issue 205 - March 1990
The Philippines under fire
The land of 'People Power' has become a battleground. Peter Stalker travelled
the country for the NI to see what happened to Cory Aquino's revolution.
Corporal Robert Salvador aimed his bazooka and fired. The rebel tank burst into flames.
'At last, I got it!' he cried. He raced over to the burning vehicle and discovered to his horror that his elder brother, Sergeant Roger Salvador, was among the crew he had killed.
The street battles in Manila last December were frightening and fratricidal. A shock, not only to Filipinos, but to a global TV audience which watched Cory Aquino cling to power by her fingernails.
The power of this drama came not just from the planes bombing the Presidential palace, or the bodies in the streets, or even the Western tourists trapped in their hotels; these after all have become the standard fare of international TV news. More distressing still was that a democracy that had flowered from a peaceful 'People Power' revolution seemed set to collapse in a hail of rockets and bombs. A myth was about to be shattered.
Mrs Aquino survived the onslaught. US fighter planes rattled their airborne sabres, the rebellion collapsed and democracy lived to fight another day. Even the myth seemed to have survived. The plucky President, though a weaker politician than the world would have liked, was still in charge.
I, like most people, watched these events from afar. But I was probably more surprised than most since I had left Manila just a few days before. There had been little inkling of impending drama: the plotters' threats had been widely dismissed as amusing bluster.
But even more surprising was the picture of the country now being beamed across the world: that of a fragile democracy struggling against an unstable military but making brave steps forward.
I had come away with a rather different impression. But then I had not generally been speaking to politicians, pundits or other journalists. The people I met were often working in isolated villages or in the poorest parts of the cities - peasant farmers, priests, prostitutes. This issue of the NI presents their point of view - partly through interview, partly through my own reports.
But first some of the basics. The Philippines is a country of 7,100 islands on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean. For 300 years it was a Spanish colony (named after King Philip II). Then in 1898, just as the country declared independence from Spain, it was seized as a colony by the US and brutally subjugated. About a million people are thought to have died in the first (and least publicized) US intervention in Asia. Independence was finally granted in 1946.
The streets of Manila confirm the nation's hybrid heritage. You do occasionally see heavyweight Spanish churches - and the odd word of Spanish crops up in Tagalog, the local language. But overlaid on this now is a much heavier American presence. Sit in one of the vast fast-food plazas and you can watch US basketball matches satellited onto giant TV screens - and cheer along with the Filipino audience.
But however alien the imported culture it always seems to carry a uniquely Filipino stamp. Take the odd-looking 'jeepneys' which clog the streets. Originally these were US Army jeeps converted into minibuses but now they are specially constructed to mimic ex-jeeps - right down to the gasoline-can holders at the back (useful for grabbing to lever yourself in, or for clinging to when you can't squeeze in at all.)
Dazzling chromium trinkets clutter every surface. Horses stampede across the bonnets. Ornately lettered signs shout arbitrary messages: 'Antarctic', or 'Susanna' or 'Lord have mercy!'. I ask the driver what 'Present from England' means. He shrugs his shoulders. Why should it mean anything?
Manila is not a place for walkers. It is a sprawling conurbation of 12 million people with no real centre; really a fusion of four different cities and 13 municipalities linked by endless streams of jeepneys. The air is so thick with blue-grey fumes that even the cigarette vendors, recklessly dodging like matadors through the traffic, often tie protective handkerchiefs over their faces.
For all Manila's complexity there is at least one clear route through it. This is EDSA - it takes me a while to work out that this is short for Epifanio de los Santos Avenue - an eight-lane highway that cuts a huge arc through the city.
EDSA has played a central part in modern Philippine history. There are two military camps halfway along it - one on either side. And it was along EDSA towards the camps that the 'People Power' crowds marched in 1986.
EDSA is a road, an event, an idea. People will say: 'Since EDSA...' or 'EDSA changed all that...' It was EDSA that toppled corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who, with his flamboyant wife Omelda, had bled the country of billions of dollars. And EDSA propelled to power Cory Aquino, wife of murdered opposition leader, Benigno Aquino.
This is the stuff of modern mythology. First the heroic martyr: there's a monument to Benigno Aquino in Manila, a statue which freezes his fall halfway down those airplane steps. Then Cory herself emerged as a candidate for canonization: Manila bookshops still proudly sell the issue of Time magazine which declared her 'Woman of the Year'.
Four years later the picture looks rather different - to Filipinos at least. This is a view confirmed by a visit to the Institute for Popular Democracy, an organization established after EDSA by ex-priest Ed de la Torre, who had been imprisoned by Marcos. Characteristic of today's ambiguous political atmosphere, de la Torre himself has been exiled abroad for some years while his organization continues to work - helping to train community groups.
The Institute also helps confused foreigners find their feet by offering a 'situationer' - a word which seems to be unique to the Filipino version of English (and which with luck will stay that way). My situationer is given by Clark Soriano, their political analyst who sits me down in front of a whiteboard for a rapid briefing.
Guns, goons and gold
Prior to Marcos, it seems, the Philippines was run by the 'clans' - alliances of old political families. Among the most powerful were the Aquinos and Cory's family, the Cojuancos. True, there were political parties and elections, but they were organized not around ideologies or policies but on patronage; people voted the way their landlord or boss told them to (or paid them to). Elections were decided by 'guns, goons and gold'.
Photo: Dexter Tiranti
Ferdinand Marcos was something of an upstart. He did not have a very distinguished pedigree himself and so had to make alliances with clan politicians. But after his election in 1964 he started to cut loose from most of them, looking instead for support from the military, whose status and power he had been careful to bolster. He also made lucrative deals with a group of businesspeople, the 'cronies', who benefited from his patronage and shared with him the spoils.
Finally by 1972 Marcos was able to dispose of even the semblance of democracy and declared a period of martial law which was to last until 1980. Martial law was so popular with the US that they doubled their military assistance to around $40 million a year and the military grew in strength from 55,000 in 1972 to 250,000 by 1984.
The most obvious legacies of the Marcos years in Manila today are the grandiose buildings which Omelda commissioned in an obsessive frenzy - her 'edifice complex', as the locals put it. I pass one of these, the imposing Heart Centre for Asia, two or three times each day, tut-tutting at the extravagance of a heart-treatment centre in a country whose major medical problem is malnutrition (while crossing my fingers that I don't have a heart attack and the embarrassment of being treated there).
The 'People Power' revolution of 1986 which finally ousted both Ferdinand and Imelda was driven by a very broad coalition - everyone from the Church through the popular organizations to the old political clans. But even they were not quite enough. Only when some of the military leaders split from Marcos was the balance finally tipped.
Mrs Aquino had certainly campaigned as a popular democrat. 'Land-to-the-tiller,' she declared, 'must become a reality, rather than an empty slogan.' And though a large landowner herself, it looked as though she meant it.
Once in office she acted rather differently - deferring to the military and the old clan politicians. Her allegiances were confirmed in January 1987 when she refused to meet a delegation of peasant farmers. The army opened fire on them as they crossed Manila's Mendiola bridge, killing 19 and wounding many more. I went to the site of the infamous 'Mendiola massacre' and found that the bridge has since been renamed.
The key players outside the formal democratic process are the New People's Army (NPA), the 30,000-strong armed wing of the illegal Communist Party. Recruits flocked to the NPA during the Marcos dictatorship. After EDSA it looked as though they might come down from the hills and there was a 60-day ceasefire while they negotiated with Mrs Aquino. But she refused to give the reassurances they wanted, particularly on land reform. The Mendiola massacre killed hopes of reconciliation and the NPA returned underground.
Mrs Aquino's response was to declare 'total war' on them. 'The answer to the terrorism of the left and right,' she said, 'is not social and economic reform but police and military action.'
Enough of the history for now. Back to Manila. The most pressing needs for economic reform here are in its shanty towns, where a third of all families live. And one of my first trips is to a squatter area in the north of the city.
This requires a series of jeepneys, which ironically get more expensive as the roads deteriorate. A steady drizzle turns the rutted tracks into muddy rivers. How, I wonder, do the smart-looking schoolchildren sitting next to me keep their white shins spotless while I am soon smeared with mud from head to foot?
We reach Payatas, a squatter area of some 15,000 people. Many make a living from the nearby rubbish dump called 'Smoky Mountain II' after its infamous counterpart on the other side of the city.
Larry Pajarda, one of the local community organizers, takes me on a tour. Clambering up and down piles of garbage in the rain doesn't do much for the trousers either. Small children ferret around in puddles for empty Colgate tubes - metal ones fetch much more than plastic.
It's a depressing scene. But it's hard to be depressed by the people I meet here. There are 14 popular organizations in Payatas alone. Larry's is helping to build a new church (which they will call 'Mother of the Promised Land').
But the most urgent need is to help people hang on to their land. Despite Aquino's promises to protect the poor, there have been many evictions.
Conchita Inano knows what it's like to be moved on. 'I used to live in Santo Domingo,' she says, 'but the owner wanted the land back and demolished my house.' With her 14-year-old son Arnold she rebuilt another house here using the debris of the old. I say that it doesn't look too secure to me. 'No,' she replies, 'but at least on a rainy day you get a free shower.'
Arnold goes to school in the morning and then spends five hours in the afternoon scavenging on the garbage dump. 'Usually I make about 20 pesos (one dollar) to give to my mother.' There are rumours that this dump too will be closed, not for humanitarian reasons but because the Congress building is on the next hill and the legislators have been complaining about the smell.
In truth the residents of Payatas might legitimately complain about the smell from Congress. The congressional elections of 1987 were carried on in a typically corrupt fashion and not surprisingly produced a House of Representatives dominated by landlords. So the crucial land-reform bill which emerged from it in 1988 was unsurprisingly hedged with traps and delays that will probably exempt about 75 per cent of all agricultural land.
Children, chickens and chanteurs
From Payatas I go back towards the centre of the city to Baghag, a warren of alleyways and squares made up of tiny wooden houses that bustle with life and children and chickens.
Nora Sacagung is one of the organizers of Samakana, a sewing co-operative which turns flour sacks into clothes. She leads me into a small wooden building. On the wall is a poster which says 'Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud'. Funds for the first six months had come from the New Zealand embassy. I ask her what life has been like since Mrs Aquino came to power. You can read her answer alongside.
But it's not just local services which rely a lot on popular initiatives. Much national activity depends on voluntary organizations. And later that evening I contact quite a few at a 'cluster party'.
This is a very jolly affair and I am enjoying myself greatly till I realize that everyone is expected to sing something. Good grief! The only song I know more than one line of is Let It Be. Fortunately one of the guitarists knows it rather better and I stumble flatly through. I'm not the first visitor to have been subjected to this. The North Americans and the British, it seems, will make fools of themselves but the Germans often refuse.
Of more practical use I make contact here with the Philippines Rural Reconstruction Movement. I explain that I intend to travel round the country exploring different issues in different places. They, and others, suggest places I might go.
But before leaving Manila I ask local artist Larry Alcala to try and give an impression of this chaotic city. Am I imagining it, or does the bearded gent being sold the lottery tickets look like a certain harassed foreigner?
The Urban Activist
Some women believed that when Cory was elected she would be the glory of our lives. But as time passes it's clear that she's really just following what Marcos did. Things are not getting better for us at all. They are much worse. Look at the prices we have to pay for food now - much higher than before. And it's the women who have to bear the burden of that.
The man may be earning but it is the woman who has the responsibilities for the home. We have to budget. And outside the home too we know what is going on. We have so many friends in the community, more than the men. Here in this group we give women training so they will understand better - why the prices are so high, for example.
When I first joined Samakana I was also working as a laundry woman. So with that and the housework I had a lot of problems. My husband didn't want me to join and we had a fight. I finished up in hospital. It's what you call battering, wife battering.
We talked of splitting up after that. But now he has agreed that I should work here too, that it is not only the men who are responsible for the whole society.
The Government should be giving us basic services at least. But they don't. There's no health centre for example. And if we go to the one in the next barangay we can't afford to pay for the medicine. The people there in the city hall like the Mayor, maybe they help their own families or relatives.
Progress in the Philippines doesn't come from the Government. Here it is the people who have to solve their own problems. Here in the day-care centre we give training for mothers in sewing and in herbal medicines so they can treat their children if they are sick. Mrs Aquino made so many promises before she came to power. And she should know what we need. She had a programme called 'Dialogue with the President' and I was one of the representatives who went along to see her. We explained the women's problems to her. I have a picture of that. But we didn't really get any response. Maybe she has no time for the poor - just for the people close to her.
Illustration: Larry Alcala