People Power: The Philippines

A thought became a decision became a deed as democracy triumphed with Corazon Aquino in the Philippines

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Try not to forget what you saw last week. You say now that it would be impossible to forget: Filipinos armed to the teeth with rosaries and flowers, / massing in front of tanks, and the tanks stopping, and some of the soldiers who were the enemy embracing the people and their flowers. Call that a revolution? Where were the heads stuck on pikes? Where were the torches for the estates of the rich? The rich were in the streets with the poor, a whole country up in flowers. In a short string of remarkable days a crooked election was held and exposed; a dignified woman established her stature and leadership; a despot ranted, sweated, fled; a palace changed guard--all with a minimum of blood lust and an abundance of determination and common national will. Not since 18th century France have Americans approved so heartily of a rebellion.

Yet the events may slip away quickly, for the same reason they seem so vivid at the moment. The revolution during the past few weeks has been played on television, a serial docudrama of easily read scenes and unambiguous images. Network anchormen went on location for the elections. The principals in the story sought news shows as their war grounds. English was spoken there. Exposition was clear, continuity assured. As if to emphasize the context, the major battle was over a television station. Strong characters emerged: Vice President Salvador Laurel (crafty); General Fidel Ramos (heroic); the once- and-future Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile (sophisticated); White House Emissary Senator Paul Laxalt (resolute). Corazon Aquino came across as increasingly impressive as did American diplomacy, in a rare successful role. The villain, as ever, was Marcos, his face a chart of unreason, corruption and bluff. The hard eyes asked always: Is there one more hand to play? The people: No. Close-up on the shrunken leader, descending a plane, protected by an umbrella.

Unforgettable images, so one says; yet democracy is always more picturesque seizing government than governing. If peace and order continue, the show from the Philippines will be off the air in a week, and the ecstatic new government will stop dancing and stare coldly at its prosaic problems of too many insurgents and too little money. Then it may still be easy enough to recollect the plot and the cast of the revolution. But will you remember the theme?

The theme is in fact our own: that a people released from oppression will, of their natural inclinations, seek humane values. A revolutionary thought to the likes of Hobbes, who called democracy an aristocracy of orators, but not so wild an idea to Americans, who over the tortuous and often backsliding years * have seen the theme take hold. History in some of its blacker moments has shown that democracy can twist itself into the tyranny of the many, can run to chaos and go mad; but in the long run, if it is given the long run, it usually turns generous and fair. The Filipinos did not appear to require a long run; the normal revolutionary process seemed edited for television. Looking ahead, the world wants to see if the country can cast off a history of violence and corruption that long preceded Marcos. For a stunning moment, however, the essential impulse stood up for all to marvel at. There before your eyes a thought became a decision became a deed, with no other impetus than that a people realized they had a claim on their own souls.

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