By: Maxine Tanya Hamada. This article first appeared in World Movement for Democracy.
The most beautiful and powerful movements in history are born out of pain, sorrow, anger, and fear. In 1986, Filipinos were reeling from a decade of Martial Law and 20 years of corruption, cronyism, human rights abuses, and impunity. Two armed conflicts raged across the country: a separatist movement in the south and a communist rebellion in the north. It could have been all too easy to prey on pain, fear, and anger to fuel calls for extremism and violence on one hand, or of support for populist authoritarianism on the other. There are enough examples of this throughout history.
Yet it is from the darkest of circumstances that a ripple of courage triggers the stirrings of people power. For the Filipino, it was the heroic courage of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Sr., an opposition leader in exile who returns home to certain death because he believed that “the Filipino is worth dying for.” It can be the resolute courage of a woman who says #MeToo, in solidarity with countless others, pushing back at unacknowledged abuse and misogyny. It can be the poignant courage of families of the young victims of the Seoul ferry disaster, who were determined to know the truth. In these acts of courage, the energy of a movement is kindled. A picture of better circumstance becomes clearer and the clarion call for change is made.
It is hope that tips movements into people power. It is a collective belief that one could be part of a better outcome, a better circumstance, and an actual possibility. This stands in stark contrast to the narrative of fear and hopelessness that allows extremism to take root. This is also in direct opposition to what dictators and authoritarian leaders perpetuate—the idea that they and they alone determine the future. Hope in the Philippines was evident in the rallying cry “hindi ka nag-iisa” (you are not alone) following the assassination of former Philippine Senator Ninoy Aquino. Hope in Korea was evident in the confidence of those who stood by the families of the Seoul ferry victims that others would do the same if they were in a similar situation, as shared by one of the leaders of the Candlelight Revolution. Hope for women in the US was evident in their faith that other women would join the call of the #MeToo movement. Hope is solidarity. And it is this solidarity, this moment of collective consensus amongst a people, that defines people power and translates it into a focused force for change.
People power is one of many tools that are, and always will be, available to citizens to assert their demands. Once citizens have gone through people power, it will always be a viable strategy to utilize whether on the streets, through the ballot, or through emerging disruptive technology. People power is not merely a culmination of a struggle, nor is it just the beginning of one. What is crucial to note is that when people power happens, a consensus point is formed. In the two people power-driven transitions in the Philippines, the cause was that of a nation rejecting authoritarianism and corruption. The ability to move from people power to the nuts and bolts of building institutions requires that other strategies are pulled in and used. This continuum of strategies is broad and involves everything from legislation, citizen engagement in governance, CSO crossover leadership, civic education, electoral engagement, media vigilance, and street protest among others. The Philippine democratic project continues to use any and all of these strategies.
The real outcomes of people power in the Philippines are still far from being realized. But, there are incremental victories that we recognize are legacies of people power. One, we have a more professional armed force, which, over the past two years, has resisted against being party to authoritarian tendencies. This adherence to the doctrine of civilian authority and to the Constitution is a stark departure from the armed forces of the martial law era. Second, we have jailed two former presidents, three senators, and other high ranking leaders for corruption. Unfortunately, with a weak justice system and deeply entrenched political patronage, the latter officials were either pardoned, had their cases dismissed, or have yet to be convicted with finality.
A Playbook for Hope
And so we find ourselves in the Philippines again in circumstances of pain, sorrow, anger, and fear. I finish these reflections on the same day martial law was declared in 1971. We are dangerously slipping into populist authoritarianism. The weaponization of the internet has made opposition and activist discourse difficult. Political forces allied with the dictator Marcos’ family are again ascendant.
What is different is that we have been here before and twice we have collectively chosen democracy as our playbook. There are emergent acts of courage and sacrifice. There are efforts all around to hold the line. I will not be surprised if people power in a new form plays a role again in the Philippine democratic project. I do not doubt that the Filipino people know they deserve better. It is for this resurgence of hope and commitment to a better circumstance that we all continue to work at strengthening our institutions. I recently heard a short clip where Dr. Joseph Nye talks about “Soft Power” in the era of Sharp Power. Perhaps, as it has done in the past, the Philippines will be a bellwether for both the challenges, as well as the solutions, as we take back the narratives and legacies of people power.