Column: Fact-checking people power

The third Egypt + Edsa column, in which I try to make sense of something unexpected that Teddy Locsin, a writer I deeply admire, wrote, for a new website. Published on March 1, 2011.

AT FIRST I did not know what to make of it. Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s rambling essay on the Egyptian revolution for the new TV5 website, Interaksyon.com, manages the unlikely feat of praising people power while burying the spirit of Edsa. Having admired Locsin’s elegant prose and muscular reasoning for a long time, I kept looking for hints, in the essay that bears the time stamp “21-Feb-11, 7:13 PM,” that he was merely joking. I regret to say, however, that “People Power in hieroglyphics” seems to have been written in earnest.

In his sincerity, one of the country’s best writers undermines the true import of Edsa 1986, and questions the courage of the unarmed civilians who stopped the tanks and turned history’s tide. He begins by declaring that “Twenty-five years ago, the Filipino people invented People Power.” And then he takes it back. “Historically, they did not.”

The question whether Filipinos invented people power remains an open one; Locsin is certainly right to draw the Filipino reader’s attention to the civil rights movement in the United States or the “revolution of the carnations” in Portugal.

But Locsin diminishes the meaning of Edsa by holding that Marcos was only a nudge away from collapse. “Marcos did not so much fall as he was already picking up the pieces of his shattered dictatorial rule with a small brush and dustpan—shattered by his ill-health, his thieving coterie, his debilitating illness, his wife’s tasteless ostentation, and finally by what we suspect was his abysmal boredom with the 13-year dictatorship he had erected.” If only Marcos were a character in a Garcia Marquez novella. But by all accounts, Juan Ponce Enrile was visibly afraid on the night of Feb. 22—he knew he and his boys were massively outnumbered and badly outmaneuvered. And by all accounts, Marcos refused to leave until the last possible moment, even asking both Enrile and the Americans about the possibility of staying until the end of his term in 1987.

In fact, and contrary to the fiesta atmosphere we remember of Edsa 1986, in the first two to three days of the uprising hardly anyone expected Marcos to give up.

What I found most disconcerting, however, is Locsin’s idea that Marcos’ tanks posed no real threat: “On the 25th anniversary of People Power in the Philippines, we who stood before immobile tanks, most without gasoline or lacking spare parts, tanks with no intention of running anyone over; we who would have scattered to the four winds at the first shot should; we should bow our heads if not in shame then in tribute to the first truly people power revolution in history.” (There seems to be an editing error here; perhaps there’s a missing word or phrase after the first “should.”)

This idea carries two assertions of fact that can be checked against the historical record: that Marcos’ tanks had “no intention of running anyone over,” and the people at the intersection of Edsa and Ortigas “would have scattered to the four winds at the first shot.”

The effect is again to diminish the significance of Edsa, and specifically of the crucial encounter on Sunday afternoon at the intersection of Edsa and Ortigas avenue between the tanks and a crowd of unarmed, praying civilians. But in fact, before the tanks finally retreated to an empty lot (where the Edsa Shrine stands today), the tension was palpable and the danger real. That is why some of the video footage taken at that time show people in tears: they were crying in relief.

Fortunately, there are many sources we can use to fact-check the events of Edsa 1986, and my retelling.

First on my list would be Angela Stuart Santiago’s Edsa 1986: The Original People Power Revolution, accessible to anyone with an Internet connection at www.stuartxchange.org. This wonderful resource is essentially a chronology of the revolution, stitched together out of the many accounts (from periodicals and published books, plus a few personal interviews) that came pouring out after Edsa.

It has its limitations; its use of excerpts assumes the same level of credibility for the various sources, but surely (to give only one example) Stanley Kramer’s “In Our Image” is a problematic account. Also, in its attempt to pay tribute to the masses, to the people in “people power,” it minimizes its coverage of the rampant use of religious, specifically Marian, symbols that filled Edsa like votive candles. But it is the place to start. (There is a companion work, “Walang Himala: Himagsikan sa Edsa,” also available online.)

“On the Scene: The Philippine Press Coverage of the 1986 Revolution,” edited by Asuncion David Maramba, is a most useful resource; some of the news articles Stuart Santiago referenced are reprinted in full, and those of us who lived through those days and read the papers obsessively will find the entire mix absorbing.

“People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986 (An Eyewitness History),” on which I had the privilege of working as a staff editor, is a deserving bestseller. The book, edited by Monina Allarey-Mercado, uses the oral history approach to paint an indelible portrait of an unforgettable era.

Last, the Inquirer TV documentary “Edsa 20: Isang Larawan,” which I helped produce. It, too, is essentially oral history, and allows us to find our true bearings while processing Gringo Honasan’s conflicted retelling, Jim Paredes’ evocative memory-making, and Chuck Hotchkiss’ understated narrative.

In it, too, we hear the stories of people who literally pushed back the surging tanks, of Butz Aquino and Ed Lingao, and Sisters Ping Ocariza and Terry Burias, the two nuns directly in front of the lead tank. They are a reminder, that the threat of death in the first days of Edsa was both real and immediate.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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