Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lessons from Tita Cory and Her People

Jóse Rizal says, "It is a useless life that is not consecrated (dedicated) to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice”.

One would wonder, “Is it worthwhile fighting for the great ideal even when it costs us our own lives and most importantly, the people we love?”.

Then, The Intellectual Walter Lipmann says, “A man has honour, if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous”. Perhaps, I can reword Lipmann’s “Honour” to “Dignity”, instead of “Respect, Nobility or Privilege” because The Philosophical Aristotle deems, “Dignity consists not in possessing honours, but in the consciousness that we deserve them”.

Jose Rizal was executed by a firing squad - his ‘sins’ being liberal and progressive on individual rights and freedom, fighting corrupt friars and bad government. He becomes the martyr of Philippines Revolution.

90 years later, People Power Revolution began after another great son of the land, Benigno Aquino Jr. was slayed at the airport, after being thrown into a 3-year political exile by the dictator, whose ‘Steel Butterfly’ wife living extravagantly on poor tax-payers money.

“The murder shocked and angered the country, sparking popular demonstrations, intensifying the disaffection and causing the already stagnant economy to spiral downward, even as most other SEA nations were prospering”.

“Two of the most important elements of Philippine society, the church and the military, began quickly turning against the dictator”.

The Revolt In The Armed Forces

It began to take shape in 1977, when a power struggle eroded the influence of the dictator’s long-time political ally, Juan Ponce Enrile – the Defence Minister – with the appointment of General Fabian Ver as the Chief of the Armed Forces.

Though he claimed that he was one of the ‘architects’ of martial law under the 14-year dictatorship that “turned cronies into statesmen, torturers into legislators, and killers into generals", he began to work secretly to protect himself by secretly establishing Reform the Armed Forces Movement (“RAM”) and lay groundwork for the inevitable post-dictator period.

After the dictator won the blatantly rigged election against his rival, Benigno Aquino Jr’s widow, the reformers prepared to take a more active part in the efforts to topple him. By this time, they had won the support of some of his closest security forces. Say one reformist, “I don’t think the President thought that so many of his praetorian guards would turn against him. He thought money could buy loyalty. He underestimated the basic decency of Filipinos”.

On 22 Feb 1986, Enrile along with his ally, Lt. Gen Fidel Ramos who is also the chief of the Philippine Constabulary, resigned and joined the opposition forces.

Early in the morning of 24 Feb 1986, a crowd of the dictator’s supporters armed with batons and tear gas moved toward Camp Crame, where the reformers were gathered. Over transistor radios, Marcos was heard vowing, “We’ll wipe them out. It is obvious they are committing a rebellion”. And over Radio Veritas, came Enrile’s reply, “I am not going to surrender”.

Tanks arrived. When helicopers began circling overhead, it looked like as if the reformist rebellion was over. But then the choppers landed, and out came airmen waving white flags and giving the L sign for Laban (fight), a symbol of the opposition. The crowd, realising the that air force was now defecting, went wild.

The Umbilical Cord Of The Revolution

Radio Veritas played a critical role during the mass uprising. Former University of the Philippines president Francisco Nemenzo stated that: "Without Radio Veritas, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to mobilize millions of people in a matter of hours." Similarly, a certain account in the event said that: "Radio Veritas, in fact, was our umbilical cord to whatever else was going on.

The Heroism of The Filipinos

The improbable became the impossible. When Marcos forces threatened to retaliate, the influential Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, a powerful figure in a country nominally 85% Roman Catholic, openly encouraged opposition political figures and broadcast an appeal for "people power" to protect them. The dictator’s tanks rolled toward the crowds, only to be stopped by nuns, kneeling in their path, saying their rosary. Old women went up to gun-toting marines and disarmed them with motherly hugs. Little girls offered their flowers to hardened combat veterans. In the face of such quiet heroism, thousands of Marcos loyalists defected; many simply broke down in tears”.

These were scenes from a series of non-violent and prayerful mass street demonstrations that took place at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA for short, after a Filipino hero).

The Unlikely Icon

In the beginning, Madam Corazon Cory Aquino did not seem like the prototype for a new breed of democrat, much less a trailblazing woman. Sure, she knew about democracy, having come of age in the newly independent Philippines and worked as a volunteer in Thomas Dewey's 1948 presidential campaign during her college days in New York. Later, as the wife of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., a charismatic politician whose popularity doomed him to become Marcos' best-known political prisoner, she learned firsthand the thrill of electoral victory and the agony of martial law. Ninoy's 1983 assassination on his return to Manila from exile in the U.S. catapulted her out of his shadow and into the spotlight. But she lacked the self-confidence to take up his fight to restore democracy on her own.

The devout and stoic Roman Catholic widow became the incarnation of a pious nation that had itself suffered silently through more than a decade of autocratic rule. If she had agreed to let the massive demonstrations of outrage pass in front of Malacaňang Palace, that could have toppled the dictator.

It was in December 1985 when the dictator-controlled court acquitted the military men accused of killing Ninoy, Marcos suddenly called a "snap" presidential election in an attempt to capitalize on opposition disarray. Cory finally acknowledged that she alone could unite the anti-Marcos forces and transform the race into a political morality play.

This revelation came to her after 10 hours of meditation at the convent of the Sister-Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration, known as the “Pink Sisters” – an order of nuns who gave her sanctuary during the 1986 People Power Revolution. "We had to present somebody who is the complete opposite of Marcos, someone who has been a victim," she concluded. "Looking around, I may not be the worst victim, but I am the best-known."

The 4-day military-civilian rebellion, a preview of similar uprisings that would later shake out the autocracies of Asia, Latin, America, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, ended with Cory sworn in as the President during a daylight ceremony, as she wished for because “it is fitting and proper that, as the rights and liberties of our people were taken away at midnight 14 years ago (when martial law was declared), the people should recover the rights and liberties in the full light of the day”.

An hour later, the dictators, his family and close associates were whisked away in US Navy helicopters before taking a flight out to Hawaii.

Bob Simon, an anchorman at CBS once said, "We Americans like to think we taught the Filipinos democracy. Well, tonight they are teaching the world”.

The Days After – God and Governance

The hard part began as soon as she took office. To survive seven coup attempts by disgruntled military elements within her makeshift coalition, Aquino was forced to transcend her conciliatory nature and steel herself to make unpopular decisions. Her defining moment came when forces identified with Enrile threatened to topple her if she fulfilled her campaign promise to negotiate with the communist guerrillas. Typically, she dithered and prayed.

But then, in a move that marked her coming of age as a leader, she cemented her relationship with General Fidel V. Ramos, fired Enrile, announced a controversial ceasefire with the insurgents and calmly took the heat. Six years later, after both the communists and the coup-plotters had been marginalized, she made one of the least popular--but most responsible--decisions of her career. Defying her core supporters in the liberal community and the Catholic Church, she endorsed Ramos, an architect of martial law and a Protestant, as the candidate best equipped to restore stability and promote economic recovery.

During his presidency, Ramos was featured in the main and cover story of TIME Magazine, May 15, 1995, lauding him for his "no-nonsense leadership" after years of misrule by his predecessors, showing that "democracy is no enemy of development." While NEWSWEEK Magazine christened the Philippines as "Asia's New Tiger" in its cover story on Nov 25, 1996. It details how President Ramos transformed the country from the "Sickman of Asia" to an Economic Tiger. Ramos was also featured in Readers' Digest Cover Story in mid-1996, "The man atop Asia next Economic Tiger".

After her presidency, she returned to keeping house and watching over her husband’s legacy. Every now and then, she would emerge from private life to tell her successors to behave. She helped to lead a second People Power Uprising in 2001 to depose the inept government of Joseph Estrada; she also led protests against her former ally, the second woman president of the country, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, to warn her against rewriting the constitution to extend her time in office.

Whenever the country appeared to be in a crisis, Cory rose above the bureaucratic procrastination that had always bogged it down, reminding her people that they once astonished the world with their bravery – and that they could do it again.

"I tell them I don't have any formula for ousting a dictator or building democracy," says the former housewife who managed to do both. "All I can suggest is to forget about yourself and just think of your people. It's always the people who make things happen". Provided, of course, they have a leader who can touch their hearts.

Tita (Auntie) Cory passed away at the age of 76 after 1.5 years battling a colon cancer on 1 Aug 2009. Although her children declined the government offer of holding a state funeral, her body laid in state for her people’s viewing, including the dictator’s son and daughter, to pay their last respect.

Rest in Peace Tita Cory...

p.s. Major part of this is extracted from Aug 1999 TIME 100 : Asian of the Century – A Tale of Titans and Aug 2009 TIME Special Edition on Corazon Aquino (1933 – 2009)

p.p.s. I’ve been keeping and re-reading articles on this Angel for months and tears never fail to well up in my eyes reading what common people like you and me, especially the women, were capable of doing during the 4-day revolution. I must say the power of humanity was so strong, it toppled the dictator.

I can draw a lot of similarities between our brothers and sisters in Philippines and us, Anak Bangsa Malaysia - fighting for rights and liberties and there are also glaring differences that exclude us from the rank of Filipinos - "Macam langit dengan bumi"!

Our religion bodies, enforcement agencies and armed forces are politically misused and abused. Our politicians are more concerned about holding on to their power seat and whatever that comes with it.

We are too busy thinking whether we would survive financially. We are too engrossed with entertainment and dramas on TV. We have no guts to make a fuss when rights are being trampled. We are just too lame, aren’t we? Gee. We Malaysians indeed are pathetic. It’s time to learn from Tita Cory and her people.

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