Never mind EDSA: Remember the battles before the uprising
I don’t get too excited about celebrating EDSA every year, even though I was there 30 years ago.
It’s largely because the EDSA story has been pretty much reduced to this:
- A dictator, in power for 18 years, orders the assassination of a popular opposition figure
- The people get angry.
- The dictator calls for elections to prove he’s popular.
- The dictator cheats.
- The people get angrier.
- They kick the dictator out in a dramatic uprising
Then the narrative takes a sad turn: After the dictator’s fall, a parade of corrupt, incompetent, shortsighted leaders …
This February, I’m joining the San Francisco commemoration of EDSA’s 30th anniversary, and I’ll even be on a panel this Friday at the Philippine Consulate.
The main point I plan to make is this: Never mind EDSA.
Forget the drama of those four days in February 1986.
Forget the fiesta-like uprising.
Forget the yellow confetti, the protesters in yellow, the nuns kneeling in front of tanks, the girls handing out flowers to soldiers.
Celebrating EDSA has typically been about remembering only the last three years of the Marcos nightmare.
That’s not enough. That has even hurt our ability to explain what happened.
Time to go beyond EDSA.
We need to focus, not on the dramatic, exciting, turbulent three years that followed Ninoy Aquino’s assassination, but on the 10 years before that gruesome murder happened.
The years of silence, fear, terror — and defiance.
One of the biggest myths about EDSA is that Filipinos only rose up against the Marcos dictatorship after Ninoy Aquino was murdered.
The truth is many young Filipinos were fighting back even before Marcos declared martial law in 1972.
And they never stopped fighting even after he seized power.
In fact, one thing should be stressed: before EDSA, there were many mini-EDSAs, many little-known, smaller-scale, bold, daring acts of defiance that slowly and steadily weakened the Marcos dictatorship.
And these mini-EDSAs, these mini-rebellions on campuses, poor communities and in the streets, during the 10-year-period before Ninoy Aquino was murdered, set the stage for the uprising that finally brought Marcos down in 1986.
Let’s start with the campuses.
Marcos jailed his opponents and critics, padlocked the Philippine Congress and shutdown newspapers and TV stations after he imposed martial law.
The regime was just as ruthless on campuses throughout the archipelago where student councils and campus papers were also outlawed.
It would be hard for many young Filipinos today to imagine not being able to elect representatives to a student council or to publish campus news sites or to hold a rally or any kind of mass gathering.
That was the situation after martial law was declared. Young Filipinos went to campuses that were virtual police states. They had no voice, and no power.
But many of them fought back.
It was on these campuses that the first mini-EDSAs took place. Slowly, steadily young Filipinos won the right to hold elections, to form student councils and other organizations, and to publish their newspapers.
Some of them paid a hefty price for defying Marcos.
In 1977, UP student Ditto Sarmiento dared to do as editor of the Philippine Collegian what the controlled newspapers were too scared to even consider: he and his staff criticized the regime. Ditto Sarmiento ended up in prison where his health deteriorated leading to his death. He was 27.
‘Tama Na, Sobra Na, Welga Na’
One of the first major open acts of rebellion against the dictatorship happened in October 1975 when about 500 workers at La Tondena went on strike, the first during martial law.
Led by former student activist Edgar Jopson and veteran labor activists, it was a bold, extremely dangerous move. The regime, in the early years of martial law, cracked down hard on even the mildest form of dissent.
The strike was broken up. Strikers were arrrested. But word of the protest action spread, and La Tondena became one of the symbols of resistance.
In fact, the strike slogan — “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Welga Na!” — would later be modified to become the battle cry of the final battle against Marcos: “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Palitan Na!”
1978 Laban Noise Barrage
By the late 1970s, the mini-EDSAs were happening more frequently. And they were paying off.
Young Filipinos who had been waging small scale rebellions were ready for bigger and more daring campaigns.
An opportunity came in 1978 when Marcos, as expected, cheated his way to victory during the Batasan elections. The opposition movement, led by the Laban Party, struck back. To protest the fraud, they called for a noise barrage in Metro Manila.
It was another daring move.
Remember, this was an era before mobile phones and the Web, before Facebook and Twitter.
It was a much bigger challenge to launch a noise barrage in the 1970s when you had to rely on a network of committed activists willing to go directly to where people were.
They were vulnerable, facing off with a ruthless regime. They were on their own.
But the campaign was a success. The 1978 noise barrage left bigger cracks on the wall of fear and silence during martial law.
Why is it important to remember the mini-EDSAs?
Because the Marcos forces, led by Bongbong, want us to forget what happened. And they don’t want young Filipinos to know and understand what we went through.
And it’s easier to do that if we’re focused only on those final three years after the Marcos dictatorship murdered Aquino.
The Marcoses also like to paint EDSA as a failure because it did not get rid of the biggest problems we face now, from poverty to corruption to massive inequality.
It’s a bogus argument.
Those of us who marched on EDSA did not join the fight expecting it would end all society’s problems.
We went to EDSA to get rid of a bully. And we succeeded.
Still, it’s easier for the Marcos forces to dismiss the significance of EDSA if we remember only the festive four days, the flowers and the confetti and the nuns with rosaries kneeling before tanks … but not the sacrifices of young Filipinos who were fighting back when it wasn’t fashionable and extremely dangerous to do so.
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