Memory and Political Transition in the Philippines

© Edwin Ng 2001

"The Filipino is worth dying for" - Ninoy Aquino

Historical narratives carry a political momentum that is inscribed into the psyche of tellers and listeners. Such narratives are particularly significant when they intersect with nationalist and class interests. Revolutions are not only pregnant with such interests; but also constitute a rupture of the everyday life, a departure from the norm, and routinized motions. The consequence act of disruption therefore, is the concomitant desire to explain, to mythologize and hence give flight to the imagination. Invariably comparisons occur, and for those who remember, the past is always an opportunity for reliving it in the present.
The history of the Philippine revolution must begin with the apostle for Filipino nationalism. Jose Rizal denounced the abuses of Spanish colonialism as well as the Catholic faith through his writings, charging that religion was being used to legitimize enslavement of the Filipino. He started the pro-nationalist group, the Liga Filipina, and was executed by the Spaniards for his pro-nationalist ideas which influenced various militant groups fighting for an independent Philippines ( Rizal himself never advocated revolution through violence despite the charge of sedition by the Spanish government.
Others, notably Emilio Aguinaldo and Andrés Bonifacio, were instrumental in the armed revolution against Spanish colonialism and the anti-friar movement in the late 19th century. The revolution failed in many ways until the declaration of war between America and Spain, when Aguinaldo seized the opportunity for power. A brief period of pseudo-democracy followed Aguinaldo's proclamation of the Philippine Republic on June 12, 1989 which was quickly superceded by American colonialism ( However, Rizal's role in history was eminent due to the emphasis on his advocacy for non-violent means of struggle by American historians.
Independence was achieved in 4 July 1946 but the experiment with democracy itself was short-lived. Not only were certain political groups - especially those of a leftist orientation (read "communist") - denied representation in the first Philippine Congress, the legislative body itself was composed primarily of members from the Filipino elite. Moreover, members of the upper class collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces during the war, but efforts to prosecute these traitors were thwarted at every turn by witness tempering, postponement of trials and the like ( Eventually, Manual Roxas, the Philippines first post-war president signed an amnesty proclamation that absolved alleged collaborators of all responsibility, on the grounds that the differentiation of patrons from traitors was difficult to accomplish. The evidence points to upper class solidarity and public perception was that the state practiced elite democracy (Caroll, 1999).
The election of Ferdinand Marcos to the presidency in 1965 marked the beginning of the end of the Philippine experiment with democracy. Citing political and social tensions as reasons and with promises of economic reforms, Marcos declared martial law at the end of his second constitutional term in 21 September 1972 ( He established a dictatorship under which strikes were forbidden. Thousands of opposition politicians, journalists and leaders of militant organizations were arrested and confined without trial in well-prepared detention centres. The media, other than those under his direct control, were shut down. Educational institutions and social action programs were closed (Youngblood, 1990).
Marcos gave himself near absolute power for an indefinite period of time through the formulation of a new constitution. His regime constituted many human rights abuses: those who were detained without trial were often tortured and frequently their cells were little more than filthy pigeon holes (Youngblood, 1990). His practice of crony capitalism was the epitome of class solidarity. He installed close friends and relatives in the judiciary as well as in important political posts in the country (Caroll, 1999). The First Lady, Imelda, was Minister of Human Settlements and Governor of Metro Manila and had the distinction of being the richest lady in the world despite coming from an underdeveloped country. The Philippines' biggest source of foreign exchange, sugar and coconut, was made a monopoly of the government (Mamot, 1986). This allowed Marcos' cronies to reap enormous financial gains from these two commodities as they could dictate the price they should pay farmers, middlemen, planters and millers.
The fissure in the Philippine public consciousness came as a result of the assassination of the country's brightest and most promising hope for political reform. So widespread was the culture of fear that Marcos instilled in the populace that during the funeral procession for Ninoy Aquino, a mourner was reported to have replied to a question regarding his attendance at the funeral by saying: "Ask the flowers" (Mercado (ed.), 1986:27). Ninoy was deemed the most obvious successor to Marcos before the latter declared martial law. Imprisoned in 1972, he ran from behind bars at the head of a 21-man ticket in the 1978 parliamentary elections, and nearly polarized the nation after Imelda's ticket robbed him of his place in Parliament. He was allowed to leave in 1980 to the United States for heart bypass surgery and tried to make his way home 3 years later under a forged passport by the name Marcial Bonifacio (Ibid, 1986).
The name Ninoy chose for his passport was politically significant. Marcial refers to the years under martial law and Bonifacio, the site of his internment - Fort Bonifacio. The first Bonifacio was the political adversary of Aguinaldo, and was executed for contesting his power. No one that faithful afternoon could have guessed that the second Bonifacio would meet exactly the same fate.
The details regarding the alleged assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. remain vague. He was led through a side door by a military escort after disembarkation and shot, out of sight of the eager welcoming crowd. When the shooting ceased, he lay sprawled face down on the airport tarmac, along with the apparent assassin.
His death woke the Filipino and his funeral was the biggest the country had ever seen. But it was also a political statement. The body of Ninoy went on display the way it died. The disfigured face, the bloodied clothing rent apart by bullet wounds etched itself into the mind of the population. Something inside them died, but something else was born. For them Ninoy became a political martyr that Jose Rizal was. It was the reason why the procession had to pass by Rizal Park, the country's major memorial. There, amid an unseasonal downpour, the cortege slowed before the monument and mourners lowered the Philippine flag to half-mast. They also took turns to wave the flag on top the moving bier all the way to church (Mercado (ed.), 1986).
Ninoy's death sparked protest rallies, staged on a weekly basis. Moreover, it seemed his widow would carry on his mission. Cory Aquino became the embodiment of victimization under the Marcos' regime and on the first anniversary of her husband's assassination, 21 August 1984, she pledged to a rally crowd that she would accomplish his unfulfilled wish. She had promised Ninoy that she would re-establish democracy in the Philippines (Kerkvliet and Mojares (eds.), c1991). Joaquin Roces, chairman of the Cory Aquino for President Movement, in a speech delivered to the nation on 15 October 1985 had this to say about Cory:

"What the country needs is the healing, inspiring, unifying voice of a revered and respected leader. After groping for more than two years following the death of Ninoy Aquino, we have no doubt in our minds that Cory Aquino is that leader… Cory incarnates the Aquino legacy. This is the legacy of blood, courage, integrity, and martyrdom that Ninoy Aquino bequeathed to the Philippines at high noon on a lonely tarmac… Also in the slipstream of this legacy is the blood shed by all Filipinos who have died in defense of their freedoms since martial rule fell on the Philippines in 1972. Cory's moral stature is such that even the ranks of Ferdinand Marcos' authoritarian regime harbor many people… who would recoil from desecrating and brutalizing the elections if she were a candidate…" (Mercado (ed.), 1986:45)

Thus, the memory of Ninoy is now forever borne by the person of his widow. Despite being a political novice, she garnered overwhelming support for her presidential bid in the 1986 snap elections called by Marcos and would have replaced him if the ballot had not been tampered with. Amid widespread accusations of fraud, two officials from the Marcos camp defected and announced their rebellion against the regime. Juan Ponce Enrile and General Ramos holed themselves up in a military camp with a handful of soldiers and sought the protection of the population from the pro-Marcos forces (Mamot, 1986). The population lined themselves along the main thoroughfare, named Edsa, across Camp Crame to block the approach of the tanks commandeered by the loyalist forces. Edsa, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, according to Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, means the epiphany of the saints (Mercado (ed.), 1986:127). It takes on new signification here as the Catholic masses have undergone their own personal transfiguration to becoming the saints of the Avenue, ready to be rolled over in their eagerness to become the new martyrs of democracy. Everywhere, the street parliamentarians, as they called themselves, made the "L" sign with their fingers for the symbol of Ninoy's party - Laban, which means "fight" (Ibid, 1986).
The eventual flight of Marcos and the transition to an Aquino administration was not an entirely peaceful one. During her term, Cory Aquino had to fight off five coup attempts by the military, the last of which nearly succeeded (Kerkvliet and Mojares (eds.), c1991). The traditional elite had also survived the post-Marcos years, as easily as they have survived American colonialism and the Japanese Occupation. The 1987 congressional elections saw the elites making a strong comeback with 164 newly elected congress representatives (out of 200) coming from established political clans, indicating an upper class dominance of the legislature (Caroll, 1999).
The aftermath of the Edsa revolution saw a proliferation of civil society groups eager to prevent a repeat of Marcos-style dictatorship. This came to be known as the people watch program. Some groups worth mentioning are the Movement of Attorneys for Brotherhood, Cory Aquino's People's Movement, The Mary Knoll Task Force for Active Non-violence and so on (Mamot, 1986).
Aquino was succeeded by Ramos whose term saw little progress in social and economic reform. Compared to Aquino, Ramos had a politically uneventful term as he had the backing of the military, having been the Chief of the Philippine Constabulary during the Marcos administration. However, in the last year of his presidency, he quietly supported efforts to change the constitution so as to abolish term limits for himself and other officials, allowing him to run for another term. It was not too difficult for the Catholic bishops and the masses to draw a corollary from Ramos's intentions, since Marcos himself have gone down the same route. In an organized protest, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines issued an angry pastoral letter that served as a prelude to a rally headed by Jaime Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino:

The attempts at constitutional change demonstrate the evils of politics that we have been talking of here - deviousness, double talk, deception, manipulation… the use of power to promote self-interests… We cannot ignore them. We must move against them. (Carroll, 1999:52)

The pastoral letter reflects the recollection of illusion that Marcos used to bluff the Philippine masses. He promised economic reforms that never materialized and justified his political maneuvering by declaring he acted in the interests of the people. Sobered by the protest, Ramos announced that he would not run for reelection even if the constitution were to be amended.
Joseph Ejercito "Erap" Estrada, Ramos' vice-president during his administration, was next in line for the presidency. Interestingly, during his official proclamation as president-elect by the joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate on 29 May 1989, he remarked that his presidency was "history repeating itself":

"Bonifacio was condemned by the illustrados, by the Church, by the bourgeois society. That's how I was also condemned, and still the masses supported me. So this is the revolt of the masses, the new modern Bonifacio." (Laquian and Laquian, 1998:30)

When reporters reminded Erap that Bonifacio was executed by his rivals after a serious rift developed between his fraction and that of General Emilio Aguinaldo, he quickly retorted , "That is why I said 'modern day' Bonifacio". (Ibid, 1998:30)
Erap won on the basis on his screen image. As an actor in Filipino moving pictures, he typically plays the role of a lower-class street brawler who fights the powers-to-be that are exploiting the people and wins. His record in political life, as mayor, senator and vice-president provided no substance for his claim of being pro-poor - but the people lapped up the image (Caroll, 1999).
The Catholic bishops, along with Jaime Cardinal Sin, had been vocal in their condemnation of the president during the run up to his election. Estrada was among the few Marcos loyalists by his side just before he fled the country (Mercado (ed.), 1986). After the elections he was seen as cavorting with the Marcos cronies, who also instigated him to extend the presidential term to ensure his stay in power.
Growing middle class discontent about Erap's inept administration, his womanizing, his alcoholism, his gambling and his association with people of questionable character provoked a host of criticism regarding his ability to handle the presidency. The last straw came when accusations surfaced about the kickbacks Erap received from illegal gambling, also known as Jueteng. The media began the call for his resignation and not long after, representatives in the Congress moved to impeach the president for alleged bribery, graft and corruption, betrayal of the public trust and gross violation of the constitution. The joke making the rounds of the impeachment trial was that Erap cannot be the respondent in the trial; he is the plain thief (Authorless, 2001)!
When the impeachment trial appeared to be thwarted at every turn by officials loyal to Estrada, it was an evident example of elite solidarity. Again, the people took to Edsa. Again they were led by Cardinal Sin and Cory Aquino. The move to oust Estrada was known as People Power 2 and also as Edsa 2. The choice of the venue is particular significant. In the first People Power, Edsa made sense since the populace was needed to protect rebel forces inside Camp Crame. Malacanang palace should have been better choice for the second People Power since it was the residence of the president and the seat of power. The protesting masses wanted to relive their victory over dictatorship and the memory embedded in the site seemed to empower them. It was also symbolic as the reasons they gathered there for the second time were the same as the first. It was to oust a dishonest, self-serving president.
The memory of empowerment through revolution carries itself in momentum sparks the recollection of freedom over dictatorship and misrepresentation. Its transmission may not have been perfect and its meaning may have been manipulated in various ways to suit the cause of the masses. It is embodied in many forms: in the person of Cory Aquino and Jaime Cardinal Sin, in sites such as Rizal Park and Edsa, in organized movements such as the people watch program. They are those who use and abuse history to their advantage, such as Erap, who compared himself to Bonifacio and who also drew the comparison along ethnic lines, that they are both Tagalog.
The effects of recollection are potent. Memory serves to naturalize history and that in itself is sufficient reason to invoke the past for political expediencies. Good and evil, the memories of collective action - all these are embedded in minds and places. For the masses, it serves as a continual reminder never to let their guard down. For the powerful, a chance at recreating history again, the way it should be… for them, in the Philippines.


1. Kerkvliet, Benedict J. and Mojares, Resil B. (ed.) c1991 From Marcos to Aquino: local perspectives on political transition in the Philippines Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press

2. Laquian, Aprodicio and Laquian, Eleanor 1998 Joseph Ejercito "Erap" Estrada: the centennial president Vancouver, B.C.: Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia

3. (Authorless) 2001 A scrapbook about EDSA 2: people power ULI!: with jokes, text messages, photos, digital images and more... Manila, Philippines: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

4. Caroll, John J. 1999 Forgiving or forgetting? : Churches and the transition to democracy in the Philippines Quezon City: Institute on Church and Social Issues

5. Mercado, Monina Allarey (ed.) 1986 An eyewitness history: people power: the Philippine revolution of 1986 Manila: James B. Reuter, S.J., Foundation

6. Mamot, Patricio R. 1986 Profile of Filipino heroism Quezon City: New Day Publishers

7. Youngblood, Robert L. 1990 Marcos against the church: economic development and political repression in the Philippines Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press