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Did EDSA 1986 matter?

Every year around this time in February, we commemorate the 1986 People Power revolution, which had become a morality play of a Martyr’s Widow leading the people to overthrow the Dark Lord.

Indeed the morality tale was so powerful that it inspired peoples elsewhere under the yoke of dictatorships to break their own shackles.

Just a year after the EDSA uprising, huge people’s rallies challenged South Korea’s strongman, Chun Doo-hwa, which eventually led to democratic reforms, among them the direct election of the president. Chile’ strongman Augusto Pinochet called for a referendum in 1988 that triggered events that eventually led to his fall in 1989.

Poland’s “Solidarity” movement gained momentum after 1986, with Lech Walesa assuming power in 1989. In his visit to Manila in 1995, Walesa said: “Your peaceful People Power Revolution was an inspiration to us for our own revolution.”

From then on, it was a democratic domino effect: Poland’s people power revolution, the Singing Revolutions in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the Baltic states in 1989, the East German democracy movement that eventually tore the Berlin wall down; and Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution,” which all contributed to the demise of a powerful totalitarian state. Even South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was inspired by our people-power revolution.

But did it matter to us?

Did it change the lives of tens of millions of Filipinos trapped in poverty?
The chart accompanying this article says it all. The chart tracks the Gross Domestic Product per capita (or per person)—a rough measure of the average income of the people in particular country—at constant 2005 US dollars, in order to account for inflation in each country.

We have the lowest GDP per capita now, at $1,501.

Twenty-eight years after EDSA, our major competitors in ASEAN—Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia—have overtaken taken us. Malaysia’s GDP per capita of $6,786 is a 4.5 times our $1,501; Thailand’s $3,353 is 2.2 times ours.

To put it in another, depressing way:

Our GDP per capita of $1,501 in 2012 was roughly that of South Korea in 1961, Malaysia in 1972, and Thailand in 1990. In effect, we’re behind South Korea by half a century, Malaysia by four decades, and Thailand by two decades.

It’s as depressing when we look at the poverty data (see Table). Malaysia and Thailand have nearly miraculously reduced their poverty incidences (measured as the percentage of population living below $2 per day) to single-rates since the 1980s, 2 percent for the former and 4 percent for the latter. No wonder that in the past several years Filipino domestic workers have been leaving our country to serve the Malaysian rich.

After nearly three decades, we’ve reduced our poverty incidence only by 15 percentage points and we seem to be stuck in the 40-percent levels.

These statistics however could never capture the tragedy and horror of poverty, of children living miserable lives and dying of diseases that have been wiped out it in developed countries, of men and women wasting away in some slum shack, just waiting for death.

So what happened that we’re so left behind that pessimists even think that Vietnam, nearly destroyed by the world’s most powerful nation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, could soon overtake us?

In a nutshell: Nothing much happened here.

The EDSA Revolution restored the power of our oligarchs, and the country’s oligarchic structure created by colonial powers, and of course, its ideological superstructure, Spanish Catholicism.

The religious spin given to the Revolution—the Virgin Mary was claimed to have willed it—even strengthened the backward, medieval version of Hispanic Catholicism that partly explains the backwardness of nearly all nations that had been colonized by the Iberian colonialists. No wonder we have been unable to undertake even the weakest program for population control, making us the Asian country with the fastest-growing population—of mostly poor people.

The cronies and big-business supporters of the dictator, years after EDSA, regained their seats in politics, business, and even media. Even such a prime architect of martial law’s economic structure — Marcos’ Finance Secretary Cesar Virata — was given recently no less by our national university, the UP, the honor of having its business school named after him, oblivious of the fact that Philippine business collapsed from 1983-1985 when he was the dictator’s Prime Minister.

The heroine of EDSA basically restored the pre-martial law constitution, and therefore the country’s political and economic structure, except for its provisions making one-man rule very difficult.

Weak state, strong elite

Our state since 1986 has been a weak one, standing not for the nation as a whole but only for the strong elites that control it. In crucial junctures—for instance the re-capture of the Meralco monopoly by the oligarchic Lopez clan right after EDSA or the skirting of land reform through “corporatization” of the Aquino clan’s Hacienda Luisita until the Supreme stopped it—the elites get what they want, at the expense of the changing our social structures so our country would be more productive.

As I will be writing on Monday, our state has become so weak, its elite so lacking in patriotism, that a foreigner, an Indonesian magnate has been able to capture Meralco and other strategic industries.

Some even say that it would have been probably better if EDSA were a violent bloody revolution.

In such scenario, the oligarchs would have been wiped out, or the horror of a bloody revolution would have been such a catharsis that it would have forced Filipinos to embark on serious nation building. This after all was the case in the French Revolution, America’s Civil War, the Korean war, the Malayan Emergency and its ethnic strife that led to the rise of Singapore and Malaysia, and Thailand’s bloody extermination of its communists.

Is that such a cruel thought? Maybe, but then how many millions of Filipinos have died or will die of hunger and diseases or lived or would live miserable lives because we haven’t forged a strong nation and a strong state?

That idea, that strong states emerge from the blood of its people, worries me. If that were the case, Vietnam, with 3 million its people killed in the war, would soon be overtaking us.

Take a look again at the chart, and something is so deeply wrong with us, and Indonesia’s rate of growth suggests that it would probably have us biting the dust in the coming years, and don’t forget, Indonesia is a major-oil producer.

It’s the sad, sad reality of what was our glorious moment in history. EDSA just didn’t improve much the lives of most Filipinos.

We’ve got to move and change things, and in our lifetime.