People Power in the Philippines

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Note: The events described here are known in the Philippines as the EDSA people power revolution. EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) is the street where most of the demonstrations occurred.


 When Ferdinand Marcos was twenty years old he was arrested for conspiracy in the murder of one of his father’s political rivals. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. The case was appealed before the Philippine Supreme Court. Marcos, a young lawyer with no trial experience, represented himself and won the appeal. He was set free.

Later Marcos became one of the world’s most powerful dictators. First elected president of the Philippines in 1965, he pulled the strings of power like a master puppeteer. He consolidated power by manipulating public opinion, stealing elections, perfecting the arts of political patronage and bribery. Arrests and assassinations kept the public living in fear.

Marcos saluting
Ferdinand Marcos in 1982

Although the Philippine constitution limited the presidency to two four-year terms, Marcos ruled for twenty years. He achieved this by suspending the constitution (after declaring martial law), and then writing another constitution more conducive to his ambitions. He ran the Philippines like it was his private country club, controlling the military, the parliament, the courts, the bureaucracy, the press and several business monopolies. He and his “cronies” got richer while the country got poorer.


Then in 1983 Benigno Aquino decided to return to the Philippines after three years of self-imposed exile. As a popular politician, Aquino represented the primary threat to the Marcos presidency. For his “protection,” a military escort greeted Aquino when he arrived at Manila International Airport. As he exited the plane, there were shots. When it was over Aquino’s body lay sprawled on the tarmac. The assassination of Benigno Aquino was the match that lit the fire that would eventually consume the Marcos regime.


The Marcos government banned TV coverage of the Aquino funeral. As a result, thousands of people showed up, wanting to see for themselves what was going on. The funeral march turned into an eleven-hour impromptu demonstration against Marcos.

By not allowing TV coverage, Marcos was using the old-fashioned tactics of heavy-handed repression. He didn’t understand what the elites of most modern industrial nations have learned—that there are much more subtle (and efficient) means of controlling a population. Had he allowed, even encouraged, extensive TV coverage and turned the whole affair into a spectacle, people may have stayed home and watched the tube instead of going out and getting involved.


The public reacted angrily to the Aquino murder. Rallies and other forms of resistance sprang up in cities and towns all over the Philippines. During the next two and a half years all segments of the population, including the upper and middle classes, joined the struggle to get rid of Marcos.

Then in 1985, yielding to pressure from Filipinos (and the Reagan administration in Washington), Marcos surprised everyone by suddenly announcing “snap elections” while being interviewed on ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley.” He wanted to prove to the world he still had widespread support from his people.

Benigno Aquino’s widow Cory, a self-described housewife, ran against Marcos. Predictably, the election was marked by widespread fraud, with Marcos’ thugs beating up election workers and scrambling voter rolls. The government declared Marcos the winner.

After the election Cory Aquino spoke to a crowd of one million people at a rally in Manila. She proposed a seven-part program of nonviolent resistance, including a one-day work stoppage and a boycott of Marcos-controlled banks, stores and newspapers. She urged people to “experiment with nonviolent forms of protest” and declared: “…if Goliath refuses to yield, we shall keep dipping into our arsenal of nonviolence and escalate our nonviolent struggle.”


Meanwhile, some dissident military officers were planning a bloody attack against the presidential palace. The coup plotters intended to slaughter members of the Presidential Security Command, imprison the Marcos family, and install a “provisional ruling council.”

But right before the assault was to begin, Marcos loyalists get wind of the plot. On February 22, 1986, two of the top coup leaders flee. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos take refuge in military bases just north of Manila along with a small group of sympathetic troops. They say they are prepared to die rather than continue supporting the corrupt Marcos regime.

Marcos is not worried about the rebel officers. “They are cornered,” he says. They “can be easily wiped out with simple artillery and tank fire.” He declares: “I intend to stay as President and if necessary I will defend this position with all the force at my disposal.” Unfortunately for Marcos, force is not the same as power, and although he still has plenty of force at his disposal, the sources of his power are drying up.


Radio Veritas, an independent radio station run by the Catholic Church, calls for people to surround the bases and block the movement of any troops that Marcos might send. Hundreds of thousands of people respond. They chop down trees and park buses in intersections to blockade streets leading to Camp Crame where the small contingent of rebels has consolidated their meager forces. For the next four days, entire families camp out on the streets, using their bodies to protect the rebel troops from attack.

A carnival-like atmosphere prevails. Hawkers sell peanuts and souvenirs. People sing and dance and cheer. They talk and sleep and listen to Radio Veritas. Priests hold street masses and prayer vigils. There are spontaneous rallies and processions.

Marcos has a plan: “We’ll bide our time, but we’ll disperse the civilians, protects them, take care of them, and then we’ll hit Enrile and Ramos.” He sends Marines, tanks and armored personnel carriers to attack Camp Crame.

Marcos’ soldiers and weapons are met in the streets by tens of thousands of ordinary Filipinos who are surrounding Camp Crame to protect the rebel officers.

As the tanks start forward into the crowd, people sit down in front of them.

The tanks stop.

People offer the soldiers candy and cigarettes, asking them to defect and join the rebellion. Young girls walk among the soldiers, passing out flowers.

The blocked tanks start forward again. The people sit tight, holding their ground.

The tanks stop again.

A Marine commander threatens to start shooting. Priests and nuns kneel before the tanks, praying the Rosary. No shots are fired. Finally, the tanks turn around and withdraw as the crowd cheers.

Marcos, the power professional, knows the foundation of his authority is perception. Despite his frail health, he lashes out against the rebels with macho bluster: “If they think I am sick, I may even want to lead the troops to wipe out this Enrile and Ramos. I am just like an old war horse, smelling powder and getting stronger.” Enrile responds: “He can’t even lead himself to the bathroom.”

On February 24 Marcos imposes a dusk to dawn curfew. No one pays any attention. By now the Reagan White House, whose support is one of the keys to Marcos’ power, is openly calling for him to resign. Troops begin to defect in increasing numbers. Seven helicopter gunships land at Camp Crame to join the rebels.

A small group of rebel soldiers in Manila take over channel four, a government-run TV station, cutting off a Marcos speech in mid-sentence. Tens of thousands gather outside to defend the station while the opposition begins broadcasting news updates and appeals from Enrile, Ramos and Aquino for more assistance .


When several platoons of loyalist soldiers try to take back channel four, they are surrounded by civilians. A priest walks up and leads the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer. People begin shaking the soldiers’ hands and giving them McDonalds hamburgers, doughnuts and orange soda. The tension eases. After a while the commander agrees to withdraw his troops.

As the soldiers prepare to depart, a middle-aged woman in an Aquino T-shirt helps a machine gunner wind belts of ammunition around his chest. “There, now you look like Rambo,” she tells him. But as the soldier bends down to pick up his gun, it accidentally discharges. Another soldier is hit in the face and killed. It is the only violent death on February 24, the next to last day of the revolution.


On the 25th both Aquino and Marcos hold separate inaugurations. The Marcos inauguration is a pathetic affair, attended by family members and a few paid guests. Behind the scenes Marcos is maneuvering to save face, placing phone calls to influential Filipinos and begging to be allowed to stay on as an “Honorary President,” or at least to remain in the Philippines as a private citizen. He must be astonished to see his power, which seemed so absolute only a few weeks ago, evaporate so quickly and completely.

At about nine o’clock that night, Marcos and his family sneak out the back door of Malacañang Palace and take a boat across the Pasig River where helicopters are waiting. At Clark Air base they board a U.S. Air Force plane headed for Guam. Marcos, who ruled for twenty years as one of the world’s most powerful dictators, is now just a sick old man fleeing his country like a frightened dog.

When Marcos’ departure is announced jubilant Filipinos celebrate in the streets and flood into Malacañang Palace. There is some fighting and retribution against citizens and troops who had been loyal to Marcos, but it is minimal.

After violent revolutions there are always scores to settle, grudges to satisfy, revenge to extract, and the cycle of violence continues. But because the Filipino people created major political change largely without violence, national reconciliation was that much easier.


While the Philippine revolution deposed a powerful dictator, it left much of the old centralized power structure unchanged. The U.S. still retained major influence through military aid and bases. The Philippine military remained intact under Defense Minister Enrile, the same man who had gotten rich from political connections while serving as Defense Minister under Marcos. The new President, Cory Aquino, was from a wealthy family. The poor were still poor, and the rich were still in charge. Capitalism emerged stronger than ever.

What the story of the Philippine revolution demonstrates is the power people can have when they withdraw consent. The same dynamics apply, no matter what the issue. Had Filipinos decided to go on and struggle for a more equitable distribution of wealth, the abolition of the military, or a decentralized government that was more responsive to their needs, who knows what more amazing things they might have achieved.

Originally published 1997
Revised 2018 


Monina Allarey Mercado, ed., People Power
Bryan Johnson, The Four Days of Courage
Cecilio T. Arillo, Breakaway
New York Times
TV Guide
Win Magazine

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Text by James L. VanHise licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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