Marcos momentum threatens legacy of Philippine’s People Power

In the wake of Saturday's demonstration at Manila's People Power monument, activists are reassessing the legacy of the revolution that expelled Ferdinand Marcos Sr. as his son maintains a firm grip of power over the country

Tristan James Biglete
February 27, 2023
Marcos momentum threatens legacy of Philippine’s People Power
Protesters rally in front of the People Power monument on Saturday 25 February. Photo: Tristan James Biglete for Southeast Asia Globe

Near Camp Aguinaldo, the general headquarters of the Philippine army, the People Power Monument towers over cars driving down EDSA, one of the busiest thoroughfares in metropolitan Manila. 

On Saturday, around 700 activists gathered at this symbolic site to commemorate the People Power Revolution. That watershed mass movement expelled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr from power in 1986, forcing him and his family to flee the country by boarding a U.S. Air Force plane that transported them to Guam and then Hawaii. 

“[The uprising] is a historical stage that expressed the ability of the Filipinos to take a stand and oust a dictatorship amid heightened repression,” said Satur Ocampo, an 84-year-old former political prisoner, journalist and lawmaker who joined the Saturday demonstration. 

The anniversary of the ouster is marked as a national day of remembrance – with Saturday the first since President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr won his office in last year’s election.

At the EDSA monument, activists sang protest songs and smashed an effigy depicting Marcos Jr and Vice President Sarah Duterte as parasitic ticks. 

But with Marcos Jr in power, activists worry the legacy of the People Power and the broader anti-dictatorship movement of the martial law era risk fading from public memory.  The long-running Marcos family campaign to clear their name – revising history as they go – has only gained momentum with last year’s electoral success.

Now, activists who spent decades trying to keep the Marcos family away from power are left to reckon with the legacy of their movement.

“Eventually we will see that the continuation of his programs and his patronage politics copies what his father has done to once again portray him as a hero,” Ocampo lamented.  

Protesters hold up a Marcos family caricature in papier-mâché. Photo: Tristan James Biglete for Southeast Asia Globe

Historical Distortions

What is now known as the People Power Revolution was a series of demonstrations on EDSA and other regions in the Philippines from 22-25 February 1986. 

The catalyst for the protests was general unrest under the Marcos administration. Rising food prices, imprisonment of critics and fraudulent elections pushed crowds into the streets. 

Scenes from the uprising depict the restless political atmosphere of the period. Protesters airing their discontent with the regime blocked tanks driving in EDSA. Nuns offered flowers to soldiers trained to use their rifles against the protesters. And when the groundswell of people crept into the gates of Malacañang, the official residence of the president, it was all over.

As the Marcos era ended, protesters saw a chance to build a new kind of state. 

Nuns holding flowers at the People Power Uprising on Saturday 25 February. During the 1986 protest, nuns offered flowers to soldiers. Photo: Tristan James Biglete for Southeast Asia Globe

But with last year’s electoral victory for Marcos Jr, the family toppled by the people has completed a dramatic comeback. 

“The People Power was able to overthrow a dictator but it was not able to fundamentally transform the system that led to the birth of that dictatorship,” said Karlo Mikhail Mongaya, an academic who teaches Philippine studies and martial law at the University of the Philippines- Diliman, a school considered to be one of the bulwarks of activism during the martial law era.

“There was a change of political leadership. There was a return to bourgeois democracy. There was an expansion of popular participation in politics but it did not translate to more deep-seated changes in the ways the country is run.”

Amnesty International estimates the regime of Marcos Sr imprisoned 70,000 people, tortured 34,000 individuals and murdered 3,240 people through extrajudicial executions.

Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr at Malacanang Palace in Manila. Despite promising some changes, such as a less punitive approach to drugs, Marcos Jr has defended his father’s legacy. Photo: Haiyun Jiang/AFP

Marcos Jr, however, defends his father’s legacy. 

The president sent a white wreath to the People Power Monument for the annual commemoration but has previously claimed Marcos Sr’s use of martial law was necessary to defend the country from rebellion and separatism.

“Most people do not realise, the rebels, the communist rebels, how close they came to Manila and how close they came to large urban centres and slowly gained control,” Marcos Jr said in September 2022, a week before the anniversary of the start of martial law. “That’s why it was necessary to, in my father’s view at that time, declare martial law because there was war already.”

With Marcos in power once again, many in civil society believe more should be done to educate the population on the brutalities of the period.

In the years after Marcos Sr fled, several advocacy organisations dedicated themselves to conserving documents from his 21-year rule. One of these latest archivist groups is Project Gunita, a volunteer initiative that started a day after the May 2022 elections that ushered Marcos Jr into office. 

“We do not just democratise access to materials. We do not just store them in Google Drive. What we do is use the materials to contextualise martial law and fight point-for-point the lies of the Marcos propaganda machine,” said 20-year-old student activist Karl Patrick Suyat, one of the project’s co-founders.

The 11 members of the project use social media to promote digitised copies of national dailies, broadcast recordings and book excerpts about Marcos Sr’s martial law era. Starting in 1972, these supposed emergency powers helped the ousted ruler cement 14 years of dictatorial power.

“The common goal is to save the archive and use it to fight historical distortions,” Suyat said. “Is our generation vulnerable? Yes. If the generation that lived through Martial Law believes in the brainwashing and lies of the dictatorship then what more under our generation?”

A woman stands in front of the People Power Monument during a rally marking the 37th anniversary of the “People Power” revolution. Photo: Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

Restoring a Dynasty

A few years after Marcos Sr died in Hawaii, former President Corazon Aquino, an opposition figure who called for civil disobedience under Martial Law, allowed Imelda Marcos, wife of the deposed leader, and her children to fly back to the Philippines.

Aquino warned that the matriarch would face charges for her alleged role in the excesses of her husband’s regime.

When Imelda returned the charges started piling up. The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) was tasked to recover the $10 billion of allegedly ill-gotten gains of the Marcos family. Besides the PCGG, the Sandiganbayan, a special court in the Philippines created for graft and corruption charges, found that Imelda channelled state funds to private foundations in Switzerland. She was set free after posting bail.

As Imelda eluded prison time, her family’s political heft grew. While facing charges, she was a member of the House of Representatives. Her daughter Imee became a senator. And Marcos Jr, after failing his vice-presidential campaign in 2016, won the general elections last year. 

As president, Marcos Jr can now influence the PCGG’s ongoing hunt for plundered funds. He can also potentially grant presidential pardons to absolve Imelda, and his father’s allies if they are convicted of crimes committed under martial law. 

For Mongaya, while the overthrow of the dictatorship was an enormous achievement, the People Power was not able to hold accountable those responsible for the atrocities.

“Ensuring accountability and transparency in our institution could have meant that the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine constabulary, the men and uniformed involved in the torture and human rights violations will be held accountable.”

A Second People Power

Danilo Fuentes, a member of the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law (CARMMA), is one of the thousands of political prisoners tortured physically and mentally. 

At Saturday’s protest, the 74-year-old former labour organiser showed how he was electrocuted and could still remember the amount of voltage his body endured. He says his captors also beat him and forced him to play Russian roulette with a revolver.

Eventually, the People Power Revolution freed Fuentes and other political detainees.

“Based on what I see, if a second round of EDSA occurs, it will free the people from US imperialism, feudalism and fascism,” he said.

Mongaya agreed, but said any repeat would be a difficult task carried over years of organising.

“It will not be easy. The few who are conscious of the structural problems the Philippines is facing, how different issues interconnect with each other, and our colonial legacy are challenged by how their movement will further expand. When such the time comes that many are ready, then it will lead to a more fundamental change in our society,” said Mongaya. 

Recently, Marcos Jr declared that the commemoration of the People Power Revolution, traditionally marked every 25 February, would instead be celebrated a day earlier. The change of date sparked outrage among many. 

“Marcos abhors the date of 25 February from 1986 until today. It was the date that they were ousted,” Fuentes said. 

With the Marcos family back in power, activists see their challenge renewed. The only question for them is if the rest of the Filipino public, many of whom voted for Marcos Jr, would follow them once again into the streets.

On Saturday, Ocampo stood on-stage with a rose in his hand and asked the crowd: “Are you ready? Round two against the Marcos Jr administration.” 

The people chanted in response. “Never again. Never again. Never again to Martial Law!”

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