Aquino Must Not Forget the People : Layer Upon Layer of Woe Prompted Them to Give Her Victory

Benedict J . Tria Kerkvliet, a specialist in Philippine politics, is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii.

As President Corazon Aquino has repeated, the heroes and heroines of recent events in the Philippines were "the people," most dramatically the thousands seen on American television kneeling or sitting in front of approaching tanks.

One way to explain this profound resolve is through patong-patong --a Tagalog expression for an image of layers upon layers of hardships, indignities and oppression. Rather than drive people further and further into the ground, these layers build to a point where the citizens act decisively, boldly.

Awesome underemployment, falling wages and other deteriorating economic conditions combined to form the first layer over the past 15 years. The middle class, small even before the reign of deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos, had shrunk while the poor had grown to exceed 60% of the population. Making matters worse were abusive and lawless elites and authorities.

The second layer was the Marcos government itself. A minimum expectation of government is that officials give some public service, acknowledge the intelligence of the citizens and show restraint if using their positions and the government's funds to enrich themselves. Since at least the mid-1970s the Marcos government failed on all counts. To the people it gave broken promises and repression while Marcos and his wife, Imelda, along with their relatives and friends, accumulated wealth estimated to be in the billions. At the same time they had the gall to try to make Filipinos believe that they loved the people.

Resistance and opposition grew. Thousands joined rebellions. Tens of thousands became active in organizations trying to ameliorate local conditions. Millions became bitter and cynical. About the only thing that many came to like about the government were the endless jokes, all at the Marcoses' expense.

Because of fear, preoccupation with trying to make ends meet or other inhibitions, only occasionally could the people show their disgust in public.

But in some local elections they voted into office candidates who criticized the Marcos government. They also waged strikes and conducted demonstrations. The biggest demonstration occurred when millions escorted the murdered Benigno S. Aquino Jr. to his grave in August, 1983. Aquino had become the people's martyr because most believed that the government was responsible.

The third layer was in the people's anxiety that their country was headed for civil war. Given all the problems, the repression and the intractable government, what other outcome was there, people wondered. Yet even if there was such a war, it was unclear to most whether peace could prevail and life would improve.

The top layer was Marcos' effort to snatch victory from Cory Aquino. We shall never be certain how many votes she received, but the evidence indicates that she was the favorite of a large majority. Because of the death of her husband--their martyr--Cory Aquino personified their suffering, oppression and anxiety. Simultaneously, she symbolized hope, liberation and salvation.

The religious imagery is significant to many in this Roman Catholic nation. More important to others was the straightforward support that Aquino's campaign received from Catholic and Protestant organizations as well as from countless other associations and groups.

Having rejected Marcos and chosen Aquino, while dreading the future should Marcos refuse to leave, people became determined to press further. Just how this could be accomplished and what the consequences would be were hazy. But, when prominent figures in the government defected to the people's side, the opportunity was there.

Forty years ago, after a campaign that was as crucial then for people in central Luzon as this past one was for the nation, the region's voters elected six men to Congress. The Manuel Roxas government at that time, deeming that the six were too radical, not only refused to seat them but also waged war against oppositionists in the region. This forced many people to join the Huk rebellion, which continued for eight years.

Similarly determined in 1986 to keep their hard-won and long-awaited victory, Filipinos put their lives on the line--but in a different way. They poured into the streets pleading, singing and praying for peace and justice. In so doing they gave the world a historic and inspiring example of nonviolent courage and power.

Let us hope that President Aquino will always remember these people, the causes of their outrage and the trust that they have placed in her.

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