The Years Before EDSA
By Jon D. Melegrito
Thirty years ago, Filipinos stood tall in the eyes of the world for having toppled a dictatorship that ruled their country for 14 years. They restored democracy. They were once again free to chart their own destiny.
The author’s nine-year-old daughter, Desiree (left), participated in protest actions AGAINST THE MARCOS DICTATORSHIP such as this one near the White House in 1981. (Photo by Jon Melegrito)
Here in the nation’s capital, we commemorated those four days in February 1986 with recollections of our own role in the so-called “People Power Revolution.” Organized by the Philippine Embassy and the Philippine Arts, Letters and Media (PALM) Council, the 30th anniversary’s theme was “Pagbabago: Ipinaglaban N’yo, Itutuloy Ko!” Essentially, it means renewing the fight that many risked their lives to wage.
As Amb. Jose L. Cuisia aptly puts it, “The 1986 People Power Revolution was not only a turning point in Philippine history but also a source of inspiration for oppressed peoples everywhere. It was an unequivocal proof that a nation’s yearning for freedom and democracy could never be totally suppressed and that it could give the people the courage to rise above their fears and pessimism.”
There are many reasons, of course, to celebrate a historic moment when a people yearning to be free put their lives on the line and stood up to a ruthless dictator. Thousands suffered, disappeared and died. Like Ninoy Aquino, who said “the Filipino is worth dying for,” those who fought were martyrs to the cause.
Washington DC was the center of attention during those four days in February. President Reagan was under pressure to cut off his ties to his friend Marcos and withdraw US support from his regime. Massive demonstrations in front of the White House called on Reagan to officially embrace Cory Aquino as the duly elected president. When the US finally decided to side with the people’s uprising, forcing Marcos to flee, there was universal praise for People Power. It became a model for peaceful regime change across the globe.
Aquino Assassination. The 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino, it will be recalled, sparked the events leading to EDSA, the highway where two million Filipinos gathered. In those three years, people broke their silence and overcame their fears. They started to protest publicly and called for elections.
Opposition groups here in the US – notably the Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship (CAMD) and the Movement for Free Philippines – joined forces and staged almost weekly demonstrations in solidarity with their kababayans. CAMD and MFP also stepped up their lobbying in Capitol Hill, eventually winning over the support of many US Senators and US Representatives.
Forced to call for snap elections in November 1985, Marcos desperately hang on to power by attempting to subvert the people’s choice. “Tama Na, Sobra Na!” (Enough is Enough) became the battle cry of the “Parliament in the Streets.”
While the three years, from 1983-1986, and the four days in February were dramatic and exciting, it’s important to note that 10 years before the assassination, many Filipinos were already engaged in a defiant struggle to end Marcos rule and his repressive military machine. Even before martial law was declared in 1972, there had been massive student protests. Most notable was “The First Quarter Storm,” a series of demonstrations, protests, and marches against the government from January to March 1970.
Despite the military crackdown and blatant human rights abuses of the regime, the resistance persevered. Activists here in the U.S., led by the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (KDP) staged lightning pickets in front of Philippine consulates, protested US support in front of the White House and Capitol Hill, and stalked Imelda Marcos during her shopping sprees – all to expose the abuses of the regime.
Those were years of silence, fear and terror. The Filipino community was largely quiet, no doubt intimidated to come out because of relatives back home. It was up to a handful of activists to keep on fighting. Which meant putting personal and family interests aside, even risking their jobs. They knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Two KDP activists and labor organizers (Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes) in Seattle were assassinated on Marcos’ orders, mainly to send a message to other activists who dared challenge him.
When Reagan hosted a state visit for Marcos in 1982, KDP activists had to take precautions after learning that his goons were visiting our homes and leaving threatening messages. I had to wear a bullet-proof vest and arranged for our 10-year-old daughter Desiree to be escorted to school. Still, our small band of protesters made enough noise and raised enough doubt in the U.S. media about Marcos’ popularity.
A year later, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. While that triggered a chain of events that led to People Power, it was the relentless defiance the years before of activists in the Philippines and their supporters here in the US that weakened the dictatorship, undermined his value to US policy makers and eventually demolished his authoritarian rule.
It’s not enough to remember EDSA. It’s the vigilance and the militant struggle waged in the trenches during those dark years that made the dawn of a new day possible.