Accessibility links

Breaking News

Philippines Marks 20-year Anniversary of Historic Rising

In February 1986, Filipinos astonished the world by ousting a dictator without bloodshed, an event heralded as a new beginning for the Philippines. But 20 years after the so-called people power uprising, there is disappointment and frustration at where the country is headed.

When Agapito Aquino heard news of a military mutiny, he immediately swung into action. It was the early evening of February 22, 1986, and the country's police chief and defense minister had just announced they were breaking away from Ferdinand Marcos, who had harshly ruled the Philippines since 1965.

The city's Catholic archbishop, a staunch critic of Marcos, appealed for people to gather at Manila's EDSA highway, to protect the rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos came - housewives, students, nuns, priests, the rich and the poor - creating a human shield against government tanks. Aquino recalls the night.

"We were counting on Filipinos not shooting unarmed Filipinos," said Aquino.

For Aquino, it was an unexpected turn of events in the country's struggle for justice and democracy. His brother, pro-democracy opposition leader Benigno Aquino, was killed by government troops three years before.

After a four-day standoff, the people won. Without bloodshed, Marcos and his family fled the Philippines - ending 20 years of repression.

Aquino, now a congressman, remembers what made it all happen. "It was a combination of the outrage of the people, long-time anger and the real desire for change," he said.

But 20 years later, many Filipinos say they are still waiting for that change to happen. The corruption and patronage characteristic of the Marcos dictatorship pervade today's politics.

And no government has been able to make the economic and legal reforms needed to encourage investment, increase tax collection and narrow that vast gap between the country's rich and poor.

The majority of the population is poor. High unemployment has forced millions of Filipinos to work overseas, mostly as manual laborers.

The economy, which 50 years ago was one of the most promising in Asia, is now among the poorest. And the country continues to suffer from a high crime rate and a violent communist insurgency.

While the Philippines restored democratic institutions, political analysts say it failed to make them work.

Professor Belinda Aquino is an expert on Philippine politics at the University of Hawaii.

"Only Marcos and his cronies were taken out. The institutions that were his instruments for his martial rule remained," she said. "So it was back to the same old system of corruption because these institutions that were corrupt to begin with were never dismantled."

Analysts say the people power movement left a legacy of shortcut democracy - the easy abandonment of legal processes in favor of removing unpopular leaders by mass protest.

In 2001, an uprising removed president Joseph Estrada, following the collapse of his impeachment trial for corruption.

Military factions also attempted to snatch power from civilian presidents several times since 1986.

Critics of President Gloria Arroyo, who succeeded Estrada, now agitate for her ouster over alleged corruption and electoral fraud. For months, Manila has buzzed with rumors of a coup attempt.

Miriam Coronel Ferrer, a politics professor from the University of the Philippines, says the conditions for another uprising against Arroyo are there. But she says Filipinos are also weary of people power uprisings.

"But precisely because people have seen that changing political leadership without further guarantees does not necessarily lead to long standing changes," she said. "There's now more hesitation to just resort to the methods that worked before."

Mrs. Arroyo Tuesday said another popular revolt would be disastrous. She said investors would dismiss the Philippines as a "hopelessly unstable" country.

Congressman Aquino says if Filipinos truly want to rebuild their country, they should look no farther than 1986.

"It was during that time when we became selfless, there was solidarity among the people, there was spiritually," said Aquino. "So … we just have to learn to sacrifice for the country, identify with the people and of course, learn some selflessness."

Tens of thousands of Filipinos are expected to this week to hold dozens of protests to mark the anniversary, and try to recall the spirit of first people power rebellion.