On People Power
by Christine Balmes
The contemporary Filipino person’s struggle, coming from an awareness of his or her country’s history, is to be considered on equal standing with the rest of the world. She struggles to be a world player even as she retains her Philippine identity. But the lenses of conquest and colonialism portray the Filipino person as a loser, since her country’s history is full of stories of being overpowered and defeated by force: a Spanish colony for 333 years, an American one for 50, and Japan’s for 3 years. Additionally, with an economy racked by poverty and a government plagued by corruption, it’s difficult to imagine that the country can ever reach the might of more affluent countries like the United States. Moreover, history books tell us that the individual’s inability to escape his or her poverty is an inevitable consequence of biology and geography: because the Philippines is an archipelago, Filipinos have a regionalist mindset which they still retain to present day. Their multilingualism is proof that they still do not have a cohesive sense of belonging. Looking at Filipino-ness in this sense, one can’t help but believe that to be Filipino is to be baggaged. No wonder so many expatriates and balikbayans have this desire to expunge their Filipino background from their life story.
Yet there is another Philippine story that is not as often related, and it’s not a story of defeat but of victory: People Power, and what came after. There was a tyrant and his wife and there were men with guns, and innocents who got imprisoned or killed. There was a hero, and a bishop who took his side, and finally, a people who rebelled, and chose a heroine to be their leader. This female leader did not rise to power, but was raised to power by the will of the people. Though her rule was beset by natural disasters and attempts to overthrow her by a handful of men greedy for power, she nevertheless managed to bring her people to safety and stability, to peace and prosperity.
Nanays, and tatays, lolas, and lolos, titos, and titas: this is the story you must tell your children. People Power and the rule of President Cory Aquino is the real story of the Filipino. It’s not a story of defeat. See, all those other stories of being conquered, those weren’t our stories. It was always a story of some foreign power imposing its will on us. And in those stories, our sense of being Filipino was not yet fully developed. We still weren’t a nation in the sense that we didn’t all, from Apari to Jolo, understand or accept that we were Filipinos. But the People Power of 1982 is the first example of a Philippine Nation fully conscious of its identity, of its rights, and of its collective desire for freedom.
Why is People Power a uniquely Filipino invention? Because it’s a paradox. Because so many of the traditional rules of conflict were turned on their heads. Instead of settling the score the accepted way—muscle, massacre, and military might—we carried out our mutiny in peace. Because a faction of the military colluded with the civilians, and in order to succeed, the people had to protect the military, not the other way around. Because there was no separation of church and state. It was the archbishop who implored the people to create a human barrier around the camp where the two defectors were staying. (An archbishop whose last name, to illustrate the incongruity further, is Sin.) Because the person who was finally to succeed in uniting the oppositions was not the ambitious man everyone had pinned their hopes on, but his wife! An unassuming housewife. And at first, she didn’t even want to run for the presidency. It was only after one million Filipinos from all walks of life signed a petition asking for her candidacy that she finally agreed to run. Clearly, the people were thirsty for change, and she was the one to quench them.
But listen: People Power is a paradox only because we are looking at it from a particular tradition. All these “traditions”—that a nation achieves success through military prowess, that it is necessary to have a separation of church and state, and that a nation is founded by the heroics of ambitious men—are ideologies inherited from the Dominant West. These were traditions forced unto us and ground into our collective psyche over and over again with each succeeding Imperialist. You’d think we’d have learned the formula for “democracy” by the second time the Americans came around. But we didn’t follow a single thing they taught us. In fact, with People Power, we showed how great our learning was by ignoring everything “the masters” said and installing democracy our own way. And what do you know, we won.
Our history is rife with loss, but People Power represents a part of Philippine history where we triumphed. We excelled, and we were world leaders, and we showed the rest of humanity how to effect change without using the traditional methods of guns and armour, but through our collective agreement that injustice and unnecessary violence are wrong. We challenged the limits to our freedom and chose to be at the place where we needed to be when we needed to be. No shots were fired at us, and we fired no shots at them. And when the dust had settled, we knowingly chose as our leader a woman. Not just any woman, but a mother and a housewife. We regained the freedom we had lost and we won not just against Marcos but against all the powers that have tried to subdue us and enforce upon us a way of life that we didn’t believe in. With our complicity, because we were all there compelled by the same desire, we created change. And when we succeeded, we reached a state of maturity, a state of national identity. As a people, that is the time when we discovered who we are and what we were made of, and we were proud to be Filipino. We were not only shoulder-to-shoulder with the nations of long and deep histories, we were the leaders of them. Quite simply, we showed the world a different way of accomplishing things that did not involve destruction.
What are the lessons we must pick up from People Power? To begin with, the model for a successful democracy, the one often hailed by the Western governments of “peacekeeping” and use of overpowering violence, is not modular. It doesn’t apply to all countries and all situations, and should not be forced on all countries for all situations. As well, when everything seems hopeless and all the old rules of order and stability no longer work, it’s the most unassuming individuals who answer to the call for reform. People Power is blatant proof that we should continue to educate our women and give them the same opportunities as our men, so that we can collectively meet the problems that plague us. Because, when we’re all of one mind to accomplish something important, when we all value the same things, we’re capable of defeating the evils around us. And anger, as People Power showed, can be used productively. It may, in fact, be necessary to effect change. My mother, who attended People Power, described the atmosphere of generosity and goodwill that permeated the crowds during that time. “Everyone was sharing food and helping each other out. In another person, they no longer saw ‘other,’ only themselves.” And yet, underlying this goodwill is a common disillusionment and anger with the oppressive Marcos regime.
Above all, what we can learn from this as Filipinos is pride. It was during People Power that a nation that began as a motley of islands took a collective look at its current state of affairs and decided to create change. As my mother noted, “The show of unity during those times is only a glimpse of what Pinoys are capable of.”
Yet, it is easy to miss this lesson altogether. Reading the blog entries that have cropped up since Mrs. Aquino’s death, I encountered one that ended on a hopeless note. Recounting Mrs. Aquino’s pivotal role during 1986 People Power and the subsequent People Powers, the blogger cried, “Who will walk with us now?” But this sense of abandonment is not the right mindset. Mrs. Aquino was a key player in People Power, but she wasn’t the only one who made it happen. It was the millions of Filipinos—still alive today!—who changed history that day. People Power lives inside us, and will forever be part of our collective and individual histories, running through our minds like blood in our veins. If we only remember this story and pass it on to our children, there will be no such thing as self-hate and shame in our Diasporic psyche. To revisit the story and relive its lessons is the most important thing we can do for ourselves, and frankly, the greatest honor we can pay to the memory of Cory Aquino.