The Philippines’ People Power revolution wins new victory

hundreds of thousands of people filling up Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) in February 1986. (Wikimedia Commons/Joey de Vera)

Hundreds of thousands of people filling up Manila’s Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in February 1986. (Wikimedia Commons/Joey de Vera)

Almost three decades after nonviolent people power brought down dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the government signed a law this week providing compensation to the victims of his regime. Reportedly blocked for years by elements in the military and the resurgent Marcos family, the law authorizes the Philippines to pull more than $220 million from Marcos-controlled Swiss bank accounts to compensate people who were tortured, raped and jailed under the U.S.-backed dictatorship.

The bill was signed into law on February 25 by President Benigno Aquino III, whose father was assassinated by Marcos’ troops after returning from exile in 1983. The president said the law would “right the wrongs of the past,” while Marcos’ son — Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., a rising star in Philippine politics — dismissed the move as “resurrecting old bugaboos,” distracting the country with “the blame game” and practicing the “politics of division.”

For the survivors, though, this unprecedented action is a small but significant step toward healing and restorative justice. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that nonviolent action doesn’t end when the last demonstrator goes home. The peaceful uprising that swept the Marcos regime from power 27 years ago this week continues to unfold in the Philippines, even as it endures as a world-historical example of the power of nonviolent change for people everywhere.

Besides financial payments — which will be based, curiously, on a points system tied to the abuses suffered by victims — the government will provide what it calls social and psychological assistance. Perhaps most importantly, the new law establishes a memorial commission designed “to ensure the history of the Marcos regime and its abuses are taught in schools.”

The new legislation, though, falls short of what it could be. The fund represents only a tiny fraction of the tens of billions that Ferdinand Marcos is believed to have pilfered and stashed out of reach in a labyrinth of international banks. Though victims’ organizations have urged the government to keep working to recover the money, lawmakers last month suggested giving up, saying the years-old process cost more than it was worth. By recouping a relatively small amount and spreading it among so many victims may not go very far, a point that long-time activist Marie Hilao-Enriquez recently made.

This development, though, is not negligible. As the head of the Philippines rights commission Loretta Ann Rosales — who, like many, was tortured under Marcos — stressed, the law is “essential in rectifying the abuses” of the era and will allow victims a sense of justice.

This is where the original nonviolent action continues. Achieving justice was what fueled the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship over its two-decade rule. This work did not end after the regime fell, and this week’s action is yet another step.

The remarkable 1986 Filipino revolution focused on preventing election fraud and removing a dictator. Nevertheless EDSA (the shorthand name of the uprising derived from the acronym of the main thoroughfare in Manila — Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, or Abenida Epifanio de los Santos in Tagalog — where many of the demonstrations took place) was fueled by a repugnance of the violence and injustice that generated and maintained the dictatorship. Conversely, this movement implied a general call for a society where the dignity of all is prized, where everyone matters and where the strategies of death wielded by the state have no power. For a moment, two million unarmed, resolute and spirited human beings flooded into EDSA and, eventually, experienced how nonviolent people power can trump tanks and circling bombers.

Removing the dictatorship did not dismantle structures of economic injustice or end all repression. (Human Rights Watch recently issued a report on hundreds of killings over the past 12 years allegedly at the hands of state security forces without prosecutions or convictions.) This has been a criticism of the People Power revolution in the Philippines. Pro-democracy movements can end authoritarian regimes and sometimes introduce or shore up democratic potential, but they have not yet typically jump-started or accomplished long-term structural change, including economic change. Nevertheless, they can provide lessons, spark organizing and sharpen a vision of what is possible. This has been true in the Philippines itself (which has mounted EDSA II and EDSA III since 1986) but also in many other nations where this astonishing end to 20 years of merciless dictatorship had a multiplier effect. EDSA taught that change, even against great odds, is possible.

One of the lessons of the People Power revolution is the importance of training and preparation. As the dictatorship dragged on, activists cast about for alternatives, especially after the assassination of Aquino. What would make change possible? Were the only alternatives violence (as the New Peoples Army claimed) or passivity?

In “The Origins of People Power in the Philippines,” Stephen Zunes provides a detailed overview of widespread anti-Marcos nonviolent action in the Philippines prior to EDSA, including boycotts and strikes. Local training to ensure discipline and effective tactics in these campaigns was widespread. They often incorporated role-playing and creative strategic thinking. By 1984, opposition leader Jose Diokno was drawing up plans for a sustained nonviolent campaign. Crossing class and ethnic lines, a series of “people’s strikes” (welgang bayan) took place in the fall of 1984 and into 1985, including a major action in which 20,000 people rallied against the construction of a controversial nuclear power plant.

In 1984, the Little Sisters of Jesus, a community of Catholic women religious who worked with the poor in Manila contacted Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, nonviolence trainers with the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. Eventually this led to the Goss-Mayrs, Richard Deats and Stefan Merken organizing “active nonviolence” trainings focused on resisting dictatorship for scores of Catholic and Protestant bishops and hundreds of other clergy, women religious and laity. As Deats later recalled, “A bishop said to me, ‘I used to believe in nonviolence, but Marcos is too cruel; only a bloody revolution will work against him.’ When I asked him how long such a revolution would take, he said, ‘Ten years.’ (Neither of us had any idea, of course, that less than a year later Marcos would have fled the country when faced with nonviolent masses of Filipinos.)” A Philippine chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was established, which organized 40 nonviolence trainings in 30 provinces.

These workshops played a key role in the nationwide mobilization to stop the dictator from stealing the election. Cardinal Sin, who attended one of the Goss-Mayr trainings, would join with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in formally calling on the highly-Catholic country to engage in “active resistance” and “a nonviolent struggle for justice.” Nonviolence trainings — and nonviolent inventiveness on the spot — contributed to the emergence of a widespread nonviolent revolt, both within the civilian population and key sectors of the military that refused orders rather than attack unarmed civilians organized in disciplined human barricades. Nonviolent activists found themselves in the surprising position of protecting soldiers who defected. Within four days, Ferdinand Marcos boarded a plane bound for Hawaii.

With this week’s compensation legislation, the People Power revolution still pursues the vision of justice. And so do we. Studying the detailed, hour-by-hour history of this powerful movement will repay us greatly and inspire us to apply its endless lessons to the challenges and opportunities of our own EDSAs.

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