Confronting EDSA Fictions: Renewing our Collective Memory
Twenty-five years after EDSA 1, we have yet to come to an agreement on its precise meaning and significance.
The hard Left and disillusioned elements tend to treat it as a historical cipher, a mere blip in the radar screen of this country’s long history of unfinished revolutions. No revolution has really happened, for it was neither a genuine transfer of power to the people nor a decisive overturning of the old order of patronage politics and class privilege.
Military forces who got thrust at its center had arrogated for themselves its quirky success as a historical project, as if it were mainly their own making instead of the failed mutiny that it was until, by happenstance, it turned into a popular uprising against the Marcos regime.
Those whose personal histories are entangled with the dark days of authoritarianism cynically dismiss it as a mere chapter in the long contest for power between opposing political dynasties in this country. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in a television interview, once reduced its significance to ‘mere politics.’ The toppling of his father from power was but part of the usual ups and downs in the game of fortune that goes by the name of politics in this country.
From the perspective of one who, like the many `nameless Filipinos who crowded at EDSA, was a direct participant in the events of those epochal four days, I wish to propose at least two ways of framing this upheaval: one, as a direct assertion of popular will in the face of the institutional hardness of a repressive regime; and two, as a peculiarly indigenous form of protest that is continuous with the fusion of the religious and the political in previous wars of liberation and resistance.
The events at EDSA1 have been unduly ideologized into either a liberal democratic project – the ‘restoration of democracy’ – or, negatively, a ‘non-revolution’ when measured in traditional marxist terms.
The fact is that majority of those who rushed to add to the body count at EDSA were animated, not primarily by the thought of restoring lost democratic rights, but by the more primal sense that by standing there bravely, -- unmoved by the prospect of being mowed down by gunfire or crushed by onrushing tanks -- one could stay the hand of bloodshed. It was not so much to defend the defecting soldiers – failed mutineers trapped like rats in Camp Aguinaldo – that I and my friends staked our lives; it was more because we had this collective sense that by being there, we were somehow putting an end to the monstrous power that had ruled us for so long.
It is a mistake to appropriate ‘people power’ as an instance of a re-assertive civil society fighting for democracy as elaborated by western liberalism with its highly developed language for ‘rights.’ What we were fighting for was more fundamental – the right to breathe the air of freedom. It was the primal instinct to be rid of a repressive regime that prompted such massive droves of our people to seize a historic opportunity to take direct action
I suppose this is also what all peoples in corrupt and repressive regimes long for – whether in contexts of right-wing autocracies as in Latin America or left-wing totalitarianism as in Eastern Europe, or now in the Islamic societies of the Arab world.
What we are seeing these days is the re-surfacing of the ancient truth that tyranny – whether in the guise of a semblance of secular democracy or donned up by a religious collar – has an expiration date. It is in the nature of evil to deceive us into thinking that powerful hegemonies will last forever. But the inspirational influence of our kind of People Power lies precisely in demonstrating that despotism has limited longevity. It can be ended by a peaceable people who boldly take to the streets unarmed, fortified merely by a just cause.
This is not to say that EDSA1 was completely devoid of ideological content.
It is simply to say that in going out into the streets our people did not derive their motivational force from civil society discourse, much less the notion that we were waging a class-driven struggle. It was a fresh and simple response to the hard intransigence of a long-entrenched authoritarianism.
Subsequent events would of course make us wonder what it was we fought for. The accidental heroes from the ranks of the military, wanting to foist on us their delusionary vision, mounted a series of coups against the fledgling government, The old apparatus of traditional politics re-installed itself. The recycled faces of the Marcos regime strutted back into center stage. The old order morphed into a new round of autocratic rule, gross corruption and extra-judicial killings, all in the name of a strong republic and the war on terror.
What this tells us is that there is a profound disconnect between our supposedly restored democratic institutions and the actual culture that animates our political life. A huge gap exists between our democratic aspirations as shown in EDSA and the efficacy of our institutions to deliver on that promise.
This brings us to consider the possibility that the dysfunction may be due to a certain lack of fit between the categories and structures by which we seek to explain and institutionalize the meaning of EDSA1 and the culture that could make them truly operative.
A religio-political fusion
At the moment, available data indicate that perhaps, the bloodless transfer of power, the fiesta atmosphere, and the reconciling gestures between soldier and people could be accounted to the culture’s deep sense of ‘pakikipag-kapwa’, this sense of shared identity which lies just underneath our seeming fractiousness as a people.
At EDSA, we saw united a motley crowd of rich and poor, Christians and Muslims, society matrons and plain housewives, soldiers and activists of various political colors. We surprised ourselves and found us capable of coming together for a revolutionary project of some magnitude. For once, in that one brief shining moment, we were a nation.
Evident but little analyzed is the religious dimension at EDSA1. The powerful intervention of Jaime Cardinal Sin, the ubiquitous presence of nuns, priests, the Virgin Mary and the hordes of religious movements that formed the mass of grassroots participation, along with pockets of organized civil society groups, has yet to be thoroughly documented as a social phenomenon. The propensity to readily account to God and the supernatural events and signs deemed to be miraculous speaks of a culture that at bottom is sensitive to the spiritual.
It is this dimension that most baffles social scientists and defies usual ways of categorization. The sociologist Randy David, referring to this, once remarked to me, “I have been a student of revolutions. But this is the first time I have seen a revolution led by the Virgin Mary.” At night during those four days, the statue of the La Naval de Manila goes on procession and is carried up and down the length of EDSA. This was done in the belief that as in ancient days, the statue would ward off evil and bring protection.
Prayer was a major activity of almost all the participants at EDSA, religious and nonreligious alike, especially when the tanks revved up their engines and proceeded to try and break up the human barricades before them. All we could do then was stand together, arm in arm, and implore the Almighty to hold at bay the hand of violence.
It was perhaps this element of supplication before ‘Him whose nature is always to have mercy’ that spelled the difference between what happened at EDSA and at Tienanmen Square.
I have never seen a nation so massively on its knees. Our group, Konsiyensiya ng Febrero Siete ( KONFES ), was tasked with organizing the various religious groups camped along the walls of Camp Aguinaldo. It was a sight to behold. The Muslims spread their mats and bowed in prayer five times a day. The brown-clad women of the Legion of Mary intoned their rosaries and novenas come Angelus time. The evangelicals sang their rousing hymns, which now and again would be picked up by Radio Veritas and DZAS as a way of pepping up the crowd and the troops.
Surely, this was no way to conduct a revolution. But the scene reminded me of how, at various times in our history, our people had rebelled in a similar way, -- fusing the religious and the political seamlessly in protest against the abuses of the friars. The figure of Hermano Pule in the 1840s, a quasi-religious leader of millenarian movements round Mount Banahaw, loomed in the distance.
What happened in 1986 seems continuous with a kind of politics, yet unnamed, that is rooted in a depth of spirituality that now and again surfaces in events like that of the two EDSAs. It is uncanny that a popular movement of this magnitude should get repeated in 2001 and display similar characteristics.
It is perhaps this element that makes EDSA1 autochthonous and peculiarly ours, even as it resonates with peoples everywhere who are struggling to overthrow oppressive regimes.