“I know, for a fact, we cannot go back to the old society, where a few enjoy the fat of the land, and the many suffer. But today, in spite of martial law, the rich are getting richer and the poor are growing in numbers. That cannot be. The meaning of our struggle is to be able to return the freedom. First, you must return the freedom so that all segments of our community, whether from the left or from the right will have the right to speak, and then in that open debate, in that clash of debate in the marketplace, we will produce the clash between the thesis and the antithesis and we will have the synthesis for the Filipino people.” – Ninoy Aquino, Los Angeles, February 15, 1982
That in a nutshell was Ninoy Aquino’s raison d’etre for continuing his struggle against the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos back in 1981 when he spoke before a gathering in Los Angeles. That was his reason for deciding to go back to the Philippines after spending seven years and seven months in prison, having in the process endured periods of solitary confinement, a forty day hunger strike and as a consequence of that a heart by-pass operation performed on him in the US.
Despite his enjoying the comforts of freedom at the time having been granted indefinite leave from prison after his operation and having accepted a fellowship at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, Ninoy was committed to his cause. Even if it meant incarceration, he said that if it would help speed up the return of democracy to the Philippines before things took a truly ugly turn for the worse, he would dedicate every last ounce of his blood to make it happen.
I saw for myself the simple yet comfortable life he had made for himself and his family. In May 1982, while on a cross-country tour of the United States, my family and I paid a visit to the Aquinos in Boston. Their home had become a Mecca of sorts for opposition figures like my father who ran with him in the 1978 parliamentary elections under the party Lakas ng Bayan. So almost like a revolving door, Ninoy welcomed us in just as Joe Burgos, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Malaya was about to leave. This was the second time I was to meet Ninoy. The first was at his home on Times Street during his three week furlough from prison in December 1979.
For three days, Ninoy acted as our tour guide. Each day he would take us from the Holiday Inn where we were staying and drive us around in his station wagon to see the major sites in the city including the JFK Memorial Center, Harvard of course, Bunker Hill, the aquarium and the port where some ships from the Boston Tea Party were docked, not to mention the local Toys R Us store!
One night he brought us home and we got to chat with Cory in their dining room while their kids watched television in the adjacent lounge (see photo). After spending the whole day listening to Ninoy recount the many tales he had, this time it was Mrs Aquino who did most of the talking. The contrast was obvious. While Ninoy who had gained a few pounds since the last time I saw him was very jovial and showed no sign of rancor or bitterness from all the years he had suffered in prison, you could tell from the way Cory spoke in her soft-spoken manner that they had indeed been through hell and back.
And so the question was would Ninoy Aquino return to the Philippines after having felt abandoned by his people for so long. The answer was an emphatic yes. And the reason? Well, it was as he put it to restore freedom. This was as he said in his speech what our forefathers had died for, and it was what countless Filipinos were dying for at the time. He wanted to restore it not by force but through peaceful means following the example of Mahatma Gandhi in India.
This is what transpired although not in the manner he had foreseen. Had Ninoy lived, he would have sought to bring about a political settlement along the lines of South Africa’s end to apartheid. Knowing how Marcos operated though it would not have been easy. Events in the Philippines might instead have mirrored those in Zimbabwe where despite a power-sharing deal with the opposition, President Mugabe remains in charge of the military and continues to oppress his people.
We know from his speeches that Ninoy was in talks with Nur Misuari of the MNLF as well as the Communist Party of the Philippines. He would have sought to bring to the table all political forces to forge an end to conflict by promising a more open democratic space through political and social reforms. The political philosophy that he personally espoused was based on Christian Socialism or the left of center social democrat ideology, but he did not claim to have the solution for governing the 48 million Filipinos at the time and was willing to work with parties of all political persuasion to find one.
A Quarter Century Hence
As we look back on the 25th anniversary of EDSA People Power I, there is a sense of poignancy to this year’s commemoration with the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The desire and yearning for freedom it seems is not confined to the West alone. You might say that the social cauldron that prevailed in the Philippines at the time prevails in these countries now as well. These conditions being a large urban population, with a growing proportion of them under 30 years of age and well-educated, coupled with high unemployment and corrupt, oppressive rulers that have overstayed their welcome.
The utility of material wealth in the absence of guaranteed political and civil rights in this environment is greatly diminished as repressive rulers can at any time arbitrarily strip these privileges away. As evidence mounts on the extent to which these rulers will preserve their grip on power (which in a digital age becomes impossible to cover up), the citizenry begin to demand freedom and are willing to lay down their lives for it. This is exactly what happened in the lead up to EDSA I and to the MENA uprisings.
But, unlike those living in the MENA region, we have the benefit of hindsight–twenty five years of it. As humans we are often prone to try and make sense of past events. As we reflect on those days, we find ourselves asking what did it all mean? What was it all about? Apart from bringing down a dictator and restoring democracy, was there/is there anything more that they were supposed to deliver or signify?
How we answer these questions will determine the way we ultimately evaluate the event. If we say that EDSA was meant to usher in social reforms that would underwrite our political and economic development as a nation, we might conclude that EDSA as a project has failed so far or is incomplete. If we say that EDSA was just meant to bring back democratic “space” from which society could get on with the task of reforming itself, then we might say yes, EDSA has truly delivered all that it promised or is in the process of delivering.
Unfortunately, many seem to to take the former view that EDSA has failed. Even Bongbong Marcos, son of the deposed Ferdinand, and now a senator has on the eve of the celebrations tried to engage in some historical revisionism by saying that the Philippines would have rivaled Singapore in achieving first world status by now if not for the uprising in February. Expectations are for him to make a bid for the presidency in 2016 using the relatively well-off North as his base.
The more progressive elements in our society point to the incomplete retrieval of the hidden wealth of the Marcoses and their cronies, the lack of closure for the human rights victims of Martial Law, the continuing conflict with the communists and the Islamic separatists in the south, and the unfulfilled promise of agrarian reform that all point to the failure of EDSA I in bringing about social justice and social equity for the broad majority of Filipinos.
In many of the indicators of human development such as child and maternal health, poverty, hunger and education, the Philippines is lagging behind its neighbors in the region. The nearly ten years of economic growth that we have just witnessed produced very little in terms of social inclusion.
Even taking the weaker argument that EDSA was only meant to usher in democracy into consideration, there are many signposts that tell us that project remains incomplete. The nation has slipped from being a “full democracy” to being a “flawed democracy” in the Economist’s Democracy Index. As a result of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and violence against journalists, the impunity index ranks the country as among the top offenders in this regard.
The conduct of the last elections shows the costly nature of our electoral system and the prevalence of electoral fraud. The flawed judicial system and the low rankings of the country in several rule of law indicators shows just how prone our legal system is to corruption. The restoration of the old order of elite politics, the old society that Ninoy had argued was untenable is demonstrated by the prevalence of warlords and money politics.
Indeed from both the broad objective of inclusive development to the more narrow one of creating democratic space, the EDSA I revolution seems to be an imperfect one. How then can this be rectified?
Perhaps it starts with us envisioning where we want our nation to be over the next twenty five years. A quarter century hence in the year 2036, what kind of country or society do we want for ourselves, our children and grandchildren? Given the experience of the previous quarter century, there is much to be done.
It would take the same indomitable spirit that Ninoy showed to ensure that this impossible dream of his is realized.