Throughout history, the removal of a crushing dictatorship has relied upon ruthless rebels and extensive bloodshed. Not so in the Philippines, where the People Power Revolution forced President Ferdinand Marcos to run for his life on February 25, 1986 by simply protesting in the streets. Blocking Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), the resolute masses changed the course of history for the island nation in Southeast Asia with just the force of a united voice.
In 1965, Marcos came into power on the promise of initiating massive roadbuilding projects and construction of new schools throughout the impoverished nation. Throughout his first four years, his administration appeared to focus on elevating as many people as possible, but the reality was something entirely different. By the 1969 election, rumors of corruption were commonplace and wealth became concentrated amongst fewer and fewer Filipinos.
Struggling to survive, citizens increasingly turned to crime or, worse, joined military groups intent on overthrowing the democratically-elected government. Already known for his self-serving policies, Marcos used the frustration within the population to his advantage, declaring martial law in September 1972 before his second term ended the next year and he was forced to retire. The sweeping executive order ended the Philippine Congress and authorized Marcos to suspend civil rights. Within months, he jailed opposition leaders and rewrote the Philippines’ constitution to create a puppet government. Further, he used the national treasury as a personal bank account, forcing a once-promising economy to wilt under the pressure of his lavish lifestyle.
Over the course of a decade, resentment grew among the public and officials alike. Benigno Aquino, Jr., a popular former senator held as a political prisoner by the Marcos government, communicated with those on the outside to coordinate plans for an overthrow. Though he was exiled to the United States in 1980, Aquino vowed to return. Away for three years, he was shot as soon as he stepped onto the tarmac at Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983.
Galvanized by the horror of Aquino’s death, opposition gained strength as the Marcos government slowly crumbled. The Filipino economy shrank year upon year, until pressure from the US forced Marcos to call for new elections. Always seen as an ally thanks to his anti-Communist rhetoric and willingness to guarantee American access to air bases within the country, Marcos had pushed officials in Washington to the breaking point. By declaring a new round of voting to come in February 1986, he hoped to once again legitimize his position as head of state.
The contest, held on February 7th, quickly turned into a mess. The government-run Commission on Elections declared Marcos a narrow winner. The National Movement for Free Elections named Corazon Aquino, the assassinated Benigno’s widow, the victor. Controversy continued as allegations of tampering and intimidation emerged, which Marcos skirted after a declaration by the Commission and Batasang Pambansa (the Filipino Parliament) on February 15th he would retain the office.
All over the nation, it soon became clear the people were through dealing with Marcos’ scheming. Members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAFM) planned a coup, hoping to sweep into Malacanan Palace and seize Marcos while securing a perimeter around crucial assets. A handful of leaders were immediately arrested, but those able to escape capture were joined by the former chief of the Philippine Constabulary and the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila. During the evening of February 22nd, the group took to the airwaves of Radio Veritas to encourage Filipinos to line EDSA in a show of support for the rebels.
In just a matter of hours, hundreds of thousands of unarmed protesters blocked every lane of the street, growing in numbers even after troops cut off the main Radio Veritas transmitter. The gathering took on the form of a family outing, with sing-alongs and performances to help people pass the time. Priests and nuns gathered in the streets, kneeling to pray as tanks rolled forward or locking arms with average citizens to keep the military from advancing further. Defections from the Marcos government increased by the hour, with protesters greeting their uniformed countrymen with hugs and cheers.
Early in the morning of February 25, 1986, a brief confrontation between loyalists and rebel soldiers gave the reformers the last necessary victory to force Marcos’ hand. Hours later, Corazon Aquino was sworn in as President. In one last bid to prove himself the true leader of the nation, Marcos staged an inauguration of his own. Even as tempers flared near the Presidential Palace, the crowd managed to avoid resorting to violence.
By the middle of the afternoon, Marcos was negotiating with American officials to provide him an escape from his people. At midnight, a pair of rescue helicopters arrived to take the family to Clark Air Base 50 miles from Manila. As word spread through the crowd, spontaneous celebrations broke out. The Philippines was a democratic nation for the first time in two decades.
The international community was stunned. Months later, President Corazon Aquino stood before US Congress and declared “ours must have been the cheapest revolution ever.” Though politics in the Philippines is still a volatile beast controlled by a small number of rich Filipinos — Marcos’ wife and son have since been elected to government positions — the movement served as an inspiration for similar peaceful uprisings in Taiwan and South Korea.
Also On This Day:
1570 – Queen Elizabeth I of England is excommunicated by Pope Pius V
1841 – French painter and sculptor Pierre-Auguste Renoir is born
1901 – J.P. Morgan incorporates the United States Steel Corporation
1932 – Adolf Hitler becomes a naturalized German citizen, allowing him to run for Reichspraesident that year
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