Walking the Tightrope
01 November 1987

In February 1986, Filipinos wrote a new concept into modern history books. They call it `People and Prayer Power', although outside the Philippines it is simply called `People Power'.


On August 28, a week before I arrived in Manila, there was an attempted army coup. On the eve of my departure, the entire Aquino Cabinet resigned, postponing my appointment with Defence Secretary Raphael Ileto for a few hours. Ileto was on television during the Cabinet emergency and said, `Before we can think of mending cracks within the country, we have to mend the cracks within the military.' Through the window of the Defence Secretary's office at Camp Aguinaldo we could see an eloquent example of the Secretary's statement - the burnt-out GHQ building fired by army rebels. As we climbed the stairs to his office we passed a bullet hole. The Philippines are nothing if not dramatic.

In February 1986, Filipinos wrote a new concept into modern history books. They call it `People and Prayer Power', although outside the Philippines it is simply called `People Power'. The seemingly entrenched 20-year reign of President Ferdinand Marcos and his first lady Imelda ended abruptly when the people in their millions sealed off the presidential palace of Malacanang and the army tanks could not come to the rescue of the embattled leader. The writing had been on the wall for the discredited Marcos family since 1983 when Senator Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino was murdered on the tarmac of Manila airport as he returned to head the Opposition. The last straw for the people was the fraudulent presidential election. The Marcoses fled to Hawaii and the people's candidate, the widow Corazon `Cory' Aquino was installed as President.

In February this year nearly 80 per cent of the people voted for President Aquino's new constitution, restoring the presidential system of government. They also voted for her chosen slate of Senators and Congressmen in the first such elections held since Marcos abolished Congress in 1972.

Expectations of the Aquino administration are naturally high, perhaps too high for any reasonably early fulfilment. The country labours under a $26.8 billion debt. Consequently half the total export earnings go overseas for interest payments. The government charges that Marcos is directly responsible for $10 billion, stolen during his two decades in power. There are also 2.6 million unemployed with 750,000 joining the workforce every year.

Meanwhile the army, used to wielding political power under Marcos, has been `returned to barracks'. Some of President Aquino's advisers pressed for investigations of alleged army misconduct during the Marcos era, charging `human rights violations'. This was resented by the army, who complained of equal `atrocities' committed by the communist New People's Army (NPA).

The problems were illustrated recently when a left-led one day general strike over price rises was followed almost immediately by an attempted coup by army officers who said that the administration was not strong enough in dealing with the NPA. They complained that political prisoners were being released who then caused more trouble. The Communist Party is outlawed in the Philippines but the left organizes under the banner of the National Democratic Front.

Land reforms
Perhaps the key issue for Mrs Aquino is her land reform policy, passed by Presidential proclamation in July this year. The programme will involve breaking up the large estates both public and private and redistributing the land. It is strongly opposed by conservative elements, including the wealthy families and those who benefitted under Marcos. The Aquino family's large plantation will not be exempt. She says, `Nobody is above the law and that includes me.'

The President has committed her administration to the eradication of feudalism. Nevertheless her stance is accused of not being radical enough by the NPA. Opposition to the programme from left and right, combined with army dissatisfaction, are major factors contributing to the instability here.

It is against this background that Cardinal Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila, issued a Pastoral Reflection to be read in all the churches of the Manila archdiocese calling for national self-examination, repentance and solidarity. This `reflection' talked about `an indifference' to the continuing plight of the poor and accused some of `conspicuous consumption': `Accusations of "high living" find foundation in the society pages, restored to our newspapers, which serve as red capes before our people who can hardly make ends meet.'
He also talked of the individual's responsibility to bring change.

`Authoritarian rule accustoms people to expect everything "from on high"... In a participative society, that cannot be the formula. Either we all take part in the task of cleansing, renewing, rebuilding our society, or that task will simply not be done... We need this kind of "people power" for the recreation of our country.'

Like Mrs Aquino, the Cardinal believes in searching for divine guidance when making decisions and starts each day at 4 am to do this. When I saw him in his office just prior to the issue of the Pastoral Reflection, it was evident that the need for economic justice burned in his heart. `I used to speak out often during the Marcos era because nobody else could,' he told me. `Now there are plenty of politicians who can speak - and they do. But I have to speak out once in a while.' He has set an example by giving away the money left to him by his father, a wealthy Chinese/Filipino businessman. The way forward, he told me, lies in individual moral conversion and commitment.

Despite the volatile situation, there is a strong desire amongst many to make things work. Senator Raul Manglapus, who last month was appointed as the new Foreign Minister by Mrs Aquino, explained to me, `The road to democracy is fraught with crises... Many countries that have opted for democracy after years of dictatorships have had similar experiences to the Philippines.'

Joaquin Bernas, a priest and respected columnist, wrote in the Manila Bulletin, `With all the doubt, and frustration and anger, however, the desire for (Mrs Aquino) to succeed is still strong. I hope that she will hear the grumblings and doubts and perceive the mounting anger not as expressions of the desire to destroy her, but as expressions of support. She must stay in office until 1992. That is still the popular sentiment.'

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0