Revisiting EDSA 1986 by Eric Tinsay Valles

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(A version of this was originally published in Taiwan News [1998]).

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the short-lived first Philippine republic, which many Filipinos proudly point out was the first in Asia -- never mind if it was later routed by an emerging superpower from across the Pacific and would reappear only almost half a century later. Expect invitations to a year-long fiesta as only Filipinos know how to host, complete with pig roasting, dance parties and tours of gaudy theme parks.

But just as the effects of the regional financial contagion on an otherwise rebounding Philippine economy have somewhat sobered up the cigar-puffing Dons on Ayala Avenue, the centennial festivities can give Filipinos everywhere pause to recall a remarkable event 12 years ago. Without it, the centennial could have been markedly more grave. I think the four-day uprising, dubbed "People Power revolution" and sparking hope for democratic movements everywhere from Poland to Tiananmen square, is the most defining moment in our short history so far. It was an almost bloodless version of the fall of the Bastille and a Christian equivalent of the strikes called all over the Indian subcontinent by a fasting Mahatma Gandhi.

Those incredible days on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), a dusty, eight-lane thoroughfare cutting across the heart of metropolitan Manila, flashed on TV screens as a live mini series. The stars were a mob and the plot was the non-violent overthrow of an overstaying tyrant perceived as having looted the national treasury.

I can play back the images of the more than one million EDSA heroes in my mind like an old ditty by Filipino pop group Apo Hiking Society. A bead of sweat still glistens and hangs as if awaiting judgment day on the brow of a pale, weary marine. The eyes of two nuns seem to leap out of their spectacles as they flick quickly through rosary beads in front of a hideous, gray tank.

I can hear the urgency in the voice of Jordan Polotan, my senior by two years at the Ateneo, as he told me what transpired at a civilian barricade on Santolan Ave., near Camp Crame, at five o'clock a.m. on February 24.

"We were sleeping when all of a sudden, there was a lot of noise. People were blowing car horns, shouting and running about. The marines used tear gas to try to disperse part of the crowd. We started praying. Kapit-bisig kami (We clipped arms.). When helicopters started arriving, the people beside me tightened their grip. It turned out that the helicopter pilots were sympathetic to our cause," he said.

Ronaldo Ventura, a college classmate, joined other civilians at another barricade, this time in front of two TV stations, Channels four and nine.

"People stopped seven tanks which had fired in the air at midnight on Sunday. The tanks did not breach the barricade. After some time, they decided to turn around and return to Malacanang (the presidential palace). At ten o'clock, shots were fired near the Channel nine transmitter. There was a figure whom I thought was a "reformist" (a Ramos supporter) lying face-down on one of the levels of the tower. He looked dead. About the same time, people stopped Marcos's marines at street intersections and encouraged them to defect," he said.

It was a time of confusion and anxiety for everyone. Wowel Mercado, another classmate, had an encounter with armymen.

"I was taking cover behind a car on Bohol Ave. when a soldier - whether reformist or Marcos loyalist I didn't know -approached me from behind. I was scared because he might fire at us. He crouched on the other side of the car, looked at a nearby group of soldiers down the road. He then asked me, 'Pare, kakampi ko ba 'yun?' (Are they with us?)"

At root, the EDSA revolution was the result of the fearless, almost feckless conviction of individuals. It was one political tenderfoot, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, who stood up to Ferdinand Marcos to vindicate her slain husband and to give the disaffected masses some hope. Two erstwhile close Marcos aides, then armed forces Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, severed their ties with the strongman evidently because they could no longer stomach the morally bankrupt regime. One cleric, Cardinal Jaime Sin, in the ensuing frenzy, called on people to protect the two, who holed up in the Crame military camp on EDSA, from Marcos's reprisal. And to complete the story, individuals from all social levels risked their lives and heeded Cardinal Sin's call.

As history was being recorded by the world's press on EDSA, I was at home, sitting beside my grandma and listening to the hysterical commentary of media personality June Keithley on a run-down portable Sony radio.

Time Magazine reduced the EDSA experience to a morality play complete with stock characters of saints and devils. Indeed, it was, for most participants at least, a first-class miracle on the scale of the multiplication of the bread and fishes. And aptly, it took place on an avenue whose name means "revelation of the saints." But it was more like Flannery O'Connor's short fiction in which characters are seldom at home in their expected roles. Those perceived good were not always so. Cory's Vice President, Salvador Laurel, and Enrile later turned obstructionist as they tried to lay out plans for their own desire to grab power. Even the bad was not completely so. Unlike Deng Xiao-ping, Marcos did not order his troops to fire at the crowds.

The most defining moment in the Philippine republic's short history is as yet unfinished. Revolutions, like mammoth prestige projects, after all, take years and a communal change of heart to complete.

I was not much of an individual then to put my life at stake for the higher social good. But just as the revolution turned around the lives of many of my kabayan, it did mine too in a way. Before and on the last day of the EDSA event, I was there scampering about with my pen and notepad, recording the revolution's essentials as a student journalist. That first major writing assignment set me on a circuitous route that led me for a time to pursue journalism as a career.


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