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Looking for church at the #MillionPeopleMarch

/ 09:14 PM August 26, 2013

In August 1999, or just over a year after the popular Joseph Estrada took office as the country’s 13th president, a major protest rally brought the Makati central business district to a standstill. A hundred thousand people, perhaps 120,000 at the most, occupied the intersection of Ayala Avenue and Paseo de Roxas; they were there, mainly, for three reasons: They went to signal their disapproval of the Estrada administration’s Charter change campaign; they went to sympathize with the plight of the Manila Times, then recently shuttered, and the Inquirer, then undergoing the second month of an unprecedented advertising boycott, both in circumstances many believed to have been orchestrated by Malacañang; not least, they went because Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino asked them to.

In the history of mass demonstrations, the Aug. 20, 1999 rally may pale when compared with the true milestones: the largest funeral in our history, when millions lined the streets and joined the procession on Aug. 31, 1983 to bring the body of the assassinated opposition leader Ninoy Aquino to rest; the People Power Revolution of February 1986, when millions of people thronged Edsa; or January 2001, when a million or so converged at the Edsa Shrine and eventually forced Estrada to abandon Malacañang.

In fact, that 1999 rally was dwarfed by a mass gathering that took place at the exact same time, an assembly of the El Shaddai Catholic charismatic movement in Rizal Park, with Estrada conspicuously in attendance. In my view, however, the protest action on Ayala Avenue was historically important. It showed Estrada the limits of presidential power; the very next day, he issued a conciliatory statement about his Charter change plans. It was the beginning of the end for the ambitious campaign he called Constitutional Correction and Development, or Concord.


Undertaken at a time when Estrada’s approval ratings were mile-high, the Ayala rally also emboldened many who saw through the administration’s populist pretense and into its vision of centralized patronage; I would like to think that the rally was a seed that, a year and two months later, bore fruit in Sen. Teofisto Guingona Jr.’s extraordinary “I accuse” privilege speech of October 2000, when he directly accused the President of corruption.

Not least, it prepared the ground for Edsa II. I will not claim that Cardinal Sin even imagined the possibility of a popular uprising against a formidably popular president; I will only say that, as he showed in the 1980s, the political shepherd had a gift for preparing his flock. On hindsight, it seems clear to me that the August 1999 rally he convened, together with Cory, was one such act of preparation.

(Newly unemployed after the Times had closed shop, and still a year and a half away from joining the Inquirer, I was primed to hear Cardinal Sin’s appeal; at the appointed time, I showed up at an assembly area outside the Edsa Shrine, followed the usual instructions and joined a contingent of strangers—nuns, parents, a few students, seminarians—bound for Makati.)

By design, yesterday’s “Million People March” was deliberately left without a center. It started as a spontaneous initiative on social media, and the volunteer coordinators who took care of the necessary arrangements by and large honored the spirit of spontaneity.

It was so spontaneous there were at least two rallies going on, with a larger crowd stuck in the muddy field in front of the Quirino Grandstand and a smaller, seemingly louder and more organized one clustered on the cemented steps between the Grandstand and the Rizal Monument. Much of the noise, the chatter, was about the pork barrel scam and the need to scrap the system (the classic chant had evolved; it was now “Makibaka, huwag mag-baboy”), but the leftist Kadamay managed to hang a streamer (or throw it over an uncomplaining tree) calling for President Noynoy Aquino’s ouster–Patalsikin si Noynoy! Thousands of people milled about.

(I have read that the police estimate of the crowd at its peak is a generous round figure of 100,000; when I got to Rizal Park at around 10:30 am, with family members in tow, we noticed many people wearing white shirts or carrying anti-pork signs already leaving the area. That was one thing I expected from a loose, almost daylong schedule, rather than a focused two- or three-hour program: Not everyone will be at the same place at the same time. This should mean that the actual head count was higher, perhaps by tens of thousands. Still a far cry from the million-person objective, but a substantial crowd nonetheless.)

I looked for signs that the Church I belonged to was present. I realized that some Catholic bishops had called on the faithful to take part in the March, and that the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines in particular had lent its support. Did the faithful show up?

It took some time, but I did see them. Seminarians in brown, nuns in gray and in white; good-sized contingents from Catholic schools (La Salle, St. Scholastica, many more). I later found out that many Church groups also took part in the March, such as CFM Youth, and that, while we were out on the perimeter of Rizal Park, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle even made a short speech.


It was nothing like Cardinal Sin’s speech at the rally on Ayala Avenue in 1999, which spoke directly to the people’s concerns about the abuse of the constitutional change process. I hope Cardinal Tagle’s more modest remarks weren’t a sign of a diminished Church, but rather of that humble Church he has spoken of.

Humble, but indispensable. History’s lesson is clear, at least to me: In the fight against entrenched systems in the Philippines, the Church is the people’s ally.

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TAGS: Catholic Church, column, john Nery, Million People March
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