People Power

August 6 2009

I sat a few empty rows behind Cory Aquino at a rally on her first May Day, in 1986, and watched the paper scroll passing through her teleprompter.

1986 1

That was how light security was in those days. She was dressed in yellow. Aides and colleagues in T-shirts and shirtsleeves lounged and sat alongside her. The stadium was not full. I don’t think it was her only rally that day. Perhaps it was mainly for party workers.

The images at the top and bottom of this post are from T-shirts I bought on that trip. I was in Manila from the end of April to attend the Asian Development Bank meeting (in a publishing, not banking, capacity). I remember a phrase in her ADB speech (I have a transcript somewhere): “My husband Ninoy”.

The whole city still seemed littered with yellow. Yellow hung and draped everywhere. T-shirts in Luneta Park, where the big rallies had taken place.

In the grass centre of Roxas Boulevard, between the lanes, displays put up during the demonstrations still stood. One proclaimed: GAYS FOR TOLENTINO. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. This was a Catholic Asian country in the ’80s, though a tolerant one. Everyone was having his say. Arturo Tolentino, however, had stood against Aquino and Laurel and was an elder statesman from the Marcos camp. He eventually accepted the outcome of the revolution.

The prayerful, non-violent People Power Revolution, also called the EDSA revolution, after Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, where many demonstrations took place, removed Ferdinand Marcos, who had been in power, of course with American support, since 1965. Marcos and his wife Imelda fled to the US on February 25, the day Corazon Aquino was inaugurated, but not before a second inauguration had taken place for Marcos himself at Malacañang Palace, with a butterfly-sleeved Imelda on the balcony singing tearfully and one last time, from the song Dahil Sa Iyo:

“Because of you [Ferdinand] I attained happiness.
I offered you my love.
If it is true that you shall enslave me
It matters not, since all this is because of you.”

Marcos’s days were numbered from August 21 1983, the day his gunmen assassinated the opposition leader Ninoy Aquino at Manila airport. Cory was Ninoy’s widow. She was known as a “housewife” and gave the impression that she enjoyed the work herself and didn’t only direct maids.

Cory remained in power until 1992. Marcos died in Honolulu in 1992. In 1991 Imelda, the role model and people’s guide, was given permission to return home, and she fought (and finished fifth in) the 1992 presidential election.

Was it a real revolution? I think it was. A palace was entered, which is normal enough, but there had been nothing quite like it before. It was a T-shirted revolution before Twitter, a colour-coded revolution before mobile phones and email, a velvet revolution practically before fax. There had been peaceful protests and non-cooperation in India, but they were surely more manipulated and orchestrated.

Since 1986, the Philippine example has been at the back of our minds wherever there have been large-scale, mainly peaceful popular protests. Václav Havel has said that it was in the minds of European demonstrators in 1989. The days leading up to the deposition of Ceauşescu in Romania reminded one very strongly of the Philippines. Was it in the minds of the Chinese students in the same year? It was in our minds this year during the protests that began after the Iranian presidential elections.

The Philippines haven’t become a basket case or failed economy or suffered another Marcos. Philippine politics may be venal and worse, but aren’t the political clans a little more vulnerable and just a little less unpleasant than in Indonesia? That is my worthless and unsubstantiated impression. A couple of mini-EDSAs in 2001 – EDSA Dos and EDSA Tres – tried to keep matters in line.

Malacañang Palace (the word Palace was officially dropped by President Magsaysay in the ’50s, but is still used), on the north bank of the Pasig River, is the official residence of the presidents of the Philippines. The palace of the Spanish Governors-General had been in the old walled city of Intramuros until an earthquake destroyed it in 1869. They moved to Malacañang, which had originally been built in 1802 by a Spanish aristocrat. William Howard Taft occupied it from 1901 to 1904 as the American Governor. The populace invaded it in 1986.

Here is what it looked like in 1966, just after the Marcoses moved in.

Malacanang 1966

Here is what it looks like today. It had been completely remodelled by the Marcoses.


Not an improvement. The inside was dreary, reflecting the Marcoses’ inner dreariness. We were taken around it. Tired extravagance, depressing panelling, and this large masterpiece:


There was another painting, equally large and I think in the same room, of Imelda. I remember a huge (one litre?) bottle of Chanel perfume in Imelda’s dressing room. Of course, we were also shown the shoes. A sign, “Imelda’s shoes”, pointed down a small staircase to a basement in which they were displayed. And perhaps we saw some of the allegedly fifteen mink coats and 888 handbags.

Butterfly sleeves were Imelda’s trademark, but surely they derived from something in traditional Spanish dress.

I suppose the first Filipino known to most of us was the man who killed Magellan with a spear on the island of Cebu in 1521.

The Philippines are an underrated travel destination, partly because nobody has any idea what Philippine food is. Manila is the only place where I’ve ever eaten pork in chocolate sauce. It’s a Spanish dish. You can probably get it in Mexico.

In 1986 the Manila Hotel used to boast of having several orchestras. They were survivors of those orchestras and dance-bands that were attached to hotels and restaurants before the war.

“For a while”: Philippine English for “wait a moment”. “The prahvinces” for “not Manila”.

Filipinos. Sentimental, bruised. Soft-hearted, hard-bitten. Prayerful, pragmatic. The men have a tendency to look like Elvis Presley (the Polynesian strain).

The diaspora: the worldwide army of hotel staff, McDonald’s staff, nannies, nurses, housekeepers, orderlies, moppers-up after the incontinent.

Other Philippine posts:

Noli me tangere

Manila – Acapulco

1986 2 recropped 3

3 Responses to “People Power”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Just watched Fritz Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines with Tyrone Power and Micheline Presle (1950). An excellent film in spite of its banal title and not the kind of thing I had associated with Lang.

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