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Making sense of a revolution

A successful revolution, it is said, has a thousand fathers and mothers. In the euphoric aftermath of our “people power revolution” in 1986, many sectors tried to own and pose as midwives of this rather quirky historic event.

More than three decades later, its failed promises have disillusioned many, such that this “rebirthing of democracy” is now sadly orphaned, as shown in the dwindling numbers at Edsa commemorative events. The Duterte regime, capitalizing on this undercurrent, together with the recycled Marcos forces itching to get into power again, have degraded its emblematic color yellow into a pejorative term—“dilawan”—to tar all those who happen to stand in the way of its drift toward authoritarian rule.

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Part of the crippling contentiousness of our politics today is the lack of consensus on what exactly happened at Edsa. Some scoff and say no baby was born; it was merely a transfer of
power from one privileged class to another. Some say something did get born, but it was somewhat deformed; it had an undeveloped left arm and a strong right arm—a reference to the Left’s marginal presence and the military elements that happened to be at its maelstrom and subsequently mounted successive coup attempts on the arrogant and baseless presumption that it had the right to be guardian of its future.

Some others, mostly international observers and those in the ranks of faith-based groups present at Edsa, recognize that something wonderful did happen, but yet have no tools for analyzing this event which defies categorization and is outside the usual boxes in which revolutions are framed.

Internationally, the uprising roused the curiosity of analysts and had an inspirational impact on countries then struggling to throw off the yoke of totalitarianism, particularly in Eastern Europe.

In my visit to Sweden just months after Edsa 1986, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me they were cheering from the sidelines and watching its outcome carefully, hoping to see democracy succeed in a context outside the West. “Other Asian countries have deep authoritarian roots, but the Philippines is something else; it may yet evolve truly democratic institutions. We are especially curious how things will turn out.”

Two years later, just before Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and the subsequent uprisings in countries in the grip of the Soviet Union, a Czech theologian told me that many of their dissidents were heartened by the possibility that unarmed citizens could take on forces completely in control of military might and power.

I had a glimpse of what the event looked like to the ordinary citizens who came, in a conversation with a wizened woman who, nearing her 80s, went to Edsa with her church mates all the way from Bulacan. She instinctively sensed that something significant was happening. She said God had taken pity on us, had helped us to peacefully drive away those in power: “Kinaawaan tayo ng Diyos; sadyang bumaba ang tulong at mapayapang napaalis natin kahit nasa poder at makapangyarihan.”

There was a strong religious element in this revolution.

Aside from the ubiquity of priests and nuns in their white habits, I had never seen our nation so earnestly down on its knees. Five times a day, the Muslims prayed on their mats spread on the sidewalk in front of the gate of Camp Aguinaldo. They were camped on the right side of our group of mostly evangelical Protestants under the banner of Konfes (Konsiyensiya ng Febrero Siete), who in the evening prayed and sang hymns, snatches of which were broadcast to cheer the throng at Edsa. On our left were the brown-clad women of the Legion of Mary, faithfully saying their rosary at 6 p.m. The statue of La Naval de Manila, considered miraculous, was paraded in a procession up and down Edsa each evening.

Ritual and the fervency of the people’s faith, coupled with the fiesta atmosphere, were elements that were strange and unorthodox to students of revolutions. As Mao Zedong once said, “Revolution is not a dinner party.” But this one was. In its exuberance and ritual call to the gods, it was nothing like the secular humanism of the French Revolution, and a far cry from the atheistic ideological underpinnings of the Russian Revolution.

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The phenomenon of people power, uncannily repeated in “Edsa Dos,” perhaps arose from a much older impulse than the Western-style democratic culture drilled into us by the Americans. It is our own indigenous version of what Locke called “direct democracy.” It is the power of a people whose personalism, once tapped, erupts into a massive fellow-feeling that now and again surfaces in peaceable protest and quiet anger, as in the crowds that jammed the wake of Flor Contemplacion and the funeral of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino. “Hindi ka nag-iisa” (You are not alone) is to me more than a political slogan. It is our people expressing solidarity, a subterranean character submerged by the louder and more visible fractiousness of the powerful among us. “Tama na, sobra na” (Enough) gave notice to the powers that there are limits to brutal violence and barbarism.

Unfortunately, the privileged political class, used to the ways of power, quickly hijacked the people’s project. Clearly, we have yet to know how the softness of our people’s instinct for justice and righteousness can harden into structures that are tightly shut to the corrosive influence of massive corruption.

Secularists impoverish their analysis in being impervious to the power of a consciousness alive to higher values and the mystery of transcendence. Narrow religionists naively fail to take into account the complex and entrenched nature of organized injustice.

Edsa and its aftermath show us that there is a world of hard bureaucratic habits and institutionalized evil that would not yield to mere crying out in the streets. But they also show that there is a world of choice and freedom, of creative assertion of the people’s will in the face of overwhelming might.

We assume that threatened interests and powers will always behave in a certain way, as the disadvantaged likewise will. But then sometimes the protagonists do not act according to expectations, and we are treated to the electrifying perils of improvisation. Shrewd villains can miscalculate, and a people reduced to silence and acquiescence can find their voice.

Today we are at that nexus of inert submission to populist pretensions and seething discontent that will soon boil over at the tipping point. Once again, our people are slowly being roused to the challenge of a revolution that is good as well as great.

“Revolutions really have no need of great men,” G.K. Chesterton said. “A true revolution is a time when all, men and women, are great.” That, to me, is what our “people power revolution” was all about.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and
author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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TAGS: People Power Revolution, rebirthing of democracy, revolution
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