Remembering the People Power Revolution in the Philippines

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Our guest contributor is Filip Mazurczak, a translator and journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of venues, including First Things, The National Catholic Register, Visegrad Insight and others. We are grateful to Filip for bringing the People Power Revolution to light on this milestone commemorative day.

Today, we mark the 30th anniversary of the culmination of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, a movement strongly backed by the Catholic Church that successfully deposed a corrupt, illegally elected dictator. Along with large nonviolent Christian-inspired protests in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the 1980s, the People Power Revolution demonstrates that the enormous potential that Christianity has to unshackle captive nations.

Following martial law in 1972, Ferdinand Marcos was the dictatorial president of the Philippines. Civil liberties were suspended, and anti-dictatorship activists were jailed. Initially, the United States had given ample financial and military support to Marcos, seeing his regime as a bastion against communism, although Washington’s support declined during the Carter and Reagan administrations. While the Marcos family lived in luxury (as embodied by First Lady Imelda’s famous collection of more than 3,000 pairs of designer shoes), most Filipinos lived in growing poverty.

Along with East Timor, the Philippines are one of two Asian nations with a Christian majority. Currently, about eight in ten Pinoys are Catholic, with growing Muslim and Evangelical minorities. Starting in the 1980s, the Church there became a catalyst for peaceful change for the better. In 1981, Pope John Paul II went on a six-day pilgrimage to the Philippines to beatify Lorenzo Ruiz, the country’s first Christian martyr. During a meeting with the leaders of the Marcos regime in Malacañang, the presidential palace in Manila, the pontiff openly criticized the suspension of civil liberties in the country with the dictator sitting right next to him in English: “Even in exceptional situations that may at times arise, one can never justify any violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person or of the basic rights that safeguard this dignity […] Legitimate concern for the security of a nation, as demanded by the common good, could lead to the temptation of subjugating to the state the human being and his or her dignity and rights.” Marcos appeared genuinely uncomfortable; he apologized to the pope of “petty and small” differences between the throne and altar in his country.

These words seem to have inspired the Filipino bishops to fight for justice. In early 1983, the Philippine Bishops’ Conference issued a pastoral letter titled “A Dialogue for Peace,” which condemned the Marcos government for corruption, economic mismanagement, violation of civil liberties, and the arresting of priests and nuns who had fought against the dictatorship. By August, anti-Marcos human rights activist Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino was shot, which sparked large-scale anti-government protests. On what would have been Aquino’s fifty-first birthday, the bishops issued another letter titled “Let There Be Life,” which blasted the widespread political violence in the country.

Following a series of massive anti-Marcos protests, the dictator agreed to early presidential elections in February 1986. Aquinos’ widow Corazon (“Cory”) was the opposition’s candidate. In the weeks before the election, the bishops issued two letters warning that the regime would likely use fraud in counting election results and speaking of the civic duty to vote for a better tomorrow. After the February 7 vote, the government had declared Marcos the winner, although the independent anti-voter fraud organization, the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, declared that Aquino had won more votes.

In the following days, the anti-Marcos demonstrations grew even more rapidly. The protests were organized by Corazon Aquino herself and by the Catholic Church, led by the archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin. On February 16, Cardinal Sin organized a Mass for the “victory of the people” in the capital’s Luneta Park, during which Aquino herself appealed for the people to resist the Marcos regime’s fraud in a nonviolent way. The address was broadcasted on the Church’s Radio Veritas, as were other pro-democracy speeches.

In the next days, the Marcos regime sent tanks to stop the protests. The protestors responded in a way that spectacularly embodied the Christian teaching to love one’s enemy: rather than throwing Molotov cocktails at the tanks, they brought the tank crews food, rosaries, and flowers. The protestors filled up the streets, praying. Meanwhile, Radio Veritas constantly informed its listeners about the logistics of the protests, and always urged them to use nonviolent means of resistance. The protests reached their culmination in February 22-25 as an astounding two million protestors (the country’s population at the time was about 56 million people) filled up the Epifano de los Santos Avenue.

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The Church-supported protests resulted in much more than moral victory: by February 25, Corazon Aquino was inaugurated as the Philippines’ new president. Marcos, meanwhile, defected to Hawaii. The whole world was thrilled by what had happened in Manila, and many Americans called their Filipino friends to express their admiration for what had happened.

Today, the Philippines are still plagued with socio-economic woes. While the country has enjoyed one of Asia’s highest GDP growth rates in recent years, the largesse hasn’t been spread out equally: income inequality and severe poverty remain problems. This poverty was seen a year ago, when Pope Francis visited a shelter for street children in Manila. Meanwhile, millions of Filipinos continue to leave their country for more prosperous lands: the United States, Italy, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. In addition to this ongoing poverty, the Philippines are plagued by political violence as Muslim separatists in the island of Mindanao use terrorism to achieve their goals. Yet the People Power revolution is evidence that perhaps the Philippines’ large Catholic population can again fight for greater justice and peace.

Several years ago, books by multiple British and American authors – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others – about how toxic religion is and how it leads to violence and intolerance topped the bestseller charts. Throughout the history of Christianity, one can find examples that would seem to confirm this view, from the Crusades to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, from the religious wars in France to the Teutonic Knights’ use of force to convert the pagans of the Baltics.

Yet at the same time history abounds in examples of Christianity as a force for good and peace. Perhaps at no other time was this so evident in so many different parts of the world as the 1980s. In the first months of the new decade, on March 24th, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, who eloquently defended the right of the peasants in his troubled homeland to ownership of their land and a nonviolent solution to the nation’s troubles, was slain while saying Mass. Five months later, the Solidarity trade union, whose explicit Catholic influence was unmistakable, was formed in Poland, its membership eventually swelling to 10 million, a third of the nation’s adult population and pressuring the government to hold semi-free elections in 1989. That year, Christians in other parts of the Soviet Bloc began to oppose their regimes as well. In Leipzig, tens of thousands of East Germans marched for change after services at the Lutheran St. Nicholas each week. In majority-Orthodox Romania, the Orthodox bishops, for decades subservient to the regime, began to speak out, and the Calvinist Bishop László Tőkés became the most outspoken defender of the nation’s Hungarian minority oppressed by Ceausescu.

Meanwhile, although dictators ruled most of Latin America in 1980, the region today is largely democratic, save for the living museum of communist tyranny that is Cuba. Much of the region today enjoys dynamic economic growth and an expanding middle class. This is in no small part due to the work many bishops, priests and lay faithful who peacefully fought for peaceful change, and a pope who publicly criticized the human rights abuses of dictators such as “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Pinochet, and Stroessner.

Thus the dramatic events that unfolded in the Philippines were part of a spectacular decade of Christian-inspired political change for the better. Today, more people live in democracy than ever before. This is at least partly thanks to the moral awakening that characterized the 1980s in diverse regions of the world ruled by tyrants of various ideological hues.

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