Thursday, February 24, 2011

Essay: Understanding the Edsa Revolution

Tomorrow marks the 25th anniversary of the Edsa Revolution. The concept of "People Power" is fresh, considering current events, such as the protests in Egypt two weeks ago. But I say that not just as praise, but also as a warning. Other countries have attempted the same movement, but massacres do happen, such as what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The current question in Filipinos's minds is whether the revolution was a success. In many ways, that also echoes a concern of people around the world when it comes to Egypt: what happens next? The problem stems from the fact that people have different expectations.

This dilemma isn't new. A lot of people, in my opinion, suffer from a Messiah Complex, not in the sense that they envision themselves to be omnipotent and infallible, but they expect someone else--an individual-- to solve all their problems (and considering some of our prominent religions, it's not surprising). Unfortunately, this belief is a poor fit for democracy.

When people contemplate the Edsa Revolution, they compare whether the Philippines is better off today. The problem with that statement is that being "better off" is a relative term and doesn't provide concrete metrics. When former president Marcos was ousted, Filipinos expected many things: land reform, a prospering economy, a corruption-free government, etc. In other words, a utopia. What some of us don't understand is that these goals cannot be accomplished by a single individual nor does it happen with one single event. These are long-term problems and what's needed are long-term solutions. And that means constant vigilance and effort on our part as citizens.

What the Edsa Revolution did accomplish, and this was a transparent short-term goal right from the outset, was to oust a dictator. In that sense, we succeeded. Why was this important? Because it opened the possibility for change. This is the current plight of Egypt. A decade from now, Egypt may be better or worse off than its current state. We don't know what will happen, only the future can tell us that. But rather than the responsibility solely resting on one individual, the burden is now shared equally among its citizens (and to a certain extent, the global community).

This struggle isn't new. In fact, more than half a century ago, former president Manuel L. Quezon had this to say:
"I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans, because however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it."
Whenever I used to see this quote, it usually ends with Americans, and leaves out the last part. Which I think is important here: not just the possibility of change, but the pronoun we.

In my opinion, some of us fail to fully comprehend all of the implications of a democracy and dictatorship. For example, democracies are complex creatures, unique to each culture and nation. The Philippines's democracy is vastly different from that of America's, or even Athenian democracy. Each type of democracy has its own advantages and disadvantages, sometimes giving more power to its citizens, at other times to its representatives. At the other end of the spectrum are dictatorships. Much like democracy, dictatorships can take on various forms, and not all dictatorships are equal. Some Filipinos miss the days of Martial Law. There was, after all, quick implementation of plans and policies. But that is the nature of dictatorships: with no one to question our superior's orders, drastic actions can be quickly accomplished. Democracies in general, on the other hand, have numerous checks and balances that change is relatively slow. (Similarly, long-term dictatorships can also plan better for the long term as succession to their rule ceases to be a threat.) But the problem with dictatorships is what happens when your leader stops being benevolent? Will you have the freedom to state your opinion, much less effect change? That is, in my opinion, a fundamental concept, going as far back as the philosophical debate of free will. Or better yet, what happens if you become the minority, the oppressed? What if your are suddenly abducted by the government for no reason at all other than being suspected of treason? The innocent are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

There is also simple ignorance on the part of us Filipinos. For example, one of the pro-Marcos sentiments is that we had a strong peso vs. dollar rate during Martial Law. Unfortunately, this isn't due to Marcos being a savvy economist, but because we were under a Command Economy--thus the president could set the price without reacting appropriately to market forces. It can be advantageous in the short term but ultimately unsustainable as debts starts to pile up (and that is what happened with our national debt).

Nor were we on our best behavior. There is, of course, a lot of repressed anger at the time. The existence of looting after ousting a dictator comes as no surprise. But whereas Egypt made attempts to protect its treasures, there was no one to stop us Filipinos from looting Malacanang Palace.

Just the other day, I finished reading Brave New Worlds, an anthology on dystopian fiction. Editor John Joseph Adams writes a good introduction, especially the part where he reminds us that whether a society is a utopia or a dystopia depends on your perspective. Take for instance the story "Resistance" by Tobias Buckell: society has lost its ability to vote and in its place is a computer making all the decisions, based on how society would have voted. One could view this as the "benevolent dictator" argument and pro-Marcos supporters could have perceived the Martal Law era as that kind of utopia. But for some of us, that is a nightmare. These utopia-dystopias are real. Take for example China's one-child policy. Filipinos will frown upon it, especially when we have families here with half a dozen to even a dozen or more children. But in China, it's a way of life, and for them, the pros more than outweighs the cons. The concept of a benevolent dictator (and while arguably Marcos had some good intentions, he was hardly benevolent) is lucrative, but do we really want to live in such a society?

It's all too easy to take for granted the liberties we currently have. If the Edsa Revolution didn't take place, I'd imagine the Marcos regime taking control of the country's Internet, perhaps an amalgam of the Great Firewall of China and Mumbarak shutting down the Internet. But that is simply conjecture. If you want concrete, tactile examples, one only needs to look at the country's top newspapers. The Philippine Daily Inquirer was established during the weakest point of Marcos's administration, three months before the Edsa Revolution. At the peak of Martial Law, I doubt if the publication would have survived. The Philippine Star, on the other hand, is very much a post-Martial Law broadsheet, founded by key contributors of The Philippine Daily Inquirer. That's not counting the TV and radio stations that were monitored--and censored--at the time.

Was the Edsa Revolution a success? In its short-term goals, yes. A dictator was ousted. The power to change reverted back to the public. But when it comes to the long-term goals, it would be foolish to believe that a single event would sustain such a change. If we want a better Philippines, be it education, population control, quality of life, etc., it needs sustained action and effort by everyone, and not just from our leaders, past or present. That is the true price of our democracy, that we need to get involved to produce change. Filipinos might grow cynical with the voting system, at how there is cheating involved. But action and democracy is simply not just about the voting process. There were no votes cast to determine whether the Ampatuan Massacre would be reported for example. We have the tools. The question is what are we doing with them. And unfortunately, there will not always be easy answers to come by.

1 comment:

Tobias Buckell said...

"We have the tools. The question is what are we doing with them. And unfortunately, there will not always be easy answers to come by."

I tried really hard to explain that in my book Ragamuffin, as the colonialist aliens keep saying 'hey, if we let you guys have freedom you'll just fuck it up,' but the right response is 'yes, but *we'll* have the tools, and yes we'll fuck it up, sometimes, but we'll be in charge of our own destiny.'