How the Youth of EDSA I Snapped and Ignited a Revolution

In the Philippines, the 1980s was marked by a slippery slope of political maneuverings that led to several shades of rage — first with silent dissent, which led to a historic move to action.

Before the first EDSA People Power Revolution, the Philippines was on the verge of chaos. For one, national debt burgeoned with the administration’s constant borrowing to fuel revenue increase. Moreover, widespread corruption in favor of Marcos cronies exacerbated the economic deficit. There were also numerous indiscriminate torture and disappearances of the regime’s critics, which brought people a mixture of fear and rage that was just waiting to tide over. It comes as no surprise, then, that the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. — lovingly remembered as “Ninoy” — triggered the historic wave of protests that would topple the Marcos dictatorship and rewrite the Philippine Constitution.

Somehow, the events that transpired pre-EDSA I feel eerily like our current situation. Indeed, we are living in frustrating times — especially for the younger generations. Today, the Philippines has to grapple with trillions of debt, increasing censorship of the press, hindrances to freedom of speech, and the extrajudicial killings that continue without consequence.

As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first People Power Revolution, one may wonder: What factors might have pushed the EDSA I youth to take to the streets? Moreover, how similar were their experiences to the youth of today? We asked historian Kristoffer Pasion about the EDSA I youth’s environment growing up, the importance of educational institutions in their dissent, and their turning point toward action.

A transcript of our email exchange follows, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

COMMONER: What would growing up under the Marcos regime have looked like?

Kristoffer Pasion: While I didn’t live through Martial Law, I’ve read through sources and interviewed some of those who did. Mostly in the urban centers. Surprisingly, their shared accounts tell us that people lived relatively normally then. The curfews became part of life. Since the State controlled the press through censorship, what was broadcasted were rosy government projects and an illusion of normality and progress. There would be occasions of rumors spreading about people missing on what came to be known colloquially as “na-salvage,” or certain students joining the underground movement. But these were made sure to be unproven and far from the purview of the majority.

I could surmise that in the regions where the military presence was more pronounced, people lived in constant uneasiness and fear. As human rights violations were committed in these areas, the silent fear was understandable, as rumors do spread from one town to another. The time came when beginning 1980 onward, cracks were beginning to be felt. The economy was on a downright slope, cronies mishandled the businesses given them, and the disparity between the rich and the poor widened. The Negros Sugar Crisis in the early ’80s was well known. The rift building up between Ferdinand Marcos and the Catholic church with the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1981 and a very vocal archbishop of Manila — Jaime Cardinal Sin — showed that discontent was brewing.

COMMONER: What would you say were the key differences in the atmosphere before and during the Marcos era?

Kristoffer Pasion: Before Martial Law, the Philippines had the noisiest political arena in the Southeast Asian region. Imagine, under the 1935 Constitution, a president’s term lasted for only 4 years with a chance of reelection. And there were midterm elections every two years. The newspapers then brimmed with the flair of politics, political maneuverings, drama, et cetera. So much that the people then were well read and up-to-date with the latest developments on Philippine democracy. Almost no one could be found gullible on sociopolitical issues. Politics became personal to many people, and most were civically engaged. The heightened student activism spread among almost all learning institutions, even in exclusively-boys or exclusively-girls schools. The student protests that became violent — only in proportion to the violent dispersals of the police — became a mark of that era.

But during Martial Law, at the prospect of a Marcosian dynasty, it was lethargic for people to involve themselves in political issues, as it was wholly dismissed as corrupt and beyond hope. This lethargy is common among authoritarian societies, as described by Masha Gessen in Surviving Autocracy. My mom, for example, lived through Martial Law, pursued medicine, and became an intern in Malacañang. She told me that while people knew at the back of their minds that there is corruption, no one was acting on it because you had to contend with the power of the Marcoses. It was a tug of war between the pull of comfort and the desire to actively resist. This is perhaps the reason why the dictatorship lasted as long as it did.

COMMONER: Would this frustration have hit harder for the youth who had a life before the Marcos regime?

Kristoffer Pasion: Definitely. Before Martial Law, influences from the West and the rallies of American youth against the Vietnam War affected the movement of dissent here. Because these ideas and the dire issues affecting the Filipino way of life were discussed in classrooms, colleges, and universities, one could imagine what was once a cacophony of voices suddenly became dead silent during that period. Especially given that they muzzled all press. The reality of curfews and the fear of arrest without a warrant by a military officer was always a possibility. And one had to be vigilant and careful with one’s actions.

COMMONER: How large of a role did educational institutions play in the youth’s burgeoning frustration?

Kristoffer Pasion: The centers of dissent were in colleges and universities. The higher educational institutions and those managed by religious groups — both Catholic and Protestant — were instrumental in spreading awareness of what was happening. The church’s work among the poor, with its army of volunteers, were at times the victims of the military as well. They were eyewitnesses to the injustices and unfair treatment against the marginalized.

Aside from the church groups, teachers and students also became conduits of frustration and mobilization. Many student leaders became leading figures of resistance and became heralds for reforms. One could recall Edgar Jopson — an Atenean student leader and mobilizer — one of the key leaders of the 1970 SONA protest that started the First Quarter Storm. Ferdinand Marcos invited him to Malacañang for a one-on-one conversation, but upon seeing the resolve of the young man, called him a mere “son of a grocer.” While many examples could be cited, it was in this freedom to inquire where these ideas were analyzed, deconstructed, and applied. This shaped a perceptive and insightful student body among educational institutions and made the studentry impervious to the wiles of propaganda.

This remained so even during Martial Law. The rising poverty rate in the early ’80s complemented the persisting resistance among the youth in academia.

COMMONER: That said, what did the Marcos reelection mean for the youth?

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Kristoffer Pasion: Before Martial Law, rumor was that Marcos planned to have the Constitution amended to give him an extended and indefinite presidential term. It was well known in 1969 that the Marcos win happened because he diverted government funds to ensure his reelection. Primitivo Mijares, Marcos’ former pressman and victim of forced disappearance, connected this to the inflation that caused the exchange rate to drop. The rate went from PHP 3.90 for USD 1.00 to PHP 6.85 to USD 1.00.

This fear of tampering with the Constitution and the shared distrust of Marcos moved the youth to action. They mobilized themselves and assembled in front of the Old Legislative Building during Marcos’ State of the Nation Address on January 26, 1970. That rally had a huge turnout of 50,000 students, according to Pete Lacaba. And that was the beginning of the First Quarter Storm.

COMMONER: Aside from the First Quarter Storm, why was the assassination of Ninoy Aquino a turning point for the youth?

Kristoffer Pasion: Living under an authoritarian regime had a lethargic effect.

Nick Joaquin said it best. “‘Will there be a life after Marcos?,” we jestingly asked during the dictatorship. But our answer was anything but a jest: “No. From now on, we will not be a banana republic seized by one strongman after another, and helplessly consenting to each ravishment, as we consented to be raped by Marcos and his martial law. An endless cycle of tyranny followed by tyranny: such was the living death that faced us with Marcos and after.”

When Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in broad daylight on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, there was a bolt of lightning across the nation. What was once dismissed as unconfirmed suspicion and responded to with resigned lethargy was now awakened with a splash of cold water. As people saw the news on live TV before the transmission abruptly ended, there was a shock and disbelief bordering on rage. All the pent-up anger — the rising poverty, the corruption, the rumors of forced disappearances — was recalled and confirmed.

Marcos’ popularity then waned as millions attended Ninoy Aquino’s funeral procession in defiance. It was mainly the youth — with their energies and drive — who acted on their anger. Students from various colleges and universities joined the street protests led by opposition leaders afterward.

COMMONER: Would you say that the concerns of the youth then aren’t as far off as the concerns of the youth today?

Kristoffer Pasion: As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” These similarities are probably the impulses of action and shared sentiment against what is noticeably a creeping authoritarian rule.

The heavy-handed muzzling of dissent across the board by the government — from the Press to institutions of learning — the constant red-tagging of dissenters, the unjust arrests, and sheer arrogance and impunity of those in power. All these were common since Marcos came to power in 1965 until he declared Martial Law in 1972. The abuses increased as the protests led by the youth increased in intensity as well. We find somewhat similar patterns today.

But as for similarities, there are also stark differences. The political terrain during the First Quarter Storm was very different from today. For one, the presence of technology, social media, and faster communication not dreamed of in the ’60s and ’70s are prevalent today. But even as social media algorithms contribute to the faster transmission of fake news and propaganda and the erosion of democratic institutions around the world, the same tools are available for today’s youth to hold the line, push back against disinformation, and unite to hold power to account. Youth movements in Myanmar, Thailand, South Korea, the United States, Latin America, and other parts of the world use them. And look at how vibrant their movements are — braving the streets and risking their lives for the sake of ideals. Imagine the potential!

The miracle of the EDSA People Power Revolution 35 years ago was its spontaneity. Despite the absence of the internet and social media, people were able to mobilize and show their numbers to protect the military defectors in Camp Aguinaldo with their bare bodies. To become human shields against metal tanks. The courage it inspired invited people to finally show their long-held defiance against a regime that had become the enemy of the people. But what more for us? The political terrain today might prove beyond hope — with the same political dynasties projected to win — but the future is yet to be written in stone.

Like before, the verve of change lies with our youth. But unlike before, the danger today lies in complacency. We rely on technology too much. We’re content to protest in our social media echo chambers, instead of doing the real work outside of social media. These tools are not our lives. These are only tools to enhance it and achieve our ideals. We need to engage people outside our digital space while using it to amplify our real-time organic engagement with our people.

Story and correspondence by our contributor, Pam Musni.

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