31 July 2009

Corazon Aquino (1933-2009)

The widow of a martyred dissident, Aquino popularized the term "people power" in 1986 when she became the rallying point of mass protests against a presidential election that was alleged to have been stolen from her by the incumbent, the infamous Ferdinand Marcos. International observers anticipated a bloody crackdown, but instead the Marcos government cracked. Military leaders defected to the opposition and Marcos himself fled the country within a month of the apparently rigged election. The "People Power" Revolution became a template for mass uprisings, as a rule nonviolent, against corrupt or tyrannical regimes. Observers at the time may have scoffed that people power would never work against a more totalitarian regime, on the assumption that such regimes had terrorized their subjects into abject submission. This was still the time of the Cold War, when American intellectuals still made convenient distinctions between totalitarian regimes (usually communist) and mere authoritarian states (often friendly to the U.S.). But the revolutions of 1989-91 offered at worst a mixed record against so-called totalitarian states. Most of the Warsaw Pact fell without a fight, and inside the Soviet Union itself people power helped defeat the coup against Gorbachev. In Romania the revolution turned violent in reaction to government violence, and the dictator was killed. In China the government prevailed against the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, but China was also the most advanced Communist state, at least by western standards of economic liberalism, so make what you will of that.

Part of the argument for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein was that he had so thoroughly terrorized his people that they could never liberate themselves. This year, outsiders have watched Iran in hopes that the election protests there would escalate into another people power or "color" revolution, even if the protesters themselves intended no such thing. If there is no revolution, some in the west will argue that the Islamic Republic has terrorized its people into submission, despite great evidence to the contrary, and there will be more talk of "regime change," whether leaders listen or not. But I doubt whether many people in 1986 thought that Aquino had any chance against Marcos. The world should remember her on the occasion of her death as what Shiites call a "model for emulation," but in a secular rather than religious context. History shows that people power isn't guaranteed to succeed, but common sense proves infallibly that it can't work if no one tries. For those who live in the comforts of established liberal democracy, Aquino's example should be a reminder never to assume that any regime can never be overthrown, and not to assume a right to act on any people's behalf before they make an effort themselves.

No comments: