Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Remembering Edsa

20 People and their Lives 20 Years since People Power

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS Lilen Uy did the portraits of 19 of the Edsa 20, except that of Fidel Ramos. Lilen is a freelance photographer who does work mainly for glossy magazines and advertisers. She has been a professional photographer for 15 years. Last September, her exhibit, called “Portraits,’ was shown at the Silver Lens Gallery. The portrait of Fidel Ramos is by Jay Directo of Agence France-Presse.

TWENTY YEARS ago, at the height of the people power revolt, Imelda Marcos, then holed up in Malacañang with her anxious family and a phalanx of remaining loyal troops, contemplated the possibility of her imminent, and vertiginous, fall. At about the same time, Cory Aquino, who had returned to Manila after taking shelter in a Carmelite convent in Cebu when the uprising broke out, was insisting to worried family and friends that she should join the throng that had gathered at Edsa despite the security problems that would pose.

While all this was going on, Bernabe ‘Ka Dante’ Buscayno, the legendary founder of the New People’s Army who had been rotting in a Marcos prison inside Camp Crame, was glued to his radio, following the events taking place just outside his cell and fervently wishing, “Please, please, let this end, let Marcos fall.”

Not far away but lost among the crowd that massed up outside Camp Crame was Nanay Mameng Deunida, a diminutive laundrywoman and feisty community leader from the teeming Manila slum of Leveriza. She was at Edsa as she had been in numerous other protests against Marcos. Sister Luz Soriano, an Assumption nun, was there, too, preparing sandwiches when the tanks came. She thought she would die in Edsa, but the soldiers manning the armored vehicles were daunted by the crowd of unarmed civilians before them and refused to fire.

Chito Gascon, then president of the University of the Philippines student council, was among the many young people who joined the revolt. He, too, thought that the end was near when the helicopter gunships hovered overhead, aiming at the crowd below. Instead, the pilots turned around, landed, and joined the rebel troops at the camp. Joe Concepcion, a wealthy industrialist who helped organize the election watchdog Namfrel was at Edsa as well, basking in the warmth of a celebratory crowd, some of whom hoisted the robust businessman on their shoulders while joyously shouting, “Namfrel! Namfrel!” Atom Araullo was then only three years old, but he was there, too, carried not by a jubilant crowd but by his activist parents who were eager to see Marcos go.

From February 22 to 25, 1986, the lives—and fates—of all these disparate men and women were tied together by what was taking place on a strip of highway. No other event in the last 20 years has brought Filipinos together like Edsa has. Whoever they were and wherever they came from, these men and women shared Edsa and they would remember it for the rest of their lives.

To many of those who were there, Edsa was a defining experience that determined the choices they would later make. The leaders of the military rebellion that set off the revolt—Gen. Fidel Ramos, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and Lt. Col. Gringo Honasan—were right in the center of the action in the two military camps on Edsa, and they would emerge powerful figures when the uprising ended, defining the nature and character of the democratic regime that followed.

Rene Saguisag, like other human-rights lawyers who fought Marcos, was advising Cory Aquino as she got ready for the presidency, and he, like his other lawyer-friends, would end up holding important posts in her government. They, too, sought to influence the course of the democracy that was re-established at Edsa, but did not always succeed.

Eggie Apostol was keeping her friend, the defense minister’s wife Cristina, company in hiding during the revolt while still publishing the fighting Philippine Daily Inquirer. The spunky daily would later emerge as the country’s largest and most influential newspaper.

Tessy Ang See and her husband, then seriously ill with cancer, were collecting food and money from Chinese-Filipino businessmen who discreetly supported the uprising. Chin Ben See would die a few months later, but the tumultuous years that followed would also see the rise of the Tsinoy business community to the heights of the Philippine economy, with Tessy Ang See there to act as their spokesperson as kidnappers targeted the new kings of post-Edsa prosperity.

Even those who weren’t physically at Edsa were profoundly touched by it. Raymundo Jarque, then a senior army officer in Pampanga, barricaded the highway with priests and nuns to prevent Marcos loyalists in the North from moving reinforcements to Manila. Nur Misuari, the fiery leader of the Moro secessionist movement, was then in exile in Libya, praying to his God for the same thing that the atheist Buscayno was. Romeo Intengan, the Jesuit who had fled the country six years earlier to escape Imelda Marcos’s wrath, was also in exile, albeit in Spain, and he, too, was making the same fervent prayer. Meanwhile, back home, contemplative nuns were on their knees in their convents; Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin had told them, “Stretch out your arms and pray and fast and don’t eat solidly until I tell you. We are in battle and you are the powerhouses. And the moment we do not win the battle, you will have to fast until the end of your life.”

All these supplications must have helped for certainly the gods seemed to have smiled at Filipinos then. Not a drop of blood was spilled on Edsa. Instead the uprising was picnic, fiesta, religious festival, and carnival rolled into one.

IT IS SAID that nearly a million Filipinos massed up on Edsa to oust the dictator. It was one of the most stirring moments in contemporary Philippine history, one much admired throughout the world. Filipinos still think they set the template for “People Power,” peaceful revolutions that have ended entrenched authoritarian regimes and brought about democracy.

Yet today, 20 years later, many Filipinos are also asking themselves what Edsa was all about. What did it accomplish? Two decades later, the country finds itself mired in political crisis, seemingly in a state of democratic decay. In 1986, a popular uprising took place just weeks after a fraudulent election. Today we are in the midst of another crisis sparked by election cheating. What went wrong? What went right? How have Filipino lives changed? What did Edsa mean?

These are difficult questions but some of the answers can be found in the lives of the 20 Filipinos featured here. The paths they have taken provide a map of what the country has been through since People Power, edition one.

The 20 Filipinos in this issue include some of the main players at Edsa, but many are ordinary individuals who led extraordinary lives and made brave choices before and after 1986. Our choices for the Edsa 20 were not random ones: while they were partly determined by the availability of the interviewees, the 20 featured in this issue were chosen because theirs are interesting and important stories. Each story that is told here is but one thread of a complex tapestry, but each narrative is also part of a broader pattern.

Jim Paredes’s tale, for example, is as much his story as it is of others like him. In the years immediately before Edsa, he and the rest of the Apo Hiking Society band—Danny Javier and Buboy Garrovillo—were staging what could be described as rallies disguised as concerts. They wrote and sang songs that spoke of the growing rage against a tyrannical regime. During Edsa, Paredes helped out TV host June Keithley at the underground Radyo Bandido, which was broadcasting news of the uprising. He would later compose a tribute to Filipino greatness that became the Edsa anthem.

In 1989, after an attempted coup that nearly toppled the Aquino government, Paredes went to the U.S. Embassy and gave up his green card, a symbolic act that affirmed his faith in country and democracy. But like many among the young, ambitious, and talented middle class who were part of People Power, that faith is now severely eroded. This year, on the 20th anniversary of Edsa, he is migrating with his family to Australia.

Nanay Mameng was in Edsas 1 and 2, and in rallies and protests before, between, and after both events. Like many of her neighbors in Leveriza, her life has not improved. Every day is still a struggle for survival, and Nanay Mameng is still fighting for a better life.

But others are better off now than they were in February 1986. Imelda Marcos survived The Fall and is back in the social scene, shopping, partying, and singing. The former Marcos cronies aren’t doing too badly either. As for Enrile, his businesses have expanded and he is senator, as was Gringo for three terms. While both men regret having turned over power to Aquino in 1986, they are certainly none the worse off now. Ramos became president in 1992 and still acts like he is one today. Eggie Apostol has since sold the Inquirer, but for sure, the media industry, which experienced a post-Edsa boom, became one of the biggest beneficiaries of the democratic restoration and is now political kingmaker.

So is the military, which, thanks to Edsa, still exercises veto power over our vulnerable democracy. The Roman Catholic Church, which mobilized crowds for the revolt, remains equally powerful, though the absence of Cardinal Sin, who died last year, seems to have rendered it unable to speak with one voice as it did during Edsa. The Moros had hoped that Edsa would be kinder to them than Marcos was, but that has not always turned out to be so. Nur Misuari, for one, enjoyed a comeback after Edsa but has been kept in prison by a democratic government for the last four years.

The Left, meanwhile, was divided by democracy. While thousands of its cadres were released from prisons after Edsa, the Communist Party was decimated by the defections that followed. Today, it is slowly regaining strength and many communists remain true to the faith. But many others like ex-guerilla Cecilia Flores Oebanda have blazed a different trail, pioneering in NGO work aimed at helping the exploited and dispossessed. The success of the NGO sector is certainly part of the good news made possible by Edsa.

TODAY THE luster of Edsa has been somewhat lost. For sure, the democracy we have re-established is flawed; the society that we have built since is divided; the gap between the rich and the poor remains yawning. We need only to drive down potholed, polluted, and traffic-choked Edsa to see this.

It doesn’t help that an oversized billboard of chat-show queen Kris Aquino stripped down to her underwear has taken over the Edsa skyline. In another portion of Edsa, the fashion model Borgy Manotoc is similarly displayed. Twenty years ago, the teenaged Kris kept her mother Cory company in a convent as People Power burst out into the streets; Borgy was a toddler hiding in a closet in Malacañang with mom Imee as the Marcoses prepared for The Fall.

Is this how it all ends, one wonders, all the drama and history of the past 20 years lost to the glitter of advertising and the glamour of celebrity?

But then there are still many of us who remember how it was then. “Edsa was like a new dawn for me,” says the once-hardened communist Buscayno. Tears still well up in Joe Concepcion’s eyes when he relives those days. Even Enrile and Misuari cannot remain unmoved.

Edsa was our Camelot, our brief shining moment. It may well also be a constant reminder of promises unfulfilled, hopes dashed, and expectations unmet, but nothing that happened afterward can take away from the glory of those four days. Edsa showed us our potential for greatness, even if the days and the years that followed also revealed to us our capacity for greed, divisiveness, and hate.

Certainly the fault does not lie with Edsa, or with Filipinos as a people. The well of greatness lies within us. We have yet to tap its full potential.