the Filipinos once again stood proudly as a people, something they had almost forgotten in the dark years of martial rule. It also, of course, brought back a once lost democracy and a new day for a country to pick up where it left off: a growing economy with brilliant people, respected and admired especially by its neighbours.
Unfortunately, not all the dreams of EDSA 1 have been realised. Tragically, some dreams have turned into nightmares.
Two decades after EDSA, the common perception is that the economy is not any better than ever. It seems it will take a while before the positive trend currently seen by economists could trickle down and be appreciated by the ordinary Filipino. Moreover, those who fought in EDSA 1 have realised that the old corrupt political structure was not destroyed along with the ouster of the dictator who institutionalised it. There are simply new faces playing an old game—or old faces replaying an old game.
Honasan “continues to dream and work for a reformed AFP and the good government we deserve”. In an official statement on the EDSA 1 anniversary, the former renegade-turned-senator is still fighting for that same dream that caused his RAM to initiate the People Power Revolt in the afternoon of February 22, 1986.
Aquino is back calling for the strengthening of the democratic institutions restored by that revolution in 1986. To those who question the relevance of the People Power, she says: “Rather than allow our frustration and exasperation over the shortcomings of our democracy to skew our perspective, we should instead examine where we have fallen short and resolve to fill the gaps.” The question we should be asking, Aquino poses, is how we could do this.
In his last hours in Malacañang, Marcos was alleged to have told a colleague that the worst legacy of the people’s revolution is that it would merely strike a precedent.
It did, indeed. EDSA 2 followed, to unseat Estrada and put Macapagal-Arroyo in power. Then EDSA 3, to unseat Macapagal- Arroyo and to put Estrada back in power—but this failed miserably as the throng of protesters turned merely into an ugly mob. In fact, EDSA 1 would be replicated in small pockets, even within government offices, as when Social Security System Chairman Vitaliano Nañagas was made to step down by a mini-people’s revolt in his agency. It would seem a people’s revolt has become the most common of political threats. Like him or not, Marcos must be admired for his foresight.
Ironically, this legacy of uprising that Marcos feared actually had its seeds when he declared martial law in 1972. For by giving absolute power to the military, he blurred the line between military power and civilian supremacy. The military had already savoured political power, and the after-taste is simply difficult to remove.
Still, EDSA 1 happened. And if history, as they say, repeats itself, it is also a fact that history can never be rewritten. Whether the shattered dreams outweigh the realised ones, no one can deny nor diminish the events of those four magical days on EDSA when the Filipinos gave the world a lesson in peaceful revolution. And it will not be any less prudent to rejoice and remember that one shining moment.
- Images (EDSA crowd) John Chua/Ad; (Aquino) from Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation; (Marcos) Romy Vitug; (Ramos and Enrile) Philippine Daily Inquirer