People Power: The Philippines

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Maria Serena I Diokno

Maria Serena I Diokno is the executive director of the José W Diokno Foundation, a human rights organisation. As were most conference participants, she was heartened by the examples of nonviolent changes in Eastern Europe, but had a warning: the initial impulse of people's power must be organised and sustained if real change is to continue. Diokno was also sceptical about applying Western ideas about nonviolence and social defence to situations in the South.
Notes to the text:
19 February 1986: The United States Senate passes a resolution condemning the Philippine election as fraudulent.
22 February 1986: Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and General Fidel Ramos announce withdrawal of support for Marcos and call for his resignation. With 300 soldiers they barricade the Ministry of Defence in Camp Aguinaldo and the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police Headquarters in Camp Crame. Cardinal Sin appeals over Radio Veritas for people to bring food and lend moral support. Marcos' dictatorship is toppled after four days of people's power.
EDSA is the ten-lane Epifamio de los Santos Avenue, barricaded by tens of thousands of people to separate Marcos' troops from the rebel troops of Enrile and Ramos.

The nonviolent overthrow of Marcos in 1986 came from a combination of 10 years of peaceful struggle against the dictatorship. EDSA [scene of the people's victory; used here to refer to the nonviolent rising itself] is sometimes portrayed by Filipinos as isolated, distinct from other movements before it. This is a mistake. People don't just rise up ´like that,' just like we've heard from Eastern Europe.

The struggle took two forms: one, the underground violent movement conducted by the New People's Army, the armed component of the communist party. Then you have the broader, legal movement. It was organised around issues, one of the strongest of which was the human rights movement. This was understandable, given the dictatorial policies of the previous regime and Marcos' repression of civil liberties.

Then you had the organisation of what you might call social sectors: labour, farmers, the urban core (the squatters), students, women, the religious. 90 per cent of my people are Catholic so the Church has tremendous influence, socially and politically. This kind of organising had been going on during the dictatorship and it's important that you recognise that this had started even before the assassination of Senator Aquino. Benigno was assassinated in 1983. After this came the tremendous openness of the upper and middle classes, which had been very cautious before about joining any opposition against the dictatorship. But it was the social sectors that were the hardest hit by the dictatorship. They couldn't unionise or strike.

What happened in 1983 was not only the assassination of Aquino but also the recognition of the failure of the dictatorship's economic policies. For example, you'll find a greater participation on the part of private business in the opposition movement. Marcos' cronies were able to gain concessions in borrowing money. Even now they live like kings while our external debt rises tremendously. Marcos' intrusion into free enterprise caused the business sector to react. The value of our currency had dropped dramatically. We are completely dependant on exports for oil, so you can imagine how we were affected each time oil prices went up. On top of that, world prices for our largest export, sugar, dropped.

A combination of all these factors awakened people that the dictatorship had to go. Of course, the question was how do we remove the dictatorship. I must admit that at that time we never developed any kind of sophisticated social defence. Our view then, from the knowledge we had gained from the field, was that we wanted to exert militant, but nonviolent pressure. We were going to use all the peaceful methods we could to defy Marcos, undermine the confidence in him and hopefully even attract people who supported him to leave him. Late in 1985 when Marcos offered to hold elections and the opposition took it up, many of us thought this was a way to change through nonviolent means.

In 1984 he'd called elections for a rubber stamp parliament, which he totally controlled and which many of us had boycotted. So with the 1985 election there was again discussion. The organised opposition consisted of 1) politicians opposed to the dictatorship and 2) cause-oriented movements. Parties in the Philippines are traditionally built around personalities, not causes. In contrast, the movements had very clear causes, human rights for instance and rejection of US Government intervention in the Philippines.

The cause-oriented movement was split. Some felt the election wouldn't bring change and we had best boycott it. A larger number felt we should give it a try, that we could unite around Ms Aquino and get her to agree to some kind of social agenda. So the elections galvanised more people into action. On a personal note -- I foolishly volunteered to count the votes, and I went to the worst precinct. People were shooting at anything. This was in the heart of Manila, so you can imagine in less accessible areas the kind of intimidation that went on.

The peak of all this was Ms Aquino's call for civil disobedience after the election, because she realised that Marcos would not respect the outcome. The response to that call was also very positive. She named the crony companies and asked people to abstain from buying their products. The most difficult one was beer -- that was asking a lot! But some restaurants actually cancelled huge orders of beer.

EDSA originated as a military rebellion. This will help you understand why it has been so difficult for us to transform people's power into an avenue for change. A lot of this had to do with the role of the armed forces.

Minister Enrile, a defence minister who is now a senator in the upper chamber, and General Ramos heard that Marcos was about to arrest them. A year before EDSA, a group was formed within the armed forces which came to be known as RAM (the Reformed Armed Forces Movement) -- they were becoming more disenchanted with the way Marcos was running not only the military institutions, but the country. RAM is now the group behind the series of coup attempts against Ms Aquino. So you see a continuum behind that movement and now. In this context, it becomes clearer why EDSA didn't work the way we wanted.

The Aquino forces began to make contact with people in the opposition. Cardinal Sin generally had distanced himself from even human rights movements. Now he said via the radio that this group had staged a rebellion against Marcos and that we should go and protect them. And really that's what protected the military. If the civilians had not come out in numbers, it would have been easy for Marcos to deal with it as purely a military exercise. But people responded, they filled the streets, they stayed there and slept there for days. And it became very difficult for Marcos' tanks to run over people.

Even then, there were doubts about whether or not this action was wise. My father [Senator José Diokno], who was detained for two years during the dictatorship, refused to go when this happened in EDSA. There was a feeling that this was a military attempt to save their necks and the people were simply being used to cover that action.

In any case it went on.

There was a tremendous amount of religious symbolism in people's power. Cardinal Sin, lots of rosaries and lots of prayers. Nuns came in their habits, priests came. There was such a strong outpouring of religion that some called it the "miracle" of EDSA -- I disagree: in the end this robs the people of their part in EDSA.

Many people who took part in EDSA were unorganised, which gives you a view into why people's power hasn't worked. When people are unorganised it tends to be a one shot deal. You go into it, it works, you get Ms Aquino. There's only one problem; Marcos is out and each one goes back to their own work. There were some organised sectors, but since the movement was organised in Manila, the organised sectors outside Manila couldn't take part in EDSA. So you had a mix of organised and unorganised groups with one common motivation: to get Marcos out.

The tragic part is that beyond that, the people of EDSA couldn't agree on what they wanted. You had someone who was for agrarian reform sitting next to someone who would refuse to give up their land sitting next to someone who simply wanted US nuclear weapons and the bases out, next to someone who said we need the Americans! There was no clear, unified vision except to get Marcos out.

The attitude of the military is that they were the saviours of the country. That had it not been for their action, Marcos would have remained. And because they played a crucial role in his ousting, they must continue to play a crucial role in decision making. This is the biggest problem we've had -- how to ´depoliticise' the military, which was extremely politicised during the dictatorship and remains so. Cory was only the third option. The other two had to do with a military-civilian junta that would rule for, say a year, change Marcos' constitution and then call for national elections. Then they said they would step down and turn over power.

A real problem we faced was that these people who came out as heroes and saviours of the country were powerful during the dictatorship. General Ramos was head of the unit where most of the torturers came from.

It's something like in Argentina: when Alfonsín started to investigate some human rights violations by the military, coup attempts were made against him. Some powerful people insisted "Don't investigate human rights abuses and we'll let you off."

What kind of role have cause groups played play since EDSA?

They went into a lull. The overwhelming attitude was ´All right, let's give her a chance.' Ms Aquino came into power in February and by July there was a first coup attempt -- the one she quelled by punishing the perpetrators by making them do 65 pushups. We were of course upset. The group I work with wanted a statement issued condemning the coup and insisting that the government investigate it, but other groups said, ´don't rock the boat. If you issue a statement now you might be giving ammunition to the right wing.'

That was the first of seven coups and it turned out that everything we thought would happen, happened. Aquino didn't take the coup seriously. She was afraid of alienating the army and of losing her position. She forgot that it was the people who put her there! The military would have been massacred had it not been for the people.

I don't think Ramos wanted to punish his own people. He was afraid the military would split -- like it is split now. The psychology of the army is one of wanting to be on the winning side, even with the latest coup in December 1989. Testifying before the Senate Committee on Defence, the head of domestic intelligence said that about 70-80 per cent of the armed forces are fence sitters who will wait to see which side will win, and then shift. He was sacked because he said this so openly.

So we saw Aquino move farther and farther away from the social agenda she had promised during the elections. It also became increasingly difficult for organised movements to speak out against her because she was popular. She certainly wasn't Marcos and she kept saying she was responsible for getting him out.

I served in the government's peace foundation but resigned in January as a result of the 1987 Farmers March through the palace. The farmers marched through the palace and were met by marines and fired on. About 12 were killed and 90 injured. This took place at the time we were actually forming the International Democratic Front and all the press was there. So I quit in protest.

You mentioned that had it been just a military coup, Marcos would have suppressed it, but since it was the people demonstrating, he didn't act. In contrast, in Tiananmen Square there were really no such qualms on taking action. What was the difference?

Marcos knew he was a dictator but he couched everything in legal terms. He was also very conscious of his image abroad -- that counted more than his image at home; he even had his own press relations firm in New York City. In comparison, the government in China is not conscious of its image abroad.

Another factor was that he was so out of touch with the pulse of the people that he didn't realise how many people were out there. He was so crazy he imposed a curfew because everyone was out in the streets -- as if you could arrest everyone. Incidentally, that is a lesson which the RAM has now learned. They saw that Marcos' big mistake in EDSA was that he did not fire into the crowd. So this last time, they made sure they did that. Last December, the coup attempt was very bloody. They shot, they fired, they bombed. They made it very clear that they were willing to take violent steps, even if it meant killing civilians.

They put snipers in the posh area where all the banks and rich homes are. In the second part of the coup they shifted away from the camps and sent troops into this area. The very rich could see what it was like to feel the coup. They weren't firing indiscriminately, rather they fired at military men. But if there had been people's power at that time, civilians would have been killed.

Marcos couldn't afford to fire into a crowd. He portrayed himself as a man of democracy. The RAM people mean business, they carry firearms.

I'm struck by the image of nuns giving flowers to men in the military and the supposed change of heart and the contrast with Tiananmen Square.

I don't know if it would happen now if the military made a move against the government and the government called for people to come to the streets. In a very odd way, people were less polarised during the dictatorship because Marcos united us. Now we are extremely polarised. We can't talk about any issue, not even human rights, without being accused of being Communists.

I always say, "If Marcos had done this (a human rights violation, for example), you would have agreed it was wrong, so if it is being done now, why is it OK?" But they say if you complain about it now, you must be in favour of the New People's Army. And I say the NPA has nothing to do with it.

The NPA has committed excesses, but now for every human rights complaint against the military, you have to file one against the NPA to show you're balanced. It's that bad. I don't belong to the NPA; I don't pay for their guns. But my taxes go into those bullets the military uses. I helped put this government into power and they must be accountable. They don't understand this and think you are favouring the Communists.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines is divided. In the hierarchy, they are careful not to be critical of Aquino. Some may think it could contribute to her destabilisation; some may have other motives. But some are active in Christian base communities, as in Central America, and these too are accused of being Communist fronts. There has been persecution and killings since 1986. More human rights lawyers were killed in three years afterwards than during 14 years of the dictatorship.

This indicates one thing. It is not that Aquino is repressive, it's that she does not control the armed forces. Marcos did. And he used this. He would hit the people hard enough to frighten them, but not hit the people who really count. He was good at that because he was in control.

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