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Cory Aquino and the people's triumph over tyranny

  • 05 August 2009

To many outside the Philippines, the 1986 People's Power Revolution is just a footnote in world history. It occurred in a period of great political and ideological upheaval,including the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Few now remember the radical, unprecedented nature of the protest on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos had gathered to form a protective barricade around two rebel figures, Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos, then Minister of National Defense and Armed Forces Vice-Chief of Staff respectively.

That civilians came to the aid of military figures seems improbable; in light of the ways in which the army and police were used during Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship, it seems preposterous. For nine of the 20 years that Marcos had ruled, the Philippines was under martial law. Opposition figures were arrested, detained, tortured, or summarily executed by men in uniform.

If it hadn't happened, the revolution would sound like a fairytale. A people, oppressed by their own defence and security officials, gathered in droves outside two military camps in order to stop a dictator from arresting two of his own men.

People stayed on the street for four days, unarmed. They ate there, they slept there. They sang and prayed there. At times it felt strangely festive. In the end, they did no more to overthrow Marcos than simply be there.

It was the first instance in modern times where civilians, not the military, unseated a corrupt leader without even a call to arms. The term 'people power' was coined. For long afterwards its spirit was invoked in mass demonstrations elsewhere.

One of the key figures in this movement was a slight, fair-skinned woman. Little known to the rest of the world, but already loved by her people, Cory Aquino was a political widow. Her husband Benigno (commonly known as Ninoy) had been assassinated three years earlier upon his return from exile.

Although such an assasination were not uncommon then, Filipinos had taken Ninoy's murder quite personally. It was outrageously brazen, taking place in daylight on an airport tarmac.

Aquino's grief, which may have otherwise been private, became the lightning rod for national outrage. The pressure on Marcos built up. It culminated in a 'snap' election between Marcos and Aquino. His victory was quickly exposed as fraudulent. Soon afterwards Enrile and Ramos withdrew their support from the government, so setting in motion