DID we witness on Sunday People Power gasping for air?
Why can’t we remember the event with dignity and without humbug?
This is a pity, because EDSA was indubitably an authentic explosion of popular energies for a brief span of four days in the country. It began as an act by government executives and soldiers of withdrawing support from President Marcos and his government. It spread like an octopus among government and military supporters. It then spiraled into a wide-ranging revolt involving the masses, and it would build up until it finally culminated in the departure of Marcos for exile in Hawaii.
At birth, People Power, or EDSA, was a unique once-in-a-lifetime event, comparable even to the storming of the Bastille in France and the 10 days that shook the world in Russia.
But since 1986, the nation has groped incompetently for the proper way to perpetuate the memory of the event. It has tried all schemes to freshen or refreshen the commemoration every year, even tried to turn it into a pop festival and an art exhibit. But nothing worked. Nothing could inspire succeeding generations to embrace it as an authentic emblem of national glory.
With Malacañang calling the shots at every commemoration, the ritual has gradually been hollowed out and emptied of meaning—so much so that this year the EDSA commemoration looked mechanical.
Odyssey of people power
It occurred to me that EDSA could be compared to the event memorialized in “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In the American anthem, Francis Scott Key wrote the words: ”Oh, say, can you see/By the dawn’s early light/What so proudly we hailed/At the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Key was writing about the US flag during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. The commander of Fort Henry had commissioned a flag so large that it could be seen flying over the fort from several miles away. He suggests that the flag could be seen by the last light before nightfall and by the first light in the morning.
I think of Key’s expressive imagery, as I contemplate the strange odyssey of People Power from February 25, 1986 to February 25, 2018—from a time of spontaneous popular rising to the near absent public enthusiasm for all that EDSA once signified.
EDSA or People Power never found its poet or historian. All it has is plenty of hagiographers and demonizers of the enemy.
Yet in terms of magnitude and impact, EDSA probably has more substance and involved more people than Fort Henry. Americans simply tell their story better and remember it.
No words connected
Last Sunday, tons of words were declaimed by many who worship by the spirit of EDSA, and swear to this day that the event was the precursor of the color revolutions and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990, and lighted the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2010-2012.
For all the rhetoric and TV time, however, none of the speakers and none of the words connected. No one touched a nerve or stirred the heart.
A number of Edsa veterans, led by former President Fidel V. Ramos, showed up, and they dutifully recited a few words to mark the occasion. Strikingly, no one dared to make the extravagant claim that what took place at EDSA in 1986 was a revolution.
There were a fair number of marchers and commemorators last Sunday, and they all sought to press their own message.
The militants, surprisingly present and quite visible, were predictably impassioned and discursive before the cameras, lending credence anew to the verdict that the communists’ biggest regret about EDSA is that they boycotted it.
The religious, some priests and nuns and a smattering of the faithful, came to be counted and perform the ritualistic prayers and incantations. They fasted for what they called “our dying democracy.”
The yellow crowd, hardly showed up. The once ubiquitous yellow color at Edsa commemorations has vanished along with the years. Missing particularly were the Liberal Party politicians; none of the Aquinos came, as if saying that they will no longer assert a proprietary claim on people power as Cory once did.
Instead of yellow, this year’s commemoration rained red, white and blue confetti—the colors of the national flag—at EDSA.
The military presence was muted and discreet. And President Duterte chose to mark EDSA Day in Davao City.
One huge drawback of this year’s commemoration was the fact that the real leaders of the coup—former Marcos defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Sen. Gringo Honasan and their fellow military rebels— did not go to this year’s remembering. They probably dreaded the microphones that the media would surely thrust at them, urging them to say something memorable.
As it was, those who did most of the talking didn’t know how EDSA came about or why.
A civil war about EDSA
Why is EDSA such a dead weight on the country now? Why don‘t Filipinos get up to celebrate the 25th of February?
First, I think the country is in civil war about EDSA and People Power. The nation was never united about the coup and the exile of Marcos when it happened. The country was sharply divided during the February 1986 snap election, and remained divided after the overthrow.
If the people were divided between Marcos and Cory, they were even more divided about the claim that People Power constituted a revolution in their society. It does not even pass as an authentic program of political and social reform. President Cory Aquino turned out to be an inept national leader.
Cory was not a unifying force amidst the great divisions in Philippine society. She chose to govern as a revolutionary leader. She double-crossed her vice president Salvador Laurel, dissolved the national assembly, dismissed the members of the Supreme Court, and dismissed all local government officials and replaced them all with her appointees. She ordered a new constitution to be written by personages that she handpicked.
She backed up these undemocratic moves with an unremitting effort to demonize former president Marcos, and deny political space to political rivals and critics.
Is it surprising that since Cory Aquino’s death in2009, there is now scarcely a single legacy of the lady, unless we count the presidency of her son, Benigno Aquino 3rd, whose own saga of misgovernance threatens to wipe out two generations of Aquinos in the presidency.
Alienation from Noynoy Aquino sank EDSA and People Power to the depths. Calling people power EDSA turned out to be doubly unfortunate. As the avenue became infamous for monstrous traffic and the failure of the metro transit system, People Power also took a hit. EDSA evokes instinctive dismay and repulsion among Filipinos.
We cannot escape history
The executives of Cory Aquino and her successors never made a serious effort to build a credible narrative about People Power and historic EDSA. Instead, they only left behind the unsightly image of the Virgin Mary at Robinson’s mall. Hardly a soul notices the image now. It has become emblematic of the decay of people power.
This is what happens when people do not know how to remember the past. The indifferent commemoration of People Power is the result of the relentless wearing away of all that it once signified.
But it could have been different and more ennobling. To get an idea of how different, I call attention to the words of Abraham Lincoln, who sought to make his people remember even as they were living through the throes of civil war.
In one of his greatest speeches, which transcended the limits of the event, the annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, he told his countrymen:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.
The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this.
We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it.
We—even we here—hold the power… and bear the responsibility.
In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve.
We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
People Power needs this kind of eloquence. Then Filipinos will remember and never forget.