Comment: Remembering the Philippine's People Power Revolution

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Philippine President Benigno Aquino inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on February 20, 2014. (AAP)

28 years ago, 'the revolution that surprised the world' took place on the streets of Manila. Where to now for the Philippines - and what can the world learn from the legacy of this campaign of civil resistance?

On Tuesday, the Philippines will mark the 28th anniversary of the People Power Revolution. It offers an interesting juxtaposition against the events unfolding in Thailand, Venezuela and Ukraine.

Few now remember how remarkable it was for its time and even today – an unarmed protest that overthrew a brutal regime without fatalities. Over four days in February 1986, hundreds of thousands of people filled Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila. It culminated in a United States-sponsored flight carrying Ferdinand Marcos and his family out of the country, ending a dictatorship that lasted over 20 years.

I was in third grade when it happened. I remember one of my uncles saying 'Wala na'. Gone, finished. We sat transfixed in front of the television as a mob tore through Malacañang Palace. Cory Aquino was sworn in, wearing the yellow that had become the opposition trademark. Three years earlier, her husband Ninoy Aquino was meant to be welcomed back from exile with yellow ribbons. He was met at the airport by bullets.

Marcos bastardised democratic institutions such as elections, the press, and civilian supremacy over the military. His departure signalled a new era of freedom that left Filipinos euphoric. Yet nearly three decades since, it is not easy to discern the legacy of the revolution.

As with all historically significant uprisings, the 1986 People Power revolution was not a random, spontaneous moment. A chain of events led up to it: the assassination of an opposition figure, his widow becoming a potent political symbol, a fraudulent election, withdrawal of support by the defence minister and army chief, and a Catholic archbishop rallying people to the streets. In a neat, almost poetic reversal, it was the people who shielded military defectors from reprisal. When Marcos rang US Senator Paul Laxalt for advice, he was told to "cut and cut cleanly".

However, apart from a period of relative stability and reform under governments led by Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, the aftermath has not been so straightforward.

Elections are only nominally democratic in many parts of the country. Campaigns are far more about personalities than policies, with local fiefdoms reinforced through a combination of intimidation and bribery. In the month before last year's barangay (village) elections, 22 candidates and supporters died in election-related violence. Incumbent mayors are more likely to win tight contests than their challengers, which is indicative of fraud according to analysis of the 2007 midterm elections by the Germany-based Institute for the Study of Labor. A former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has been charged with electoral fraud, on evidence of inappropriate contact with an electoral officer during the 2004 elections.

The press is also nominally free. Journalists in Manila are generally able to report on and critique the national government and its officials without fear, but outside the capital region, media professionals face serious risks. According to the latest Impunity Index published annually by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Philippines is the third-worst place to work as a journalist, right after Iraq and Somalia. It has held this rank for four consecutive years. Fifty-five murders of journalists have gone unsolved in the past decade.

This presents the extreme end of quelling truth-telling and dissent. At the other end, ordinary citizens may find themselves thrown in gaol for posting critique online. The Supreme Court has recently upheld the Cybercrimes Prevention Act, which includes online libel as a criminal offence. It is a disturbing ruling given that the post-1986 Philippine Constitution, crafted in the aftermath of decades of repression, protects free expression. Section 4 of Article III (Bill of Rights) states: 'No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances'.

Perhaps the thing that really makes it difficult to work out the legacy of the revolution is whether it corrected the excesses of the Marcos regime in the long run. One of the prevailing features of undemocratic governments and political malaise is impunity.

No one has actually ever been brought to justice for plundering the national wealth or the violent repression of dissidents. In fact many key personalities during martial law went on to walk the halls of Congress as duly elected officials not long after the revolution. Corporate figures who benefited from cronyism and nepotism kept their businesses.

Perhaps this had all been for the sake of reconciliation and stability, but it has also arguably cultivated a culture of impunity. Or maybe, looking at the ongoing scandal over the anomalous siphoning from the congressional pork barrel, people have forgotten what it felt like to stand free on EDSA.

The Philippines is of course not without committed people with integrity and determination. There are many Marcos-era activists at the grassroots, in business and in politics, who continue to work for a robust democracy, via poverty alleviation, rural development, policy research and advocacy.

But recent history underlines the case that the harder work of revolutions comes after, and that it never ends.

Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The DrumABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She is a recipient of the Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship in 2013. She blogs at This Is Complicated.

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