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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

In Manila and Beijing, People Power was different

By Sandra Burton


PEOPLE POWER IS ONCE again on the march in Asia. Or is it? Photos of young demonstrators massing peacefully outside the Indonesian parliament or grieving over the bodies of fellow students shot dead by soldiers evoke earlier images of yellow-shirted masses successfully blocking the advance of Marcos's army in Manila and of student hunger-strikers retreating from Tiananmen Square after the massacre in Beijing. The comparison, however, ends there. There is no precedent in the archives of People Power for the stomach-turning footage of rioters burning and looting large swaths of Jakarta.

People Power in the Philippines was the culmination of a 15-year struggle against the Marcos dictatorship. The phrase itself did not become a sound bite until four days before Marcos was forced into exile in February 1986. Those who had lived through the entire cycle immediately sensed what set People Power apart from the demonstrations that had led Marcos to impose martial law in 1972 and from all the subsequent protest marches during his rule. Instead of being bent on revenge, the crowd that answered the appeal of the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, to protect the military officers who had finally dared to rebel against Marcos, was a model of restraint, forgiveness and compromise. Earlier, Cory Aquino had fretted that she had no time to train her followers in the disciplined art of civil disobedience before she agreed to run against Marcos. She need not have worried. With the military and the Church on its side, People Power could afford to be brave and aggressive, yet non-violent.

Besides, the practitioners of People Power had long since exhausted all the other alternatives. For more than a decade the anti-Marcos struggle was waged simultaneously but separately by armed communist and Muslim insurgents in the countryside and a highly vulnerable democratic political opposition in the capital. With the business community of that era sitting on the sidelines and the Church pursuing a policy of studied neutrality toward the government, none of the opponents posed a true threat to the regime. So cowed and apathetic were the masses in whose name everyone was acting during nine years of martial law, that Marcos's chief political rival, exiled ex-senator Ninoy Aquino, despairingly questioned whether the Filipino was "worth dying for." Even the outrageous nature of Aquino's assassination in 1983 - carried out in broad daylight under military escort as he disembarked from the plane that carried him home from the U.S.- was not enough to topple Marcos immediately. Despite the pundits' consensus that Marcos's fall would be swift, the canny dictator clung to power for nearly three more years by agreeing to launch political reforms and submit to a grueling IMF regimen.

Yet it was that long wait which gave activists from all the different camps the time they needed to lay the foundations of true People Power. By the time Marcos made his ill-advised decision to hold a "snap election" in early 1986, a new, civil society, capable of replacing the decidedly dictatorial one controlled by Marcos, was on the verge of being born. When Marcos's henchmen blatantly sought to steal the popular election from Cory Aquino - the candidate of a united opposition - People Power came to the rescue. Participants vividly recall the precise time and place when it first triumphed: Sunday, Feb. 23, at 4 p.m. when a gaggle of nuns and politicians blocked a column of tanks headed for the military camp where the breakaway troops of Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos had taken refuge.

An eerily similar scene of a lone individual confronting a column of armored personnel carriers in Beijing on June 4, 1989, speaks to the different outcome of events in China. No one else in the Beijing crowd was brave - or foolish - enough to join the nameless person who has become known as, simply, "the tankman" in challenging the authorities. Had they done so, theirs would have been an empty gesture, for a few hours earlier Chinese students' fledgling attempt to wield People Power against the might of the Communist Party had ended in bloodshed. For nearly six weeks, the world had thrilled to the sight of thousands of students, dressed in Western-style headbands and T-shirts, demanding democratic reforms and ultimately the resignation of Deng Xiaoping. In the absence of a decisive response by the leadership, they were joined by hundreds of thousands of sympathizers, representing a cross-section of Beijing society.

For a time it looked like they were winning, if only by default, and the taste of victory hardened their resolve. Yet beyond the range of the TV cameras, deep inside the Communist leaders' compound, a political power struggle that would ultimately determine the fate of the students in the square - and the liberal Communist Party chief who was urging them to negotiate with the authorities - was raging. Before a compromise between the two recalcitrant groups could be forged, hardliners intervened to impose martial law and dispatch battalions of hardened combat troops to Beijing to clear the square. On the morning of June 4, the long stalemate was finally resolved, not by People Power, but by the barrel of the gun.

Indonesian People Power is clearly different. Only time and history will reveal whether it produces an outcome modeled on that of the Philippines or of China.

SANDRA BURTON, a former TIME bureau chief in Hong Kong and Beijing, is the author of Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos and the Unfinished Revolution.

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