The Gathering Storm, Part I

“To foretell the destiny of a nation, it is necessary to open the book that tells of her past.” – Jose Rizal

The last nine months was a watershed moment for Philippine history; it brought a nation full circle and face to face with itself.

In 1986, a new kind of revolution sprung forth from a small country. This people’s revolution would send ripples across the globe that would rock, shake and ultimately help reshape the prevailing world order. It set a precedent to the Eastern European revolutions in the late 80s and early 90s, including the one that would topple the Berlin Wall and end the Cold War, which had held the world prisoner to the threat of total war for half a century.

Nearly 25 years after the People Power Revolution, history repeats itself, albeit in a more democratic form: the 2010 national elections. And it is how Filipinos deal with the presence of the past in the present that will determine the direction the Philippines will be heading in the years to come.

This is the first of two parts.
The Beginning

“On the road, when I met someone, I always asked them about the past. Only in this way can the present become comprehensible.” — Robert Kaplan

Wrapping a half-ring mid-way around greater Manila, EDSA is an avenue as historical as it is an ugly scar on the capital. A tangle of jeepneys and buses belching smoke and screeching horns duke it out with trucks and tankers, as outdated sedans and sleek Mercedes navigate the stampede. The stampede moves, at most times of day, at a mile an hour under a tropical sun diluted by a haze of smog almost frozen in the thick, humid air.

Except for a shrine and a monument at the geographic heart of the metropolis, there is nothing to remind one of what transpired on that avenue in 1986.The People Power Revolution, referred to by Filipinos as just “People Power” or more commonly, “Edsa,” was the result of more than a decade under Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law, arguably the darkest period in the country’s young history.

It was triggered by a series of events, two of which stand out. The powder keg was the assassination of opposition senator Ninoy Aquino in 1983 upon his return from self-imposed exile in the United States. The spark was the massive electoral fraud and brazen violence, followed by the “false proclamation” of Marcos as the winner, of the snap elections in December 1985 that pitted Aquino’s widow against the dictator.

Millions of Filipinos then clogged EDSA, the main artery of Manila, in three days of peaceful protest against the dictatorship. The “revolt” started with military generals withdrawing their support for Marcos, and ended with Corazon Aquino being sworn in as president on 25 February 1986, thereby restoring democracy. With a new president installed, Marcos fled that very night. He was in power for 20 years.

Another storm is brewing

What I know from 1986 is from studying history, both in the Philippines and looking at it from a Western perspective in my university studies. I know it from the photographs, the movies, the songs, the firsthand stories from my parents and their generation, and those a half-generation before me.These last nine months, I was immersed in a political environment following the death of the democracy icon Corazon Aquino during the tail-end of an administration billed as the most hated since the time of Marcos; I was immersed in an environment where the people constantly around me, despite their differing political leanings, were martial law-era activists and political detainees, the movers and shakers of the first People Power.

Why the resurgence almost 25 years later

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” — Niccolo Machiavelli

I belong to what I see as a “transitional generation,” those too young to remember Edsa or those born in the years immediately after. We are the ones who, despite not being fully involved (or not even: minor issue over birth and actual existence, you see) in the 1986 history-making, remember the relative glory years of Aquino and then Ramos, and the steep decline in the Estrada years. We were the young’ns during Edsa Dos in 2001, which saw the ouster of Estrada, in a protest similar to the original revolution, though not quite as emotional or globally significant.

Then there’s the generation that started university circa 2006/7, or who are in university now and those younger, whom a colleague called the “Gloria generation.” They’re the kids whose social and political consciousness began to blossom at a time when there had been nothing but Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The typical freshman student is 18 years old. They were nine years old when Arroyo came to power.

What is the significance of growing up in such an environment?

A political scientist shared with me a theory on why our government has regressed to the way politics was run in the Marcos years: Our politicians today were the up-and-comers of the Marcos era, who saw the world during their formative years as how Marcos and his cronies ran it. That was the reality they knew, and that is what they learned.

Of course, there will always be the ones who did see the same things as the “trapos” did (short for traditional politicians, but translated literally, “trapo” means “rag” in Filipino, so yes, it’s a pejorative). The difference was their ability to see reality on the ground as not simply how things are (“eh ganun eh”), but why things should change. Now.

Nine years of Gloria Arroyo

The 1987 Philippine constitution mandates a six-year term for a president, with a ban on re-election. The exact limitations for the term “re-election” is a point of contention — does it refer only to incumbents, to re-election to the same post, to the originally elected and not those who assumed it by succession? These questions surfaced both in the 2004 and 2010 elections, and the answer, it seems, is that the constitution, or at least its stewards, is lax on term limits. Arroyo has just been elected to Congress, the first head-of-state to seek a lower – and local – elective post.

Arroyo was in power for nine years by the time she stepped down as president on 30 June 2010. She assumed the presidency (having been Estrada’s vice president) in 2001 after Edsa Dos toppled Estrada, promising she would not seek the presidency in the 2004 elections. There was a general sense of mistrust with Arroyo then, but hey, better than an adulterous plunderer, many people reasoned. Tolerance, then revolution, is a recurring theme in the Philippine national saga.

During her first term, the country registered positive economic growth. But come 2004, Arroyo ran for president, reneging on her earlier promise. She won by a hair — 900,000 votes — against her main rival, Fernando Poe Jr, a screen idol like ex-President Estrada.

In mid-2005, a scandal broke: “Hello Garci.” It was a phone tap of her conversation with election commissioner Virgilio Garcillano that pretty much said, “please cook up the election results for me and my veep.” So one can argue that Arroyo was never legitimately elected as president. She subsequently survived multiple impeachment attempts, but since then, the Arroyo regime became survival politics on steroids in an effort to stay in power. And it got ugly.

[See a growing list of scandals under the Arroyo administration]

The Hello Garci scandal is what columnist Conrado de Quiros calls “the original sin,…the crime from which all other crimes flow.”


I was away at university in liberal Boston for most of the post-Garci years. Far-removed from the chaos of Philippine political life, I shared the same views as many Filipinos living abroad hearing news from home. Sure she’s a nut job with an insatiable thirst for power, but you know what, the economy is doing good and boy-oh-boy the exchange rate is getting sweeter. And to her credit, the Philippines enjoyed an immense rally in terms of much-needed infrastructure.

But this was shallow reasoning. GDP may have increased during her term (even registering a growth that surpassed expectations of financial institutions, at 7.3% in the first quarter of 2010); however, GDP in itself is not an adequate gauge of a country’s progress, especially in a developing nation such as the Philippines. According to an EU Business report:

Most other mainstream economic indicators are also limited in the way they tackle non-economic issues such as progress and well-being. It is not alternatives to GDP that are needed, but additional indicators to complement it….More needs to be taken into account, such as…the evolution of social issues, and progress towards sustainable development.

[Read more: “Faster growth under Arroyo: reality or statistical illusion?”
from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), 25 July 2009]

Indeed, as a 2010 Wallace Report reveals, on the ground it was a different story. The numbers and figures for economic growth looked good on paper, especially to us far away, but her special brand of economic policies, “Glorianomics,” failed to address whom they were supposed to benefit: the poorest of the poor.

[Read more: “Former Arroyo ally says poverty blunts economic gains,”
ABS-CBN News, 21 June 2010]

The number of “poor” rose from 23 million in 2003 to 28 million in 2006, with average incomes dipping by 2.7% in the same span of time. Today, more than a third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Sure, you can plausibly take a forgiving position that it takes more than six/nine years to improve the lot of the masses, but then you’ll also have to reasonably argue why it has to get worse before it gets better for the lowest rungs of the economic strata while the rich get richer and the GDP gets higher.

[read more: “Politics of Poverty in the Philippines,” from Asia Times, 21 Mar 2008]

Furthermore, there was a culture of impunity that ravaged the country; rampant were extrajudicial killings even apart from those in the insurgent south. Some 140 journalists, whose freedom to practice is an indicator of a healthy democracy, have been killed in the Philippines since the establishment of democracy in 1986, 109 of them during the Arroyo years.

Corruption multiplied like bacteria on a warm petri dish (worth noting: the Fertilizer Scam and NBN-ZTE Scandal) as Gloria Arroyo romped off to all sorts of foreign trips, averaging 8 trips a year in her 9 years. She was also criticized for spending thousands of dollars on lavish dinners, when back at home, people were starving.

On 15 August 2009, this was a headline on The Philippine Star: “GMA [Arroyo] used P800-million emergency fund for foreign trips.”

On 26 September, Typhoon Ondoy (international codename Ketsana) made landfall in the Philippines. Nobody knew it was coming; it was supposed to be just another rainy day during monsoon season. For those of you outside the Philippines, you might remember the photos. Here, we remember the water, and the stinking mud, and the rising death tolls. It was the citizenry that undertook the weeks of rescue operations, with the army playing a supporting role, because of the incompetence of the national government to save its own people.

It was a sign that the Philippines was beginning to wake from the frustrated paralysis of its comatose.

On the morning of 23 November, in the southern province of Maguindanao, 57 civilians — including journalists, women and human rights workers — were massacred in broad daylight. They were convoying to file mayoral candidacy in the town of Sharif Aguak on behalf of the political rival of the incumbent Mayor Datu Andal Ampatuan Jr, scion of a notorious warlord clan closely allied with Arroyo. (The Ampatuan clan lords over this region in the south, and in the alleged 2004 electoral fraud, the clan supposedly “delivered” Maguindanao’s votes to Arroyo.) It came to be called the Maguindanao Massacre.

While the affront to justice and humanity cannot be overstated, events that followed also set off a constitutional debate. Arroyo declared martial law in the province — the first time since Marcos did so nationally in 1972. Lawmakers argued to no end about whether this was constitutional at all (grounds for declaration of ML is when both conditions are present: actual rebellion and when public safety requires it).Moreover, many lawmakers and civil society groups feared that if Congress let Arroyo get away with this one, it would set a precedent for future declarations of martial law, including in the capital. An unacceptable situation, especially with the growing public repudiation against Arroyo’s, as a colleague put it, “infinite quest for infinite power.”

[read more: “Outrage on Arroyo’s ‘brazen bid’ to stay in power”
from ABS-CBN News, 1 Dec 2009]

The “assault on democracy,” as incoming presidential peace adviser Ging Deles explained it to me in a separate interview back in April, would continue. And it moved faster, as desperation set in. Arroyo has made more than 250 midnight appointments not least the Chief Justice himself. The entire Supreme Court — the last refuge of justice in the Philippine political system — is now completely manned by Arroyo appointees. (Is Arroyo setting the stage to escape justice when her term is over?)

A recent tweet by historian and pundit Manolo Quezon gives us a glimpse (in 140 characters or less) of the ramifications of Arroyo’s actions, both recently and over the years:

“first few weeks/months [of the next president] will have to be spent identifying/defusing legal/bureaucratic landmines/boobie traps left by GMA [Arroyo].”

Continued in The Gathering Storm, Part II


  • Superb website you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics discussed here? I’d really love to be a part of online community where I can get responses from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thank you!

    • Bert

      I suggest you stay with this site and tell us what’s in your mind about things being discussed here.

      • Bert

        I assure you you’ll get your hands full of responses, maybe more than you can handle, maybe lang. :).