EDSA: From Dictatorship To Democracy

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


When the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution removed a dictator, it was not only the physical Ferdinand Marcos that Filipinos sought to get rid of, it was also what he represented. Much has been said of his brilliance as a lawyer, his journey to political greatness, his brand of leadership. Yet, great power in the hands of a person without great character is like a nuclear bomb in the control of a lunatic.

In the snap elections between the dictator and all his forces versus a housewife and all her volunteers, intimidation and money were not able to make Marcos win convincingly. In fact, he must have lost because he had to cheat, he had to monkey with vote counts (as what Juan Ponce Enrile had admitted happened in Cagayan Valley), and he had to manipulate computer results. In the end, even cheating was not enough. To stay in power, Marcos had to order his armed forces to send tanks and soldiers to disperse the peaceful Edsa gathering. Unfortunately for him, flowers and prayers stopped, then converted, the Marcos forces instead.

Filipinos finally stood up to express their longing for freedom. They risked all in Edsa, but did it peacefully. Their reward was a miraculous victory that removed the dictator – and returned freedom.

It is the 27th anniversary of that revolution, of that spontaneous and peaceful uprising against a perverted value system which used rear and bribery to make a people pliant and submissive. The acceptance of corruption was embedded into our psyche by a regime that was looting our treasures and treasury. When we won our freedom back, winning our morality and conscience proved to be much harder. Corruption had become endemic in the bureaucracy and accepted as normal our societal life.

There are many who became disillusioned after Edsa People Power. They thought that returning integrity was as easy as returning freedom. Filipinos in a spectacular collective action earned their freedom back. But the fight against corruption is oftentimes more individual in nature because it demands our personal character to choose virtue over self-interest. It is not government that defeats corruption, it is the citizens who do not compromise the dictates of their conscience. Government merely follows what people believe and support – unless that government is dictatorial or authoritarian.

The recovery of freedom opened for democracy to walk into Philippine life. The path of democracy does not begin and end with a thousand steps. The easiest government is dictatorship. It needs only a dictator to lead and everybody else to obey. Democracy needs everyone to decide so the leader can follow.

The strengthening of democracy is its only objective. And democracy cannot grow strong unless the people grow strong. And poor people are weak people. People with little or no options are weak people. Hungry people are weak people. People with no security of tenure and without decent homes are weak people. And the more of these weak people make a weak democracy – like ours in 1986.

The greatest feat that has made democracy stronger in our land is our own people, the once weak who found the courage to leave their families and earn for them from another country. The birth and growth of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) must be the one single most important achievement that has moved tens of millions from little income to more income, from landlessness and homelessness to house and lot, from little opportunity to much more.

At a price, of course, at a steep price.  The best of people’s lives, and sometimes all their lives, are sacrificed to the altar of loneliness. Spouses living apart, families with one parent, or none at all. A steep price to win opportunity, but not less steep to win freedom, not less steep to grow democracy.

As many families have broken their inherited impoverished pattern, more continue to be left behind. These will have much less chances to go abroad, to look for jobs there, to win a new course of life for their families. Most of the very poor cannot climb that pathway by themselves. They needs big brothers to reach out and hold their hands – then pull them up to their feet. The very poor are crippled, no less incapable as the physically disabled – and even more emotionally unprepared.

After the effort to dismantle corruption, it is the raising of the poor from their dependency to where they can begin their journey of freedom and self-reliance that is the next greatest challenge to the strengthening of democracy. The dynamic and creative genius of the Filipino who has been empowered is already making the Philippines one of the top performing economies of the world. The presidency of President Benigno S. Aquino III is the most major facelift of a country and people once seen as corrupt and a basket case, now the global destination of choice.

Twenty-seven years after Edsa People Power, a new revolution is sweeping the land and making Filipinos proud and prouder of their country, and themselves. It is more fun in the Philippines, as the Department of Tourism aptly claims. It is also more profitable according to many global financial experts. That is a hard combination to beat – fun and profit. Democracy at its best.

Serious problems remain. Corruption has not been exorcised in Philippine bureaucracy even if P-Noy has cut if off at his level. Poverty has defied tens of billions spent in the CCT program but has found a focused and determined effort to combat it. But it is also time to enjoy the fruits of our labor – if only to make us labor more. And to remind us that 27 years has brought us from a dictatorship to democracy.

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