In common with the man who claimed he was their president, the mother and her 10-year-old daughter were not leaving. The soldier at the camp gate thanked them for the coconuts, pineapples and bottles of water that she slipped through the iron grilles. “It will be appreciated by the soldiers inside,” he said.
The items handed over, the mother came up to me, holding her daughter by the hand, and introduced herself. The soldier, she told me in English with a Tagalog lilt, had said we should go as orders had probably been given for the tanks to come and seize the camp.
On that Saturday night of February 22nd, 1986, I was desperate to go somewhere safer. Then something incredible happened, though I am still not sure if it was a supreme moment of love or a criminal abdication of parental duty.
The girl took her hand from her mother’s and announced loudly: “No, we stay.” Her mother agreed and then challenged me as to what I would do.
“Stay,” I replied, with a confidence I did not feel. But I was not going to lose face to a 10-year-old.
History records that thousands did turn up to back the soldiers who were demanding that Ferdinand Marcos relinquish power. But that night, in the first stirring of the protest that was to take its name from Edsa, the 12-lane highway separating the two military camps that hosted the mutinous soldiers, just 30 or so people had gathered outside the gate.
Two former proteges of Marcos had gone to the camps after a public split with the Philippine president that afternoon. Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos’s justice minister, had taken over Camp Aguinaldo, and Fidel Ramos, vice chief of staff, was across the road in Camp Crame.
Fewer than 300 soldiers were in both camps. The vast majority of the armed forces were with Marcos. Bloodshed under the moonlight was a more likely outcome than Marcos leaving.
I had arrived in Manila in January. Breda Noonan, my aunt from Limerick, was a Columban missionary. She had arranged for me to stay in Singalong, the location of the principal house of the Columbans in Manila. There I met the mostly Irish priests and nuns who were based in communities throughout the country. Their energy, courage and dedication was inspirational.
I was on my way to Mindanao to spend time with Fr Marcus Keyes from Cork and Fr Frank Nally from Mayo. Both were living the gospel, bearing witness and helping those without a voice, especially in the struggle against illegal logging and land-grabbing. The priests and nuns all had legitimate reasons to fear for their welfare in the Philippines of Marcos, but concerns expressed for their safety were brushed off.
The snap election and swift revolution 30 years ago blew down the house of cards that was the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. The images were astounding. Thousands of people on the streets, flower-power protesters stopping tanks dead in their tracks, the widow of an assassinated politician, a “saint” of democracy in a devoutly Catholic country, leading the faithful to the promised land.
Oh, and hundreds of shoes. The People Power revolution that reached its zenith from February 22nd-25th was colourful, inspirational, passionate, brutal and bizarre, and dominated global headlines.
Imelda Marcos’s penchant for expensive footwear, in a land where most people wore sandals or flip-flops, seemed to sum up just how far removed the first couple were from those they misruled.
But the Philippine people did not take to the streets to protest against high heels, platforms, or slip-ons. It was often referred to as a bloodless revolution, but it was far from that. In the two decades since Marcos had come to power, thousands had been killed by his ill-disciplined security forces and frighteningly disciplined death squads, as well as by the corruption that caused malnutrition to stalk one of the most bountiful countries in the world.
According to the Family Income and Expenditure Survey, conducted by the Philippine Statistics Authority spanning 1965-1985, (the Marcos years), those classified as living in poverty rose from 41 per cent to 58.9 per cent. The economy shrank by more than 10 per cent in 1984-85.
In the ornate surrounds of Malacanang palace, Marcos seemed oblivious to the chaos of his rule. Even during the heady days leading up to the people’s revolt in in February, hundreds were killed away from the spotlight of the world’s media cameras panning the crowds in Manila.
In the slums of the capital, on the island of Mindanao and elsewhere on the archipelago, bodies bearing the signs of torture were retrieved from rivers, ditches, fields and rubbish dumps. The dead – regime opponents, rights activists, young women – were referred to chillingly as “salvaged”, shorthand for their remains being salvaged for identification and burial.
No one doubted that Marcos would win the snap election he called for February 7th. He was a dictator, and no dictator ever worth his salt lost an election. But Marcos, who came to power as a reformer (an expedient moniker for many dictators) before declaring martial law in 1972 to extend his rule, as it turned out, was not worth his salt.
The election, with its de rigueur vote- rigging and obvious signs of fraud in the counting, was of course a farce. Marcos declared himself the winner against Cory Aquino, who did not accept the result. Irresistible force meets immovable object. Washington attempted to mediate by sending a special envoy, but Marcos was determined to tough it out.
Aquino’s husband Benigno, a former senator and scion of a land-owning family, had been assassinated as he alighted from a plane at Manila airport in 1983 to end his exile in Boston and launch a serious challenge to Marcos.
Benigno “Ninoy”Aquino did challenge the dictator, albeit from the grave. No one doubted Marcos was behind the killing. The baton had been passed to his widow, who had clearly won the election. Marcos, however, was not going anywhere.
Then came the unexpected. Enrile and Ramos switched sides with the blessing of Washington, the real power broker in Philippine politics.
Well, part of Washington. President Ronald Reagan had been a friend of Marcos and a frequent visitor to Manila since he was governor of California. To Reagan, Marcos was a good “son of a bitch” for the US, and the president initially refused point-blank to congratulate Cory Aquino. (That lasted until she visited the US, as president of the Philippines, to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress in September 1986.)
In January and February 1986, high-profile US politicians, senators and congressmen, were arriving in droves to gauge the situation from the air-conditioned coffee shops and plush hotels or be taken in convoy to the palace. The US had major military bases at Subic Bay (navy) and Luzon Island (air force) .
This was a particularly chilly time in the cold war and from Washington’s perspective Marcos was someone dependable. There was also a feeling in Washington that, as the US had already “lost” Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua and Iran, the 7,000 islands of the Philippines had to remain within its fold.
The Philippines had always seemed to attract the interests of superpowers. In 1521, the country was discovered by Magellan and became a Spanish colony. In the Spanish-American war of 1898, the victorious US took control of the entire country – one of the largest ever spoils of war.
Filipinos were increasingly angry at Washington’s preference for Marcos and his regime, the brutality of which was fuelling the left. You could sense the resentment. The great Philippine singer Freddie Aguilar was drawing crowds to hear him sing the resistance song Bayan Ko at the cramped Hobbit House in Manila (frequented by foreign journalists) and other, bigger venues.
The raised forefinger and stretched thumb, an “L” indicating support for Aquino’s Laban party, was a form of greeting. The Catholic Church, the great institution of the Philippines, was split between conservatives and those more sympathetic to liberation theology.
The New People’s Army was gaining ground. Recruits and some strategists claimed they had an island-hopping plan to seize power. The country, it seemed, was up for grabs. Marcos had asked his aides to compare his coverage in the US media to that of the Shah before he fell. The more front-page stories, the greater the threat to the regime, Marcos believed. In that at least he was prescient.
Then Ramos and Enrile took refuge at Crame and Aguinaldo. In Spanish, the Edsa highway is called Abenida Epifanio de los Santos, or Epiphany of the Saints Avenue. An appropriate name – the Philippines was going through a political epiphany.
On February 22nd, as Ramos and Enrile set up camps (the latter would move to Crame on February 23rd to consolidate their position), rumour and counter-rumour swirled. The army was going to attack. The air force was loading planes with bombs. Helicopters would blitz the camps. Tanks were massing to crush the protesters. But nothing happened, Marcos had lost the opportunity to strike hard and, as dawn broke on Sunday, the mood had changed. The long night over, now the crowds came, after the morning masses and the sermons of defiance.
Marcos was told that Enrile and Ramos would themselves initiate military action (a false rumour; they did not have the manpower) and sent tanks onto the street to pre-empt any breakout. Then came the “miracle of Edsa”, with protesters kneeling in front of tanks and young women offering flowers to soldiers.
From that moment, Marcos began to haemorrhage support. Helicopters did land, but they joined the rebellion. The fear factor, essential to any dictator, had dissipated.
During the night of February 22nd, Cory Aquino, deeply mistrustful of Enrile and Ramos because she feared they were planning to seize power, stayed in the Carmelite monastery on the island of Cebu. The next day she flew back to Manila, where she gained the initiative. Marcos negotiated safe passage for him and his cronies to Hawaii.
The revolution, though certainly compromised, deserves to be recognised as a pivotal moment in Asian history. Vested interests, the church, the armed forces, big business and cold-war real politick may have diluted it, but it was better than it might have been. The army did not take power as it wanted to and tried to later. There were at least six coup attempts against the Aquino government. But since she stepped down at the end of her term in 1992, four presidents have been elected – including her son, who will step down in June.
Did it inspire? Certainly. Both Myanmar and China subsequently saw thousands of students on the street. Their protests were crushed, but Europe saw a different outcome in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
There is little doubt that at least some of the protesters were emboldened by what they saw and heard about events in Manila, 30 years ago now.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Times.