The 1986 Edsa Revolution: Lessons learned, then and now

SILVESTRE Afable, until now, remains awestruck with the “mercurial emotions” of over a million people who took to the streets for a four-day vigil to protect military rebels during the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution.

As the Ministry of National Defense (MND) information service chief, he was the only civilian in that hurriedly organized meeting on February 22, 1986, when then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Gen. Fidel Ramos, then chief of the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police (PC-INP), declared they were withdrawing support from then President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Hundreds of thousands of people are seen on Epifanio de los Santos
Avenue (Edsa), facing northbound toward the Boni Serrano Avenue-Edsa intersection (February 1986).

Afable confided that, at first, it was really only a matter of their survival after Malacañang uncovered a coup plot which, Afable said, was initially hatched by a group of disgruntled military officers led by then Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, who called themselves the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

Afable recalled phoning his family, telling them he might die at any moment, if the government troops loyal to the President moved in to quell the military uprising.

The strongman had just been proclaimed winner of the February 7 snap elections against popular opposition candidate Corazon Aquino, widow of Benigno ”Ninoy” Aquino Jr., who was gunned down on August 21, 1983, upon returning from a three-year US exile.

US connection

AFABLE admitted that the military rebels had “strategically” linked with US authorities as early as September, even before Marcos called for a presidential election amid pressure from Washington.

“At that point in time, the coordination  with US elements  was already very active with the rebel groups,” he said. That was also the time when the RAM’s “planning became a serious effort,” according to Afable.

Meanwhile, crowds had just been drawn to Edsa, outside Camps Aguinaldo and Crame, by a call from influential Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, as droves of officers, lawmakers and high-profile government officials started abandoning the Marcos camp after his pyrrhic victory. The “revolution of the people,” General Ramos called it, after what began as a military uprising drew civilians pledged to protect the rebel soldiers.

“That was the first time that I realized that Filipinos were really crazy if you awaken their emotions. They will not sleep. They will not go home,” he said. “It’s really hair-raising to look at a million people around you. It gives you an insight on what kind of people we were [then],” Afable said.

And yet, Afable believes that while he finds the 1986 People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos after 21 years in power remains to be relevant today, it might not happen again for different reasons.

‘Disempowered’ people

IN Afable’s view,  the  Edsa revolt “was more of the middle class. These are people who had lots of aspirations.”

“[But] people now are very disempowered economically,” he said. “Today, people are totally different. They’re so hard up. It’s very hard to awaken any political ideals.”

He was also hardly surprised that Enrile and Honasan have since mended ties with the Marcoses, throwing their support behind the strongman’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., in his bid this May 9 to regain the presidency his father lost.

“JPE [Enrile] is really a pure pragmatist. He makes decisions on the parameter of pragmatic things,” Afable said. He also painted Honasan as, “such a congenial person with a lot of patriotism,” adding he is one who “would not just shoot a person.”

Saying that “he [Honasan] took it as matter of political expediency,” Afable insisted that Honasan remains allied to his Philippine Military Academy classmate  Ping Lacson, another presidential hopeful, and “had simply accepted the support of BBM [Bongbong Marcos].”

Honasan was named part of the Senate slate of Marcos Jr., who framed his choices as in line with his UniTeam’s consistent vision of national unity for progress.

Meanwhile, Afable noted how, under liberal democracy, “we have not moved upwards” despite the promises of leaders in the post-Marcos era. “We never really broke the cycle of corruption even if we had brought him [Marcos] down,” said Afable, who ironically started as a social activist of the left-wing Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN) at the University of the Philippines. After Edsa, Afable continued to serve government in various capacities, and, before returning home to Baguio,  was part of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Cabinet.

Euphoria, reality check

THOUGH they were caught up in the euphoria of the “1986 People Power,” Dr. Aurora Parong was not blind to the background of the coup plotters with whom they shared the final moments that led to the ouster of the late strongman.

“These are the people who ordered the [political dissidents’] arrest. [Juan Ponce] Enrile and [Fidel] Ramos, they knew the torturers of the martial law regime,” said Parong, a member the Medical Action Group (MAG), which provided medical assistance to Edsa protesters.

She had been active with the MAG following her release in 1984 from over a year in detention for charges of inciting to rebellion, a case that stemmed from her choice to practice medicine in her hometown of Bayombong in Nueva Vizcaya.

“I kept asking myself, ‘Was it right to support them, just to oust Marcos?’” Parong recalled.

Still, Parong noted that she eventually considered the Edsa uprising as part of a continuing struggle against the dictatorship, since her student days at the University of the Philippines. Her idealism, she pointed out, was also what prompted her to return to the barrio and set up her own clinic after graduation.

On the second day at Edsa, Parong already had a hint that there won’t be any violence. Their vigil, she recalled, had included parents and their children, along with people who never really had any political involvement.

“It was already like a picnic. Still, we maintained our vigilance since you really don’t know what will happen later,” she said.

Killings go on, post-Edsa

ON those four historic days, student leader Leandro Alejandro and his wife Liddy were manning the Bayan secretariat after left-wing militants joined Corazon Aquino’s call for civil disobedience.

“We went to Edsa and helped mobilize people, not just in support of the mutineers but because it was an uprising against the dictatorship,” said Liddy. “S’yempre, merong pag-aalinlangan dahil nandiyan na yung mga elite ume-eksena. Meron kasi tayong kasabihan: ikaw ang nagtanim, nag-ani at nagluto, pero iba ang kakain [Of course there was hesitation, because the elite were starting to project themselves. We have a saying: you plant the seeds, harvest and cook, but someone else eats].”

Worse, they were accused of being “outsiders” during the uprising because a big segment of the militant movement joined the boycott of the “sham” snap elections.

No less than Bayan chair, the late Sen. Lorenzo Tañada, the “grand old man of the Philippine opposition,” went on leave from the alliance, which was trying to build a wide anti-dictatorship network, and decided to campaign for Mrs. Aquino.

“So, Cory lost [the election]. She was cheated.  It was when Marcos was proclaimed winner and that was enough reason to mobilize the people towards civil disobedience,” Liddy said. Then, when Corazon Aquino was finally swept to power, the militants were largely marginalized.

Meanwhile, Parong volunteered in the new government  community health program, with then DSWD Secretary Mita Pardo de Tavera. She saw the bright prospects of a new government anchored and the accompanying democratic space, when Mrs. Aquino ordered the release of all political prisoners and convened a commission to draft a new Constitution under a “revolutionary government.”

On November 13, 1986, however, tragedy struck: Kilusang Mayo Uno  (KMU) leader Rolando Olalia and his driver Leonor Alay-ay  were found dead in Antipolo, Rizal—their bodies mutilated.

Ka Lando, as he was known in the Labor movement, was one of the handful of militants who opened a dialogue with the new President, particularly in the labor sector, after joining a unity rally during the May 1 Labor Day celebration that year.

A National Bureau of Investigation report said the killings were a prelude to the staging of “God Save the Queen,” a coup plot blamed on the RAM to rid the Aquino Cabinet of left-wing members. After three decades, the Antipolo Regional Trial Court found three RAM members guilty of two counts of murder, and meted with the penalty of up to 40 years imprisonment. Nine other accused remain at large, and the brains behind the killings remained a mystery.

On January 2, 1987, the farmers’ march calling for comprehensive land reforms ended in violence when anti-riot personnel, including lawmen in plain clothes, opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing at least 12 and injuring 51 protesters near Mendiola Bridge leading to Malacañang Palace.

A month later, a platoon of government troops killed 17 farmers and their families, including six children, in Sitio Padlao in Lupao, Nueva Ecija, in retaliation for the death of their commanding officer who was sniped by New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas.

After the “Lupao Massacre,” Mrs. Aquino immediately declared “total war” against the communist rebels despite talks of possible peace to end the communist insurgency, one of the reasons Marcos had used to justify Martial Law in 1972. At least 24 soldiers of the 14th Infantry Battalion were tried before a military court, but were all acquitted.

Parong, who was then already a member of the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, recalled that Sister Mariani Dimaranan, the TFD chair, along with Sen. Jose Diokno, resigned from the Presidential Human Rights Commission to protest of the new government’s “total war” policy.

On September 19, 1987, Lean Alejandro was on his way to the Bayan office in Quezon City when a van cut into the path of his vehicle; a gunman rolled down the driver’s window and fatally shot him in the back and face with a single bullet. He had just announced at a National Press Club news conference the militants’ plans for a nationwide strike against the military’s role in government.

Liddy, his widow, said she was never approached by any investigator on the case and the official probe was suddenly stopped two weeks later. No suspect was charged in court.

Before Mrs. Aquino’s term ended in 1992, a group of nongovernment organizations tagged some 50 right-wing vigilante groups as being backed by the military, citing a wave of human-rights abuses that resulted in the deaths of 1,064 people, mostly farmers and workers, the disappearance of 830 others and 135 cases of massacre.

“The insurgency continued because the changes that they were expecting never happened,” Parong said. Reforms that were integrated in government, she noted, “had not really changed the mindset of the military and police related to human rights.”

Nonetheless, Parong said Edsa remains relevant, not just because it continued to inspire nonviolent regime change, as seen in East Germany and many other former Soviet bloc countries at the end of the Cold War era in 1989.

The struggle never ended, in her view.

“For several years, there were struggles against the dictatorship and there were struggles for economic change, but Edsa would not have happened unless several sectors organized themselves, and they had been struggling for sectoral changes,” she said.

She also cited how the succeeding governments recognized there were, indeed, political prisoners, although human-rights abuses continue to hound the country.

Parong participated in seeking reparations from the Marcoses, who merely offered a “compromise settlement” of $150 million, while they were exiled in Hawaii. The negotiations failed because the Marcoses’ proposed settlement was considered to be a “mere donation” when the class suit involved nearly $2 billion.

In 2014, Parong, who had worked for Amnesty International, was appointed to the Human Rights Victims Claims Board by then President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, which led to the indemnification of 11,103 martial law victims from the alleged P10 billion in ill-gotten wealth recovered in Swiss banks.

‘New direction’

FORMER Rep. Jonathan dela Cruz concedes that people were already  looking for a “new direction” amid the public outrage triggered by the 1983 Aquino assassination.

The snowballing protest movement was also compounded by the global economic crisis, its headwinds lashing the Philippine economy  which contracted by 7.3 percent for two consecutive years starting 1984.  Mr. Marcos’s critics blamed the economic nosedive on the country’s  “deb-driven” growth, along with  the  mismanagement of “crony-monopolized” sectors.

Dela Cruz, then the country’s ambassador-at-large in the Middle East—the leading destination of overseas Filipino workers—said that while there was a continuing clamor for change, “there was also a  continuing effort of  the old oligarchy to get back at Marcos.”

These problems, he said, were compounded by  the US factor, since Mr. Marcos “was trying to stir away from the handshake of the big powers like America.” He added, but did not elaborate, that the continuing US pressure from Congress and media which fueled articles against the regime “was a campaign started a long time ago by certain forces in the US.”

The other side of the story

IN the meantime, Dela Cruz said Mr. Marcos was trying to get ahead with “liberalizing efforts” following years of martial law, which he lifted in 1981 while retaining many of his powers.

At the height of the Edsa revolution, Dela Cruz claimed that majority in the armed forces actually remained loyal to the President “until the  last minute.”

“So, if you are talking about crushing the anti-Marcos protests, he could have done it, but he decided to go into exile to prevent any bloodshed,” Dela Cruz added.

He admitted that a “big factor” in the Marcos downfall was also the internal rift within the corridors of power. “Everybody knew that the President was sick. There were a lot of groups within the Marcos camp that were already struggling or competing for influence and power,” he said.

Despite the President’s ouster, Dela Cruz believes that Marcos can still be remembered for his vision of nation-building for the country “being more modernized and participatory” in development.

This partly explains the growing popularity of his son Bongbong, the consistent survey frontrunner among presidential aspirants in the May elections. The Marcos forces have also remained intact, including their political and economic forces.

Finally, he pointed to the sense that, for all the political and economic reforms of the past 35 years, people had “this failed expectation” from 1986 to the present.

“Our lives were never really uplifted. We essentially remain a divided country, with continuing corruption and human-rights violations among other ills and problems,” he explained. “So, because of the demonization of the Marcos administration, people are  now asking, ‘What really happened?’ People became curious. Kasi ang mga magulang nila, sabi ‘ayos naman kami noon [because their parents were saying, ‘we were fine then’].”

A fragile democracy

NOW retired Supreme Court Associate Justice  Adolf Azcuna asserts that the gains at Edsa need not be taken for granted. With the restoration of democratic institutions lost during martial law, including regular elections, the people can now choose the leaders that they want, he stressed.

Even Bongbong Marcos, according to Azcuna, has benefited from the democratic institutions, now that he is guaranteed regular and free election, although “everything  is really up to the people.”

“That’s what democracy means. If you want to choose certain candidates [who] have links with the  previous dictator, that’s up to them,” he said.

Still, he stressed, people should not forget the principle of accountability, enshrined in the 1987 Constitution which he helped write as a member of the constitutional commission. That Charter affirmed that “public service is a public trust” and that “public officials must at all times be accountable to the people.”

Azcuna underscored the need to be vigilant 36 years after Edsa, noting that “possibility that we can lose it [democracy].”

“We should always remember that the guardrails of democracy are free speech, free media, political opposition and  regular and fair elections. Pag ’yan ay inalis o ginawang ineffective, mag-ingat tayo at mawawala yung tunay na demokrasya natin [if we remove or make those ineffective, we should be wary as we will lose genuine democracy],” said Azcuna.

“Now, do we want to go back to the past because it is the future that some of our people want? Go back to martial law, go back to controlling the economy, go back to arrests without warrant? Kill? If that is what they want, then so be it. This is a free country,” Azcuna said.

Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, it’s interesting that all presidential aspirants promise reforms and a better life. Bongbong Marcos pushes unity, saying the country will never progress if it keeps dividing itself between past and present. Isko Moreno offers himself as an alternative to the Marcos versus Aquino narrative as represented, he said, by Marcos Jr. and Vice President Leni Robredo. The Lacson-Sotto tandem promises to fix government so as to make better lives possible. The Pacquiao-Atienza duo offers similar hopes. Leody de Guzman and Walden Bello offer more radical reforms. All of them and the rest of the standard bearers—Ernesto Abella, Norberto Gonzales, Faisal Mangondatu and Jose Montemayor—promise to fight corruption. Yet if anything has survived in 35 years of reforms since Edsa, it’s corruption, morphing across regimes. It’s anyone’s guess whether the next regime change will spell real change.

* Veteran journalist Joel C. Paredes is a former director general of the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) and holds an A.B. History degree from the University of the Philippines.

Image credits: Nonoy Lacza, Joey De Vera via Presidential Museum and Library

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