Looking back at Edsa

Like many of the ordinary folk who attended its birth twelve years ago, I have trouble summoning enough spirit to celebrate another Edsa anniversary.  Edsa was about a people mustering collective will and courage to bring down a dictatorship by a direct manifestation of its power.  That power drew its force from nothing more than the certainty of its moral message.  It was otherwise basically unarmed.

The message it embodied was simple: There is a limit to the abuse of power.  For grossly enriching themselves at the expense of the nation, and for causing untold oppression and suffering to the Filipino people, the Marcoses and their cronies deserved to be the target of the people’s outrage and must be booted out of office.  Government must serve the people, and not the other way around.

Edsa was a great moment in our nation’s history.  Its significance is comparable to that of the1896 revolution.  But, for all the heroism it symbolizes, whenever we gaze back at Edsa from the standpoint of the present, we get this feeling that Edsa was, after all, not about a people taking hold of its destiny, but only about a ruling elite ensuring its survival by a timely adjustment within its ranks.

It has become impossible to sustain the image of Edsa as a revolution.  Not only has it not produced any meaningful change in the structure of property and power in our society, in truth, it has also not led to any discernible change in the faces of the people who own and run this country.   The same families and persons that dominated the nation’s economic and political landscape during the Marcos years still preside over our national life.   No Marcos relative or crony has been sent to jail for corruption.  No Marcos military or police officer has been publicly confronted or convicted for human rights violation.  Worse, many people from the old regime who should be behind bars are now occupying or running for public office.

To be sure, some stolen property has been quietly returned to the government.  And we are sometimes told about the aggregate value of such recovered assets.   But we have neither seen an itemized public accounting of these assets, nor a description of the terms of their recovery.  We want to know if any deals were made between the government and those who voluntarily returned stolen wealth.  Today, without bothering to consult the people, the government is trying to work out a compromise with the Marcos family so that a portion of the assets the dictator stashed away in Swiss banks may be returned to the country as soon as possible.   The Supreme Court has convicted Imelda Marcos for graft, but she has yet to spend a day in prison. Was Edsa a lie, or are the Marcoses still in power?

But, above all, Edsa was about a nation’s redemption from the scourge of human rights violations, from the scandal of torture, assassination  and forced disappearances, and from the injustice of indefinite detention and arbitrary arrests.   That is why we cannot remember Edsa without asking how many human rights cases against the Marcos regime have been resolved.   We cannot celebrate Edsa without asking how many of those who have been amnestied for offenses committed during martial law have confessed to their crimes and asked for forgiveness from those they have wronged.

In contrast, a country like South Africa, newly-released from the shame of apartheid, has done much more in the last few years to warrant a daily celebration of the freedom it now enjoys.  A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, has been going through the painful process of bringing torturers and assassins face to face with their victims.  These encounters have been cathartic.  For most of the victims, they represent a necessary purifying closure of a very personal tragedy.

In a recent BBC documentary, Bishop Tutu is seen breaking down a couple of times from the sheer anguish of listening to instances of cruel and degrading punishment and watching  their reenactment by those who originally carried them out.  All this has been necessary, says the Commission, not so much to avenge past injury as to provide the occasion for victims to confront and to forgive their tormentors.

We have not attempted what the South Africans have done with their past because, I think, we are afraid that we might come face to face with our own individual complicity with the regime that victimized the nation.   This is a natural fear that we must overcome if we aspire to end the cycle of compromises and accommodations that have hobbled our nation’s journey into the future.

Dealing with the past is always a daunting task, whether for a person or a nation.  On one hand, there is a constant need to go back to it to inspire us and to validate our present strivings.  In the process, we tend to fictionalize it.  On the other, there is a need to un-remember the past so that we can get on with our lives, and not allow imagined obligations to a heroic past to constrain our inventiveness.   In the process, we repeat the errors of the past.

There is a lesson to derive from all this: though history has much to teach us, a journey into our past should never leave us disgusted or demoralized about the future.   The only way to avoid this is by gazing at the past from the clear vantage point of someone who has figured out the road to the future.  Perhaps then, the only way to celebrate Edsa without feeling violated and disenchanted is by looking at it as a work in progress, rather than as a project completed.


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