People Power upends a dictator

March 3, 2016

Thirty years ago in late February, the Philippines' ruler Ferdinand Marcos was brought down after 20 years in power. Alessandro Tinonga tells the story of how it happened.

THIRTY years ago, a massive uprising forced the U.S.-backed dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, out of the Philippines. Despite ruling with an iron fist for over two decades, Marcos was toppled when millions of Filipinos rose up in February 1986 to demand democracy and justice.

It was a movement defined by the sea of people that occupied a public space and physically prevented the regime's army from crushing the opposition. While the uprising didn't overthrow the rule of capital, it nonetheless is an inspiring case study in how the working class can shake the capitalist political system to the core.


FOLLOWING THE Second World War, the Philippines was one of the most modern countries in the Pacific. It was the second-richest economy in the region, with the highest literacy rate, and it was an attractive destination for university students. By the 1980s, the country had declined into utter poverty.

The blame lay primarily with Marcos. Between his election in 1965 and his downfall, he amassed a fantastic fortune, estimated to be between $5 billion and $20 billion. For his entire reign, he was the darling of foreign capital and the U.S. government.

The People Power revolution fills the streets in the Philippines
The People Power revolution fills the streets in the Philippines (Joey de Vera)

In 1972, he secured his place as ruler of the country and partner with foreign business. On May Day, he announced a massive change in economic policy. Production would shift a focus from domestic consumption to exports for foreign markets, which necessitated more labor-intensive methods.

In September, a manufactured assassination attempt on Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile gave Marcos the political cover to declare martial law. The emergency measures allowed Marcos to bypass term limits and crack down on the poor, the working class and anyone that was perceived to be a threat to his rule. Thousands were arrested or disappeared, the media became controlled by the state, and strikes were banned.

Marcos came to epitomize the stereotype of a ruthless and ostentatious Cold War dictator. His family and their closest associates essentially drove the country into bankruptcy by plundering the national treasury to fund their lavish lifestyles.

In his book Asia's Unknown Uprisings Volume 2, George Katsiaficas describes the regime:

Unconcerned that as many as three-fourths of the country's 45 million human being were impoverished, that Manila's street children seemed to congregate everywhere, Marcos married a former beauty queen and lived large. The Marcoses commissioned a monumental mural in Malacañang that portrayed themselves as Adam and Eve. They named highways after each other and threw lavish parties.

Despite the repression, opposition started to grow among the masses and the ruling class.

The working-class mobilizations increased. In 1982, the world's first-ever general strike in a free trade zone--the heavily militarized Bataan Export Processing Zone--mobilized over 15,000 workers who took the streets. Two more general strikes in the zone occurred in the subsequent years, with workers setting up barricades during a 1984 strike.

There was a growing communist insurgency. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and their militia, the New People's Army (NPA) grew rapidly in opposition to the regime. According to an estimate by the U.S. Senate, the NPA went from a fighting force of a few hundred in 1972 to 30,000 hardened combatants by 1985.

The regime was unable to curb the growing support for the insurgency. While the NPA wasn't able to seize power, it caused major cracks within the Philippine Army.

As a consequence of the Marcos family siphoning off government funds for its extravagant lifestyle, the army was in shambles. It was common for soldiers to lack boots, medicine and ammunition.

Frustrations within the armed forces grew as the regime's antics prevented them from carrying out their counterinsurgency campaign. As a result, a small group of officers in the army formed the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

Cracks in the ruling class spread from the armed forces to the government. Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, who was from one of the country's most prominent families, publicly spoke out against Marcos. He voiced the growing concern within the upper classes that the greed and incompetence of the regime would jeopardize the survival of the capitalist system.

Aquino hoped to run for president, but was instead thrown into prison. He was released to the U.S. when his health deteriorated, but he gave the growing discontent a legitimate voice in Philippine politics.


BY 1983, confidence in the regime started to slip as the NPA continued to make gains. The economy started to free-fall when the regime was unable to service the billions in debt that it took out. The national bank expanded the money supply to try to counteract the crisis in the economy, but with little effect.

Aquino decided to return to the Philippines and pressure the regime to enact reforms to turn the country around. When he arrived at the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, he was assassinated.

The country exploded in outrage. Nearly two million people attended Aquino's funeral procession despite torrential rain. Opposition to the regime became widespread and found its way into every social class. Workers, professionals, housewives and business executives could be found at protests.

Respectable organizations like the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the Makati Business Club started to take part. Some prominent businessmen started a practice in which every Wednesday and Friday, work stopped as tons of yellow confetti was poured from windows of the Makati's high-rise buildings. This became a regular ritual that spread to cities throughout the archipelago--and yellow became the color of the rebellion.

By May 1984, the congressional elections saw massive support go to the two main opposition parties, as they won 56 out of the 183 seats. They may have won more seats, but the regime tampered with the election results.

Labor struggles intensified. Between 1983 to 1985, the number of strikes jumped from 155 to 405; the days lost in strikes went from a little over half a million to 2.4 million. The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines organized its members to join the weekly yellow confetti protests.

In late 1984, events came to a boiling point when a fact-finding mission concluded that Aquino was assassinated by a military conspiracy led by Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver. The growing confidence of the masses greatly worried the ruling class, which sparked capital flight from the country.

For the first time since 1946, there was an absolute fall in production leading to bankruptcies and layoffs, which added to the anger of workers. The U.S. urged Marcos to pass policies to curb the growing anger and placate the opposition. In November, Marcos announced on TV that there would be a snap elections.

Before the year ended, Ver and his co-conspirators in Aquino's assassination were acquitted and reinstated to their posts by Marcos.

The following day, Benigno Aquino's widow, Corazon Aquino, entered the election and adopted yellow for her campaign. Most opposition parties and grassroots organizations supported her. She had the full support of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Jaime Sin mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers to ensure the election's fairness, including an "elite strike force" of 600 nuns who could be deployed in a moment's notice. Aquino's election victory was all but certain.

However, Marcos rigged the election. On election night, reports of fraud, vote-buying, intimidation and violence were widespread. Thirty-five computer workers walked out of the official tabulation center.

A few days later, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines issued a statement declaring that the election was "unparalleled in the fraudulence of its conduct." It later declared that a government that "retains power through fraud" has "no moral basis."

Two million people attended a rally on February 16 where Aquino announced a campaign to boycott banks and companies that did business with Marcos. All four of the country's labor formations showed their support by endorsing a general strike for February 26. But before the general strike took place, the rebellion was kicked off by a mutiny in the armed forces.


IN THE early morning of February 22, the leaders of RAM held a meeting inside the Defense Minister Enrile's house to plan an assault on the Malacañang Palace, where Marcos resided. They quickly won the support of Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel Ramos. But before the officers could carry out their coup, their plot was discovered, and Ver mobilized his troops to prevent the assault.

The mutineers regrouped at Camp Aguinaldo near the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA)--one of Manila's main thoroughfares. To solicit support, Enrile called the U.S. and Japanese ambassadors, Cardinal Sin and anyone in the Armed Forces they thought would support the revolt. Quickly, they won key regional commanders and an Air Force colonel who assembled a squadron of attack helicopters.

Enrile and Ramos held a press conference where they publicly announced their revolt and urged the public to join them. Immediately, thousands of people poured into the camp to give the soldiers food. Others formed a human barricade at the EDSA to try to prevent Ver's forces from crushing the mutiny. Later that evening, Cardinal Sin went onto Radio Veritas and asked people to support the revolt.

By day two, commanders in 40 provinces joined up with Enrile and Ramos. Despite Ver's plan to attack Camp Aguinaldo and Radio Veritas, some commanders were members of RAM and refused to carry out their orders.

The crowd at the EDSA had swelled to 50,000. When loyalist forces mounted an attack, all seven of their tanks were stopped by throngs of people. Another attempted assault on Radio Veritas was stopped when hundreds of nuns flooded the stairways and prevented loyalist troops from entering the building.

By afternoon, a million people occupied the EDSA--the hard core being militant workers, some who organized the general strikes in the free trade zones years prior.

Barricades were made out of trees and downed lampposts. Cars, trucks and buses were commandeered. Another attempt by loyalist forces to attack the rebel army was halted, as the EDSA was so packed with people that military units could not advance.

In the midst the struggle, millions of people were united to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship with a great sense that everyone, regardless of background, was one.

Katsiaficas quotes some eyewitness accounts:

"It's about the people. It's about the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the geek and the jock, losing their status, interlocking their arms, standing together in the long stretch of the highway and for one moment, they were just Filipinos. All of them, one."

"Out of this confrontation, ordinary street Filipinos...joined with the middle class, and both discovered a kind of spontaneous collective will that they had never exerted before, and a common bond they had never nurtured. It electrified them. Tears streamed down their faces. Some began to sing. 'People Power' was born."

By day's end, key international players sided with the rebellion. The Pope urged Marcos to reach a peaceful settlement. The U.S. publicly questioned the stability and credibility of Marcos' regime. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz offered Marcos safe passage out of the country. But Marcos still wouldn't give up.

The final battle took place on February 24. As dawn broke, Marcos was heard over the radio ordering Ver to wipe out the rebel army. Riot troops descended on Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame, launching a volley of tear gas. Fatefully, a strong gust of wind blew the tear gas back into the ranks of the loyalist troops.

Some eyewitnesses described the scene as one where everyone present witnessed the "hand of God" protect People Power. The loyalist troops suddenly crossed over to the side of the insurgents and were met with wild cheers.

To show he still had power, Marcos appeared on Channel 4 and refused to resign. Enrile sent troops to shut down Channel 4. After a brief firefight that killed a loyalist sniper, the troops seized the station.

Shortly after, rebel helicopters attacked Malacañang and Villamor Air Base to destroy loyalist helicopters. When Ver ordered an aerial bombardment on rebel camps, the reply that was communicated back was, "Yes, Sir! Proceeding to bomb Malacañang Palace now!" The Air Force joined the rebellion.

That afternoon, the regime planned one last desperate gamble; a "suicide assault" on Camp Crame. When the U.S. embassy caught wind of this, word got to President Ronald Reagan, who then publicly called for Marcos' resignation.

By February 25, Marcos had all but given up. His family hurriedly packed their vast material wealth into crates preparing to leave, but Marcos still refused to resign. Sporadic gun battles continued throughout Manila.

One battle was over Channel 9, which ended after rebel helicopters fired at the transmitter killing three loyalist troops and knocking three channels off the air. Marcos couldn't appear on television.

By evening, Marcos gave up. Five American helicopters arrived to take him and his family to escape to the U.S. Once he departed, a great cheer tore through the EDSA. Millions of people had successfully saw to it that their ruler had been forced out of his palace, out of their country, out of their lives, forever.

In the morning before Marcos's departure, Corazon Aquino was inaugurated the new president. It foreshadowed how the revolution would be curtailed. As the Manila Times observed:

One is disappointed that none of the people of the lower orders of Philippine society is represented at the head table. Most of the people inside are still members of the old political families whose social and economic backgrounds put them in key positions to influence policy decisions. New forces in society crying out for recognition are invisible within the Club Filipino power elite.

The People Power Revolution was a limited political revolution. It undoubtedly transformed millions of people as they had taken action that toppled a dictator. With the capitalist system still intact with a large section of the ruling class at the head of the movement, the opening for the working class to demand more freedom and justice closed.

Aquino demonstrated fierce loyalty to the neoliberal agenda by passing market-based reforms like trade liberalization, privatization of public services and decreased taxes on corporation and the rich. Seventy-five percent of all Filipinos continued to live in poverty.

Despite her promises to institute land reform, she made sure that the holdings of the wealthiest families in the country, including her own, remained untouched.

To enforce its agenda, the Aquino government used repression, which by some accounts was worse than under Marcos. The number of strikes jumped to 581 with over 3.5 million aggregate days lost. That November, Rolando Olalia, a major trade union leader, was brutally assassinated.

In January 1987, the police attacked a demonstration of landless people, killing 21 people and wounding a hundred. Soon after, Aquino declared a total war on communism and escalated counterinsurgency operations.

Today, the Philippines still suffers from poverty, corruption and violence. While popular movements were able to shut down two U.S. military bases in the 1990s and topple another president in 2001 (known as "People Power 2"), the social system that thrived on exploitation and greed is still intact.

The People Power revolution opened up a world of possibility for the millions of Filipinos that wanted to change society. What was missing was an organization rooted in the working class that was dedicated to replacing the Marcos regime with workers' democracy.

The CPP dismissed the working-class as the agent of social change and they abstained from People Power. In their eyes, the revolution would only replace Marcos with Aquino, which made no difference.

Yet, in a revolution the hopes of millions are raised as the working class and the oppressed take actions where they discover their power to change society. Socialism is in the air. Revolutionaries can lead the masses to demand that after a dictator is toppled, workers should be the ones to decide how their society is run.

This is especially important considering the tremendous effect the People Power Revolution had on the world. "People Power" became the slogan of mobilizations in Korea, Burma, Taiwan and China. In the "Velvet Revolutions" that followed in Eastern Europe, the Tiananmen Square uprising in China and Philippine People Power were cited by many as their inspiration.

During a visit to Manila in 1995, Czech President Vaclav Havel noted, "Your peaceful People Power Revolution was an inspiration to us for our own revolution."

We should take inspiration from the millions of working-class Filipinos to stood up against tyranny. Everyday people can change history and inspire others around the world to do the same. At a time when the idea of socialism is being embraced in the U.S., revolutionaries must strive to win them to organize.

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