Icon of democracy

Print edition : August 28, 2009

Corazon Aquino flashes the laban (fight) sign to her supporters at a public plaza in Tarlac on December 17, 1985.-ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS Corazon Aquino flashes the laban (fight) sign to her supporters at a public plaza in Tarlac on December 17, 1985.

CORAZON AQUINO, the rallying figure of the people power revolution in the Philippines in 1986, is remembered as a national icon of democracy. Her death in Manila on August 1, at the age of 76, has once again brought that revolution under the scanner of contemporary history. In renewed focus now, as a result, are the continuing failings of democracy in the Philippines. More importantly, the larger agenda of democratisation across East Asia is also acquiring a new sense of urgency, at least as an idea.

A logical question in this broad context is whether Corazon, the shy homemaker-turned-political leader, had greatness thrust upon her. The answer cannot be in the affirmative because she rose to the challenge of an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with a martial law dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.

However, the full story, not exactly a tragedy, of her political career is not seen to be as inspiring as the people power call she articulated. Indeed, the vigour and promise of her rise to power deserted her once she was in office as the Executive President, from 1986 to 1992. Unsurprisingly, she decided against seeking re-election in 1992, especially when such a move would have fallen in a grey area of political contention. Seasoned observers note that it was this move which, in the final analysis, helped her remain a prominent figure in the contemporary history of East Asia.

Two aspects of Corazons life and times hold interest as her legacy is assessed in the wake of her death following a battle against cancer. In the first place, her personal life influenced her political choices. Secondly, people power is even now preferred as a political mantra in some quarters in East Asia. Generally overlooked in the process is that the Filipino people power phenomenon was nothing new in history. In the march of global politics, the French Revolution was the first shining instance of a mass-scale expression of people power.

Corazon Cojuangco was born into a fabulously wealthy Singo-Philippine family on January 25, 1933. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her early life to indicate that history might one day beckon her. For almost 30 years after her marriage in 1954, she remained in the shadow of her husband, Benigno Aquino, later an opponent of Marcos. During that period, she, in her own version, remained content to be a homemaker. Together with her husband, she brought up their five children.

The turning point in her life, which also became a moment of truth for Filipinos, was the assassination of her husband, a hugely popular opposition leader, on August 21, 1983. Benigno, popularly known as Ninoy, was shot and killed at the Manila airport minutes after his arrival from exile. The assassination took place when a squad of the Aviation Security Command was leading him down the stairs from an exit door of the aircraft and towards a waiting car on the runway. Ninoy was shot in the head by a member of the security squad itself.

For Marcos, and his martial law minions, loathed by most Filipinos, there was the legal fig leaf of defence. Ninoy had been sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Imprisoned on the imposition of martial law in September 1972, he was kept in detention for several years before being allowed to travel to the United States for a heart surgery.

After a period of convalescence, he stayed on in that country to mobilise anti-Marcos forces. Finally, he returned to Manila to try and take the political battle to Marcos home turf. But the political battle took a more momentous turn than what Ninoy might have thought possible.

Public anger grew over what was seen as the cold-blooded murder of a pro-democracy leader by the political machinery of a widely reviled authoritarian ruler and his fashionable consort, Imelda Marcos. Marcos was soon at a loss to control the groundswell of popular opposition to his rule. In a bid to stem the tide, he ordered a snap presidential poll, which took place in February 1986.

By then, Corazon was persuaded by friends and allies to contest against Marcos, whom she held personally accountable for her husbands assassination. Her chief political asset was that she carried no taint of power, not to mention any miscarriage of power. More importantly, her moral standing as the victim of the political excesses of Marcos opened up for her new avenues of support. However, Marcos, instead of conceding defeat in the poll, sought to cling on to power. This set the stage for a historic display of people power.

The popular mood against Marcos was as clear as tropical sunshine, and he was soon to be reduced to a nonentity despite a doctored poll result.

March 2, 1986: President Corazon Aquino faces a massive crowd at Rizal Park in Manila, holding a proclamation restoring the right of habeas corpus.-SADAYUKI MIKAMI/AP

It was then that the Catholic Church, a powerful player in the social life of the Filipinos, intervened in a manner that proved decisive. The Church had already backed Corazon against Marcos. As Marcos refused to concede electoral defeat, Cardinal Jaime Sin gave a call for a direct intervention by the people. Critics say the cardinal supported Corazon in the hope of preventing the communists from taking advantage of a potential post-Marcos crisis. Her social credentials were said to be a relevant factor.

By the time Cardinal Sin acted, Juan Ponce Enrile, a close associate of Marcos and his Defence Minister, had started organising a revolt within the military establishment, the dictators sole source of power. In this, Enrile found an able ally in Fidel Ramos, then the deputy chief of staff of the armed forces.

But Marcos was not yet fully done with his rearguard moves to stay in power. He turned to those soldiers who were still loyal to him. They were ordered to crush the military rebels, who barricaded themselves in Camp Crame in anticipation of a backlash from Marcos loyalists. This and another military camp bordered Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila. This aspect finally turned out to be a geostrategic or logistical nicety for the purposes of the authors of the people power movement.

At the cardinals call, Filipinos swarmed into the EDSA and positioned themselves as a human wall in defence of the military rebels. Transparently, the objective was to prevent Marcos loyalists from crushing the revolt. When this strategy succeeded, it acquired the political resonance of people power.

At the height of this display of people power, the U.S., with whom Filipinos have a love-hate relationship, suggested that Marcos give up. Driven to desperation, Marcos fled into exile in the U.S., and the authors of the people power movement ensured that Corazon was sworn in as the elected President.

Viewed superficially, she was the beneficiary of the decisive anti-Marcos moves by Cardinal Sin, on the one side, and by the Enrile-Ramos team, on the other. More importantly, though, the critical mass of the people power movement was the political stamina of Corazon herself. She was willing to travel the extra mile as the anti-Marcos leader so that the movement could stay the course.

Corazons tenure at the helm was certainly not as sparkling as her rise to power. In a sense, this was no surprise, given the challenges of a high office of that kind.

In an assessment, the late Michael Leifer, generally acknowledged as a leading expert on South-East Asian affairs, wrote: Mrs. Aquinos prime achievement was in restoring constitutional democracy, but she was never able to capitalise on her national standing to contain the political contention which followed [her assumption of office] and which obstructed any attempt to address deep-seated economic and social problems.

Such a transparent failure, in Leifers evaluation, left her identified with vacillation and drift. Not only that. Her personal credibility was dented by the allegations of financial malpractices by some members of her family. Her track record encouraged the residual Marcos loyalists in the military establishment to conspire in coup plots against her. In Leifers judgment, the most serious of these [plots] took place in December 1989, when she was saved from political overthrow only by U.S. military intervention.

President Fidel Ramos flanked by Manila Archbishop Cardinal Jaime Sin and Corazon at the Malacanang presidential palace on October 1, 1997.-ROMEO GACAD/AFP

Overall, many believe that Corazons legacy as President was, ironically, her choice of Ramos, a Protestant, to succeed her. He is now widely reckoned to have been the most effective of all the Filipino Presidents since the end of her term. It was during Ramos tenure that the American naval base at Subic Bay was transferred to the control of the Philippines. Talks on the issue had taken place during Corazons presidentship.

To Corazons overall credit, her articulation of genuine people power remains a benchmark in the politics of the Philippines to this day. This is true also in some other East Asian countries with pro-democracy movements of varying intensities, ranging from subtle overtones to substantive campaigns.

Two other South-East Asian women leaders are sometimes compared with Corazon. Indonesias Megawati Sukarnoputri was a passive but firm dissident during the long years of Suhartos authoritarian rule, which ended in 1998.

However, she has not been able to put her one-time political charisma to good use, either in the advancement of her own career or in the service of her country. Briefly in power as a post-Suharto President of Indonesia, Megawati has had access to political space but not the benefit of the kind of extra-political coalition that supported Corazon.

Myanmars celebrated democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a unique leader. The military rulers have, except for a brief period, deprived her of access to any kind of political space since her landslide electoral victory nearly two decades ago. A simmering people power movement, briefly activated during the recent but failed uprising by Buddhist monks, has not shaken the junta.

So, the larger international community may have to play a role in Myanmar, somewhat similar to the actions of a domestic coalition that helped Corazon restore democracy in the Philippines.

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