Edsa: the battle for the near past

As a participant in and direct witness to the dramatic events that unfolded at Edsa on Feb. 22-25, 1986, I sometimes turn to written accounts of that period in order to refresh my recollection of those events. Almost always, I find myself flinching from these published narratives and, even more, from their interpretations of what happened. “I was there, and I know it wasn’t like that at all!” I say in quiet protest.

As a social scientist, I have been content to view this as nothing more than the logical byproduct of differences in perspective. It was only later that I realized that this reaction is quite common—something that springs from the divergence between memory and history, between what is experienced and what is transmitted, and between what is witnessed and what, in retrospect, is studied.

The noted French historian François Bédarida, who was an active participant in the Resistance against Nazi Germany before he became a professional historian, put it very well when he said that “the objective of memory is fidelity, whilst the objective of history is truth.”

With the passage of time, memory gives way to history. And, before anyone realizes it, the only way to retrieve memory is by way of history. While both make use of language and representation, some meanings are irretrievably lost in the detached and distant language of historical knowledge. Thus, no matter how much attention is paid to the teaching of history to a younger generation, the recuperation of memory—insofar as it entails fidelity to ideals—becomes an arduous task.

Such has been the nature of our grasp of Edsa, a critical event in our nation’s near past. Not even the repeated playing of video recordings of that period could summon the powerful sentiments that filled our beings during those four fateful days. That we were actually prepared to lay down our lives in the name of freedom sounds so foolish today—not only in the light of what we now know about the aborted power grab that brought the rebel soldiers to Camp Aguinaldo, but also against the background of the disillusion that set in soon
after Cory became president.

If fidelity is the goal of memory, then we must continually remind ourselves of what it is we need to be faithful to, of which Edsa was the clearest embodiment. At the same time, if we are not to lapse into cynicism, we must avoid judging events on the basis of what we know today. We could take a lesson from the historical approach.

“When historians observe a historical actor of that bygone past, they must constantly keep in mind the ‘having-been’ of that actor, who lived and acted in a present time that no longer exists but that has to be reconstituted….” (Henry Rousso, “The Latest Catastrophe: History, the Present, the Contemporary,” 2016)

All that this says is that you can’t judge an event or action in history in terms of present-day standards or knowledge. One has to reconstitute the period in which the event took place in order to gain a better understanding of it. That seems easy enough to accept.

What is problematic, Rousso writes, is when we are dealing with a past that is not quite over, and with events and personalities that are still very much around. “The particularity of the history of the present time is that it takes an interest in its own present, in a context where the past is not over and gone, where the subject of one’s narrative is a ‘still-there.’ Inevitably, there will be a few pitfalls.”

This all the more makes it necessary for history to be informed by memory. We might call it the civic responsibility of the historian—to write history with a certain fidelity to the ideals and sentiments that informed and fortified the specific experience of those who lived through certain events.

What would those ideals and feelings be for those of us who had the privilege to be there? I would say: love of country and pride in who we are, compassion and solidarity with our fellow Filipinos, selflessness, courage in the face of intimidation, the duty to hold accountable those who make decisions in our name, and nonviolent resistance to any form of abuse and oppression. Every time somebody suggests that it is time to “move on,” I get the feeling that we are being asked to forget what the people fought for at Edsa, or to treat these sentiments as irrelevant and injurious to nationhood in our time.

Historians, journalists, and social scientists will long debate what the crucial trigger was that brought the people to Edsa, or which groups and personalities played the most important roles, or what could have happened if things did not turn out the way they did. Would people have stayed if Marcos had decided to bomb Camp Aguinaldo on the first day of what was then billed as a military mutiny? Would things have turned out better for the Filipino people if the civilian-military junta proposed by Enrile’s group had taken over the reins of power, instead of the civilian government led by Cory Aquino?

In all such accounts, the tendency would be to subject to the cold scrutiny of the historian and social analyst all the claims that have been made in the memorialization of Edsa. It is important to bear in mind that this, too, does not necessarily bring us any closer to the truth. For, there is also something fictional about the analyst’s penchant for freezing chosen images in time, giving them substance, and holding them up as turning points.

Everything seemed fluid from where I stood at Edsa during those four days. No one knew exactly what was happening or what would happen next. But what was never in doubt is why we were there: In the name of our children, we were taking back our country from a corrupt dictator.