MANILA, Philippines — From the fist-pumping crowds to the anguished dictators, the pro-reform revolts reshaping Arab history resemble the Philippine uprising that booted a strongman 25 years ago. But the similarity ends with the killing of protesters from Tunisia to Libya.
The four-day “people power” revolt a quarter century ago that Filipinos commemorate this week saw multitudes of civilians and rosary-clutching nuns and priests mounting a human barricade against tanks and troops to bring down dictator Ferdinand Marcos with little bloodshed as the world watched in awe.
The democratic triumph has been hailed as a harbinger of change in authoritarian regimes in Asia and beyond.
Since then, democratic revolutions have ended autocracies and military rule in South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia in relatively peaceful feats that seemed unimaginable before 1986.
But the Philippines also became a showcase of post-dictatorship pitfalls that revolt leaders say could provide lessons to Arab nations, which will have to grapple with daunting uncertainties once the euphoria wears down.
Aside from democracy, little has changed in this Southeast Asian nation of 94 million.
It remains mired in corruption, appalling poverty, rural backwardness, chronic inequality, long-running Marxist and Muslim insurgencies and chaotic politics.
A restive military often tries to undermine civilian rule.
Imelda Marcos, the dictator’s widow once reviled for the extravagance epitomized by her vast shoe collection and eye-popping diamonds, has made a political comeback after winning a seat in the House of Representatives last year.
Her daughter won as governor of the father’s northern provincial stronghold of Ilocos Norte. A son and Marcos’ namesake was voted a senator and has not ruled out a future run for the presidency.
“It’s 25 years after and we’re still almost where we used to be,” former President Fidel Ramos said.
Ramos’ crucial defection from Marcos as deputy military chief along with then Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in February 1986 sparked the strongman’s rapid downfall after a two-decade reign condemned for widespread human rights abuses and alleged plunder of the economy.
While most of the uprisings rocking the Arab world appear to be leaderless — fueled by mobs of protesters often mobilized with the help of social networking sites, Filipinos rallied in 1986 around pro-democracy icon Corazon Aquino, whose husband, an opposition leader, was assassinated three years earlier by soldiers under Marcos.
The widow had agreed to challenge Marcos in a snap election in which she claimed victory despite widespread cheating and called for civil disobedience. Cardinal Jaime Sin, a hugely influential church leader in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation, helped summon the mammoth crowds against Marcos via appeals on church-run radio.
On Feb. 25, Marcos was sworn in for a new term, but hours later, after it had become clear that the United States, his Cold War ally, would not intervene to prop up his rule, he gave up. U.S. military aircraft flew the dictator and his family to exile in Hawaii. Crowds swarmed into the Malacanang presidential palace and gawked at the opulence enjoyed by their former ruler.
Suddenly thrust into power, Aquino’s initial years focused on rebuilding democratic institutions and crafting a new constitution. However, congressional elections in 1987 brought back many of the landed political dynasties that have ruled provinces like fiefdoms through patronage.
Aquino’s loose political coalition of Marcos military defectors and liberal politicians soon frayed, causing discord in her Cabinet. Disgruntled troops launched seven failed coups that scared away investors. With poverty remaining pervasive, many Filipinos continued to stream out in search of work abroad, draining the country of its best brains and hardest workers.
In the absence of radical changes, what effectively took place in 1986 was “a change of faces” in the same system, political analyst Clarita Carlos said.
“Across the board the same problems persisted — poverty, the sad state of education, political patronage,” Carlos said.
“It’s disheartening to think that our sacrifices then did not bear much fruit,” said Vilma Masinda, one of many nuns who joined the anti-Marcos crowd in 1986. “Change is very slow but we have to be patient.”
Like a genie released from its bottle, the newfound concept of “people power” emerged as a political weapon for social grievances. Fifteen years after ousting Marcos, massive numbers of Filipinos returned to the street to topple once-popular leader Joseph Estrada over alleged corruption. His vice-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over and later was linked to corruption scandals.
After Arroyo’s congressional allies shot down opposition attempts to impeach her, there were calls for another revolt, but amid public exasperation, huge crowds failed to turn up. Loyal generals quashed at least four failed power grabs against Arroyo during her tumultuous nine years in power.
Corazon Aquino’s death of cancer in 2009 sparked a mass outpouring of sympathy that turned into a groundswell of support for her son, Benigno, who hesitantly accepted an opposition draft and won last May’s presidential election by a landslide on a promise to eradicate corruption and poverty.
On Thursday, hundreds of left-wing students and labourers marched to a pro-democracy shrine, demanding higher wages, respect for human rights and settlement of decades-long armed conflicts.
“The lessons of EDSA have shown us that changing presidents is not enough if we want to achieve genuine change,” protest leader Renato Reyes said, referring to the main Manila highway where the 1986 revolt erupted.
The lessons for the new president and Arab masses clamouring for reform is making sure that revolts bring real change. “The gains of popular uprisings can eventually dissipate if people feel the new order means nothing to them,” said Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who is also a close presidential adviser.
Ramos and other security officials who broke off from Marcos grimaced at news of soldiers firing at crowds calling for ouster of beleaguered dictators in the Middle East.
Security forces should be on the right side of history, said Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, a former police commander. Lim defied an order by Marcos generals to disperse crowds preventing loyal troops from shelling military headquarters where Ramos and other defectors holed up in 1986.
“Stay neutral or support the people, you cannot go against their voice,” Lim said.