Behind the ‘miracle’ of Edsa

In the months following the overthrow of the Marcos regime in February 1986, Filipinos greeted the air of freedom with a euphoric sigh of relief. The word “miracle” was on everybody’s lips. This was a way of making sense of a series of events that could have easily taken a different turn—what sociologists call a “formula for contingency.”

In the case of Edsa, these events included: the defiant about-face of two of Ferdinand Marcos’ most trusted officials—then defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile and then constabulary chief Fidel V. Ramos—the insubordination and defection of a tightly-controlled military, the open support boldly expressed by Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin for the rebels, the spontaneous massing of people from all walks of life on a strip of road bordering two military camps, and the defeat of a dictatorship with hardly a shot being fired.

Consider the possibilities. Enrile and Ramos could have been persuaded by the strong-willed Marcos to give up peacefully. The military could have remained professional and loyal to the state, if not to Marcos. Instead of exhorting his flock to support the rebels who were trapped inside Camp Aguinaldo, the pragmatic Cardinal Sin could have cast himself in the role of a mediator. Rather than shower them with solidarity, the Filipino people could have scoffed at the call for help of Enrile and Ramos who had been the chief enforcers of martial law. And, Marcos could have bombed the two camps on Day One, as Gen. Fabian Ver proposed, to prevent more civilians from flocking to Edsa.

Danger lurked at every moment, even if people were not always aware of it. Any of the unfolding events could have led the nation into a grim, tragic, and bloody path—as the 1989 brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing shows. They could have brought us straight into the kind of civil war in which Syria today finds itself. Or, indeed, the military and the police could have simply refused to take sides—as in the current standoff in Thailand.

These are all volatile situations without a predictable ending. Social scientists looking into the dynamics of armed forces’ intervention may try to account for a successful coup in terms of the entanglement of military officers in cross-cutting ties and affinities. Much has been made, for instance, of the culture of fraternal elitism that binds graduates of the Philippine Military Academy and transforms them into a powerful clique within the state. But, an equally strong case could be made for the weight that ethnic and clan loyalties carry in a professional organization like the military.  Marcos was known to surround himself with Ilocano officers on whom he could rely as his first line of defense against any possible treachery within the organization.

The American hand certainly cannot be ignored, even if one may not agree with the theory that the United States precipitated the crisis and orchestrated the transfer of power to the heroic figure of Cory Aquino who was expected to be as pliant as the tyrant she was replacing. This, to me, is as much a formula for contingency as the notion of a miracle. I think Edsa was a complex event; there was not a single source of decisions that had the capacity to steer the flow of events so as to produce a mass uprising.

To appreciate this immense complexity, consider the external developments that were already troubling the Marcos dictatorship as early as the closing years of the 1970s. The price of oil in the world market went crazy, spiraling beyond imagination, as the oil-producing and -exporting countries took control of their petroleum resources. On the other hand, traditional primary commodities like sugar and mineral ore, on which countries like the Philippines had historically depended, suffered unprecedented drops in price. The petrodollars that the Arab countries were accumulating found their way to the developing countries as loans. But, the latter’s ability to service these debts became increasingly obvious as Latin American governments one by one defaulted on their debt payments. This sent interest rates skyrocketing all over the Third World. At around this time, Marcos fell seriously ill, and Ninoy Aquino, who was living in exile in America, made plans to come home.

The regime did not know how to respond to Ninoy’s return. He spelled trouble, but it would have been stupid for the regime to make him a martyr. Someone panicked, and ordered his assassination. His murder sparked the anger that found dramatic expression first during the funeral, later in the presidential campaign of his widow Cory, and eventually in the Edsa uprising. The political crisis triggered the collapse of the Philippine peso. Two years of negative growth in 1984-85 hollowed out what remained of the economy.

By mid-1985, Marcos must have sensed that his time was up. I suspect the ailing dictator was searching for a graceful exit, but the ambitious figures around him would not let him; they were busy maneuvering to succeed him. The political and economic elites could have quietly negotiated a transition through a power-sharing scheme, rather than risk putting the country on the brink of a civil war. Was it a miracle that none of this happened? But that is just a way of accounting for a fortunate outcome no one really expected.

As we can see, one can choose a different starting point in the past to explain the origins of a complex event. But we may also wish to view Edsa with the future in mind. For me, Edsa signifies a moment when we are challenged to rise above ourselves, to put our lives in the service of a dream for a better society. If we open our eyes, we will see it everywhere—an unfinished task.

* * *