My Facebook feed from the Philippines has been awash with throwback photos of the People Power revolution. It made me a little bit jealous because I have no photographic record of myself being there. And then this photo appeared on my timeline. It was taken by a dear photographer colleague who died two years ago. And there I am, peeking over the shoulder of a soldier. I shared the photo on Facebook and I thought for posterity's sake, I should also archive that heart-felt post here on my blog. I have embedded the FB post immediately below, followed by the complete text.
|In the photo are photojournalist colleagues Alex Baluyut and Luis Liwanag (on the wall) and next to me in the check shirt, Joe Galvez. Click to enlarge|
I can't believe it has been 30 years since the People Power Revolution which happened in the Philippines between 22 to 25 February 1986. My late friend Rey Vivo took this photo, which is the only one I've seen of myself during that time (you can see my glasses peeking out behind the soldiers). Here in the UK, keeping my head down to meet a deadline, that experience seems like a dream.
This photo was taken when tanks and APCs appeared on Ortigas Avenue near an area of posh gated villages. The air was filled with the smell of gasoline, oil and exhaust. The crowd immediately surged in front of the tanks, some people literally trying to push them back. Women clutching rosaries were sobbing, convinced that the tanks were going to run them over. And yet they didn't move away.
I was really scared and I stood to the side. So I didn't get into all the famous photos of Filipinos defying tanks that later hit the front pages all over the world. The APCs revved their engines to try to frighten the crowd away. It was a blood curdling sound. But nobody moved and there was a long standoff.
The army had yet to turn against Marcos and in the photo, these soldiers were doing what police controlling football crowds call "kettling". At some point during this time, I remember losing my rag as the soldiers shoved us around roughly. I was imagining the bloodbath that was about to happen, with me in the middle of it. I yelled at the soldier in front of me, 'We could be your family. I could be your sister. How can you treat us like this?'
But there was no bloodbath. To his credit, he showed no emotion and didn't retaliate. He could have just lashed out with the butt of his gun and everything would have been different. Such a contrast to the many demonstrations I'd covered as a journalist when it didn't take much for police to start using their batons, electric cattle prods, tear gas and water cannon against the opposition. As a journalist, I had visited detention centres and listened to the stories of torture and murder committed by the military under Marcos' command. I once visited a village burned to the ground because the people sympathised with the New People's Army. I've spent time visiting hospitals to count the casualties after violent dispersals of demonstrations.
I guess at the time, the military was already considering its position and were not going to allow things to go out of control. Soon after, the military declared on the side of the people.
When I think of this scene and remember the heat, the stench of so many people, the smell of the guns, I remember my fear. Later, I read all the complete sentences written by journalist colleagues and marvelled at how they could so neatly describe it all.
The Philippines is remembering those three days in February right now, in the midst of an election which includes Marcos' son, Bong Bong, running for Vice President.
Now I was not persecuted or tortured, like the brave souls who stood up against Marcos, but I was part of a passive, walking dead population that surrendered my rights and my future to the dictator. When Marcos fled, the catharsis was almost unbearable.
Thirty years on, the Philippines is marginally wealthier but still on an economic and political rollercoaster because of an impermeable layer of elites who prevent wealth from trickling down to the grindingly poor majority. It saddens me that the Marcoses and their cronies are still in power, with a well-oiled social media and marketing campaign to retrieve their reputations. Most of all, it saddens me that there are so many young Filipinos who discount that time and say that our situation was better under Marcos.
They don't know what it's like to feel hope for the first time in their lives.
More reminiscences about the revolution:
The last time I overthrew a dictator (February 2011)
A farewell to Letty Magsanoc who wanted to change the world one dictator at a time (December 2015)
She taught me writing is never about the writer (December 2015)