By Raïssa Robles
(I gave this talk at the forum of the Ateneo Human Rights Center on Thursday, Feb 24. My thanks to the Center’s executive director Ray Paolo Santiago for inviting me.)
Edsa toppled a dictator.
We will only fail EDSA if we let a Marcos or another dictator take power once again.
EDSA has been taking a lot of hits the last few months.
But even before that, the crowd during the annual commemoration of Edsa had been dwindling in the last decade or so.
And today, those who participated in that first globally televised bloodless ouster of a dictator have been systematically demonized and insulted as “dilawan” by no less than the incumbent President.
Let me tell you that the color yellow does not belong to the Aquino family nor the Liberal Party which both adopted it. The color yellow belongs to the people who fought the dictatorship. The color yellow belongs to the world that stood up in awe to see a vicious strongman booted out by tens of thousands of unarmed civilians.
In the last few years, the color yellow has been used by protesters in Asia, such as in Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong.
Filipinos can proudly say that the Philippines has exported a way of expressing political dissent. It isn’t unique, by the way.
Because in turn, Filipinos who went to Edsa in 1986 had been inspired by what they saw in the movie Gandhi. The idea of passive resistance was inspired by a movie which was shown in local theaters in 1982. The film which depicted the life of Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi struck a chord because like Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., Gandhi was also assassinated.
You can now watch Gandhi free on YouTube.
What is passive resistance?
Gandhi explained it this way: “Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering, it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force.”
If you think about it, passive resistance is similar to what Christ did when he died on the cross.
Supporters of President Duterte denigrate Edsa because no one died. Since it was a bloodless revolution, they argue that therefore it was a fake revolution. And since it was a fake revolution, nothing has changed.
See? Corruption is everywhere, they say. There are still millions of poor people.
Those who say that forget one thing about Edsa. Edsa was a touch-and-go situation in all of those four days. Edsa could have erupted in a bloodbath. I know that from personal experience.
I was there covering in the heart of the action.
And those who went to Edsa, each of them knew they could die any moment, just like that. Each of them went to Edsa prepared to die.
They knew how vicious the Marcos dictatorship was.
And that’s the truth.
The fact that no one died is the magic of Edsa. The Catholic Church and the Catholics who went there believe to this day that it was Divine Intervention that prevented violence.
As a journalist, I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that the nuns and priests were everywhere. And the protesters – especially the men – felt ashamed enough not to abandon the nuns to the tanks and simply run away.
I remember in 1990 when I attended a journalism course in Berlin, an Indonesian editor was among the participants. He eagerly asked me how “people power” worked. He said Indonesians were envious of Filipinos and expressed the hope that Indonesia would stage its own people power.
Well, Indonesians did get rid of Suharto eight years later in 1998, but not in a bloodless way.
After the Philippines’ brief shining moment, did everything go downhill?
A lot did. But not everything.
The next three years after 1986 were filled with much violence committed by the soldiers, by the rebels, and by criminals. Corrupt practices in government returned. It was like the ship of state was caught in a gale and the captain did not know how to steer it. That was also partly understandable since we had no change of captains for 21 years – or for a span of one generation.
Looking back, what I think happened was that the method of “passive resistance” worked in booting out the Marcoses.
But the citizenry had to learn to use a different method to make post-Marcos governments function.
They had to learn how to make democracy work.
That was a very difficult undertaking, after 14 years of Martial Law. And it continues to be a very difficult undertaking today.
By the way, it’s not true that Marcos lifted Martial Law in 1981. He only pretended to lift it, on paper. The year 1981 was when his regime even became more vicious. The number of detention cases dropped and the number of massacres and disappearances rose dramatically.
Unfortunately, in 1986, it was mostly the trapo politicians who knew how to make Congress function. And they brought back the pork barrel, which they called by the euphemistic term, Countrywide Development Fund.
I remember that I was covering the Senate then and the senators told us reporters that they needed some kind of fund to dole out to the hundreds of poor people who came to their offices or wrote to them asking for money for medicine, burial, tuition or hospital expenses.
They could not turn them away, they said, because then the administration might lose political support at a time when military, communist and Muslim rebels were fighting the government.
Looking back, such help should have been depoliticized or depersonalized from day one. Meaning, if you are poor and you suddenly need an operation you should not have to go to a congressman or a senator or the Office of the President to get aid.
If you are poor, you should be able to go to a government hospital and get an operation, and pay only very little. Today, those covered by Philhealth – and that automatically includes the poor – can do that, provided they are certified by the DSWD.
To me one of the most important lessons of Martial Law is that if you do not speak out or resist anomalies in government or society, nothing will happen. Or something bad could happen.
That’s why as a journalist I try to speak out. Although sometimes it’s like banging your head against the wall.
The number of poor people today has been used as proof that Edsa failed.
On the contrary, the poverty rate among Filipino families has dropped from 64.1% in 1986 to around 21.6% today. That’s a 42.5 percentage points drop. By any yardstick you can call that an accomplishment.
However, the drop should have been even more dramatic if only the poor had more opportunities to earn.
We can say that between the rich and the poor, the post-Edsa years were most advantageous to the rich. Today we have 11 dollar billionaire families whereas during Martial Law, there was only a handful of them headed by the First Family.
One of the things that need to be corrected after Edsa is the stupendous gap between the uber rich and the very poor. Last year, the 11 most wealthy families had a net worth of US$42.75 billion or P2.137 trillion.
This year’s government budget amounts to P3.35 trillion. So you can say that the wealth of the 11 richest Filipino families is equivalent to two-thirds of this year’s national budget.
And because of this, I find it a crying shame and a grave scandal that two of these very rich families – the Zobels and the Sys – have been squabbling for so many years now over the location of the central station of the MRT.
Do they not realize that millions of commuters are suffering and need that station and the loop closed asap? Let the station be named Zobel or Sy – at a hefty price – even though it is located near the mall that the family does not operate.
One unjust phenomenon of post-Edsa Philippines is that the poor continue to be driven away from Metro Manila where many of the jobs are.
I once asked Fernando Zobel during one press conference of Ayala Land why there was no housing for the poor in Fort Bonifacio Global City. He patiently explained to me that the infrastructure put in place there was far too expensive to include housing for the poor.
In my mind, I thought that was a lost opportunity to integrate the poor so that they would directly benefit from being close to work. I thought residents and locators in Bonifacio Global City could use an army of nannies, gardeners, cooks, etectera.
But the government did not make it a condition to put a social clause into the project.
To this day, the development of Metro Manila and other places in the country has been largely left to commercial developers. Choice areas are being carved out as gated communities for the wealthy.
That was not the promise of Edsa which had the poor and the rich standing shoulder-to-shoulder, risking their lives.
The rich can afford to do much more for the poor. In the past, I used to write about the Corporate Social Responsibility projects of various top companies. Not anymore.
Most companies do it for publicity purposes. They can’t even say how much of their earnings after taxes go to CSR. I suspect, very very little.
Philippine democracy has been bent and slanted to benefit the rich. To this day, Congress has been unable to pass a Land Use Law. Or an anti-dynasty law. Or a new Lobby Law that would replace the 1957 law.
Together with criminal justice, post-Edsa Philippines needs to implement social justice in the manner of distribution of opportunities and privileges in our society.
For social justice to take place, we need an honest-to-goodness anti-dynasty law. I’ve been a reporter for over 30 years and I see the same family names in office. I see the fathers being replaced by their wives or sons as if the political office was a rightful inheritance.
One can make a lot of money holding a political office even without stealing. For instance, a mayor can easily sniff out business opportunities. If a mall is about to be built, chances are, real estate prices in adjoining areas will go up. There is nothing illegal if a mayor’s relative starts buying up land. A political office is more often than not an enriching experience.
With an anti-dynasty law more people who don’t belong to political families can assume office. And hopefully, it will in time reduce the number of political families. We will then have a deeper and wider bench from which to choose public servants.
One other post-Edsa dream that I have is to see a very high government official jailed in an ordinary cell for corruption, without air-conditioning but only an electric fan. That hasn’t happened yet.
Hong Kong may even beat us to it by jailing their former chief executive Donald Tsang for corruption. But I was told that Hong Kong jails are much more comfortable than our prisons.
With all these problems that continue to hound the country it is quite tempting to simply say – to hell with it – let’s just have a bloody revolution and a dictatorship.
Marcos’ Martial Law should give us pause and put a stop to this temptation, because authoritarian rule as a model for development didn’t work for the Philippines. There is no such thing as a benevolent dictator.
Is People Power dead?
Far from it. We saw how people came together swiftly to protest President Joseph Estrada’s transgressions or the pork barrel. But in between flashes of People Power is the daily drudge of trying to make democracy work.
So what’s the point of celebrating Edsa People Power every year?
It is to serve as a warning that those who abuse political power have a shelf life.