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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

People Power: A Definition

February 22, 2010 is the 25th Anniversary of the first of the four-day people’s power uprising in the Philippines. The uprising spontaneously started through a failed military coup but for 25 years since the overhyped revolution did the military coup really failed?

One of my political science lecturers once asked: “Define people power?”

In the Philippines, Filipinos will immediately recall the event in 1986 that ousted Ferdinand Marcos. Many defined people power as a series of nonviolent and prayerful mass street demonstrations. Outside the Philippines, people power is nonviolent mass-based revolutions that ended the Cold War and brought democracy to Eastern Europe. Some scholars attributed the uprising in the Philippines as instrumental in inspiring subsequent nonviolent revolutions from the late 1980s to early 2000s.

Of course, there are different types of people power. The 1986 people power’s uprising in Manila was basically standing in the streets waiting for a miracle and the real action was the tag-of-war (who can recruit more officers and soldiers) between two most powerful generals in the Armed Forces. Another form of people power is the active mass demonstration where the people willing to clash with the authority. The EDSA Tres (a.k.a. People Power III) in May 2001 was a perfect example of that form of people power. The EDSA Dos (a.k.a. People Power II), on the other hand, was a mixed version of the original and the new form of people power. 

Anyway, EDSA Tres’ version of people power also happened (since 2006) in Myanmar, Thailand, Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain where the people willing to clash with the authorities or the authorities (military or police) are involved in suppressing the mass demonstration. Some failed (e.g. Myanmar, Thailand) while others succeed (Tunisia, Egypt).

Let's go back to my lecturer’s question: “Define people power?”

I defined people power as a combination of a military coup and civil disobedience. The 1986 uprising and the ouster of Estrada in 2001 are the examples of that definition. Without the military, those two events are just another mass protest and of course, without the people it is just another military coup. We have seen thousands of mass protests in the Philippines since February 1986 and many of those attempts to emulate people power yet they all failed. We also seen several military coup attempts after EDSA and yes they all failed as well. Yet when we combined both mass protests and military coup it succeeded in January 2001 just as it succeeded in February 1986. The only difference between the two events was that in 1986, the military needed the people while in 2006; the people needed the military to topple the leader.

Somehow, many Filipinos today, from historians to even participants downplayed the vital role of the military in people’s power uprising in order to glorify certain individuals and covering up the restoration of the old oligarchy. In Philippine history textbooks today, the main hero of the 1986 uprising (to some the only hero) was the housewife who only turn up in EDSA after the majority of the military swung their support to the Ramos faction. She then restored not just a very flawed democracy but also her own social class (the political landowning elites) back to power instead of creating a completely new system.

The events in February 1986 are still celebrated today by many Filipinos who are still blinded by the yellow ribbon. In fact, they even elected the son of the housewife to the presidency using her and her husband’s legacies as enough merit in electing the current president.

Anyway, did that military coup attempt in 1986 really failed?

The answer is NO. It did not.

General Fabian Ver and General Fidel Ramos
Prior to 1986, the Philippine military was divided into separate factions and cliques. One obvious division was the rivalry of two powerful generals, General Fabian Ver and General Fidel Ramos. Both are Marcos cousins and both personified the division in the military between the reserved officers (ROTC) and the professional soldiers (academy graduates). Ver was an ROTC-commissioned officer who rose through the ranks of the military through political patronage and personal loyalty to Ferdinand Marcos. Ramos, on the other hand, was a West Point (USMA) graduate, a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars; he trained and created elite military units such as the Philippine Army’s Special Forces and the Philippine Constabulary’s Special Action Force.

The division leads to factionalism in the military, junior officers began forming their own cliques in the armed forces. The most prominent was the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM); compose of junior officers (academy graduates). Another group was the Guardian Brotherhood, composed of enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. Along with the emergence of factionalism in the military is military adventurism.

In 1983, General Ramos and his protégé Colonel Renato De Villa created the Philippine Constabulary Special Action Force, the only military unit directly under the control of Ramos after his rival General Ver re-structured the entire Philippine Constabulary into regional commands. The moved weakened Ramos control over the Constabulary service in attempt by Ver to reduced his rival’s influence in the military. Throughout the 1980s, Marcos was sick and weakened by his kidney surgery, and some officers in the military feared that General Ver and First Lady Imelda Marcos might takeover Malacanang once the President died. As a result, General Ramos and his officers designed a coup plot, known as the “Exercise Ligtas Isla”. The plot will only be operational once Ver and the First Lady takeover the leadership.

At the same time, a group of junior officers associated to Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile formed the Reformed the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). The group demands reforms and restoration of professionalism in the Armed Forces. Many of the junior officers are academy graduates who spent a big deal of their careers facing the brunt of communists and Moro insurgencies. Many of them were prevented from promotion because of the promotion blockage from the overstaying generals and the favoritism of reservist officers. After the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the group decided that the problem is Marcos and that reform and professionalism will not happen as long as Marcos is in Malacanang. The RAM officers then plotted their own coup against Marcos and plan to set up a military junta with Enrile as the country’s president. The plot was set to take place at the end of 1985 but was postponed after Marcos announced a Snap Election.

After the announcement of the snap election, the RAM officers decided to launch the coup after the election. However, on February 22, 1986, General Ver and his men discovered the plot and coup plotters were forced to announced their defection from the Marcos government. When the Archbishop of Manila calls for the people to go to EDSA and protect the military rebels, thus combining an open military mutiny with the already existing civil disobedience it becomes people power. The military coup failed at first but it did succeed at the end with the help of the people not because of a woman in a yellow dress.

Next: “People Power and Elite Democracy in the Philippines”


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