Making Sense of EDSA, 25 Years Later

Feb 28, 2011
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Freedom? Democracy? What exactly are we celebrating today?


“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


455 Millions of Filipinos gathered on the streets to call for Ferdinand Marcos to step down.


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.

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.

We might conclude that EDSA as a project has failed so far or is incomplete.

We Filipinos now have the benefit of hindsight – twenty-five years of it. As we reflect on those EDSA 1 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? 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 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 neighbours in the region. The nearly 10 years of economic growth that we have just witnessed produced very little in terms of social inclusion.

… the Philippines would have rivaled Singapore in achieving first world status by now if not for the uprising in February 1986.

Even taking the weaker argument that EDSA was only meant to usher democracy into consideration, there are many signposts that tell us that the 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.