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Witnessing Corazon Aquino's 'People Power' Revolution Up Close an 'Amazing Experiece'

  • Kent Klein
  • Al Pessin

Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino died Saturday at the age of 76 after battling colon cancer for more than a year. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin was in Manila and covered the 1986 so-called "people power" uprising that brought Corazon Aquino to power as president of the Philippines replacing Ferdinand Marcos who had ruled for 20 years. Pessin spoke with VOA White House Correspondent Kent Klein.

Klein: You were there as all this was going on in 1986, tell us what about it stands out in your memory.

Pessin: Well, it was an amazing time and there was quite alot of emotion on both sides. Marcos had alot of very vocal supporters. But as the campaign went on, it became pretty clear, at least in Manila, that Cory Aquino just had millions and millions of people that were supporting her and out in the provinces as well, obviously not in the Marcos stronghold areas. But I did spend a day campaigning with Cory Aquino, or on the campaign trail with her I should say, out in the provinces, and it was really an amazing experience.

Klein: What was that like? Were the crowds huge? Was there alot of electricity there?

Pessin: The crowds were large in the cities and towns and even more interesting, is when we would go from one town to another, down country roads, through farming areas. Almost all the roads, all the way along the route, were lined with people even in remote areas. And they just wanted to get a glimpse of her motorcade. They were all, either wearing or waving anything that was yellow, whether it would be a dress or a t-shirt. People were waving streamers and flags. I remember some people were even waving yellow fruit. Just to have anything yellow, that was in her campaign color. And on one leg of this trip I had the opportunity to ride with her in the back of a car and do an interview with her while this stream of humanity was passing by her windows. It was, it was quite an experience!

Klein: How did she react to all that?

Pessin: You know, thats interesting, I think she was, she was very humbled and at the beginning, maybe even a little embarrassed that people were making such a big deal out of her. You know, remember, she was the wife of a politician. Her husband, Benigno Aquino, was assassinated in 1983. She called herself a housewife, which of course today is not a popular term. But she was trying to convey the message, during those years between "83" and "86," that she really didn't want to lead the party, didn't want to be a candidate, didn't want to be a president. But when it all fell upon her, when the "politicians," the leaders of the party, came to her and said that she was the only one who could really unite the party and have a chance of defeating Marcos, then she decided to take that on. And I think, during that period, during the campaign, and the revolution, in between the election day and the inauguration day, and the early part of her presidency, I think she felt somewhat uncomfortable in that role. But she grew into it shall we say.

Klein: At the point when people were standing along the roads waving whatever yellow they had, do you think that's the point at which Mr. Marcos took a look at that and realized it was a battle he couldn't win?

Pessin: No I don't. I think he felt that, he obviously recognized that she was a popular figure, but I think he believed that he could remain in power that , that after the excitement of the election and once his election commission declared that he was the winner, and he was inaugurated I think that he believed that the military would remain loyal to him and that the, the whole movement would, would kind of fizzle out as, as has happened to many opposition movements before and since. What he didn't count on was, I think, the bravery of the Filipino people, coming out in the streets and blocking the tanks and blocking the military units and also a few key officers, his defense minister and the vice-chief of the army who went over to the revolutionary side. And then the last thing that Marcos was counting on was the continued support of the United States, which also disappeared during that period and so eventually he had no choice but to leave. But I think it was kind of a surprise to Marcos that he was not able to hold on.

Klein: Now they were both inaugurated on the same day, is that correct?

Pessin: Thats right, February 25, 1986 was the inauguration day. Marcos was inaugurated at the presidential palace and Aquino was inaugurated at a private club in Manila and I was there in this room, as I remember it wasn't a very big room but it was a very crowded room. And she was sworn in by a justice of the Filipino Supreme Court. And General Ramos (Armed Forces Vice-Chief of Staff under Marcos, Fidel Ramos) and Minister Enrile
(Defense Minister under Marcos, Juan Ponce Enrile) were there. They were the leaders by then of the military part of the revolution and right after the swearing-in, General Ramos stood up at attention and snapped a salute, a very crisp salute to the newly sworn-in president, Aquino, and that was really an amazing moment. But of course, the Phillipines then, for the rest of that day, had two people claiming to be president until late in the day when Marcos fled the country.

Klein: Now do you think what Mrs. Aquino was able to do in 1986 provided a blueprint for similar revolutions in other countries?

Pessin: It did, but it wasn't only what she did. It was also what the Filipino people did. She was certainly an inspirational figure thanks to her husband and thanks to her own dignity that she carried but it really was the Filipino people who went out in the streets and that was the first model where we saw this situation where you have the troops that are loyal to the leadership and then you have the people in the streets and then the question is: Will the troops fire at the people? In the Philippines they didn't. In other places, as the years, subsequent years went by, sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't. But if you look back you could see that the Philippine revolution was one of the first during that period and then it was followed either by revolutions, or democracy movements in other parts of Asia, in Thailand, in Indonesia, as well as in eastern and central Europe as we saw in 1989. And in Beijing in and througout China where the troops did fire at the people and the movement did not succeed. So, it really was an early model for all of that sort of people power that we saw in the subsequent years.

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