Revolution: Philippine lessons for Mideast

2011-02-23 11:06

Manila - The Philippines this week marks 25 years since a revolution ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a "people power" uprising that provided one template for the revolts now sweeping the Arab world.

The feeling of popular joy then is being repeated now in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, but the Philippines also offers a cautionary tale as it struggles with economic stagnation, corruption and recurrent political chaos.

"Our revolution inspired a lot of similar events in the world, many took a cue from our peaceful movement in ousting a dictator," said Ramon Casiple, a former activist who now heads the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

"But 25 years after we won over Marcos, our democracy remains very weak - we have all the institutions, but they lack content and substance.

"For countries like Egypt, they will also realise that getting rid of a dictator is easier than rebuilding and putting in place democratic processes that work."

In February 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets to end Marcos's brutal two-decade rule. As with this month's ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a crucial step was the withdrawal of US support for his regime.

But those involved in the uprising and other analysts said the Southeast Asian country's ongoing struggle to cement a stable democracy showed a path that countries in the Middle East and North Africa should avoid.

Casiple noted that the Philippines, a nation of 94 million, remained mired in poverty, graft and general lawlessness.

Government not fully recovered

He said that - as during the Marcos years - the military, the police and politicians who control private armies all continued to commit large-scale rights abuses.

And even though Marcos was forced into exile in Hawaii, where he died, his family is back in power with his wife a congresswoman and son an influential senator eyeing a run at the presidency in 2016 elections.

None of the Marcos clan has been effectively prosecuted, and the government has failed to fully recover the dictator's fabled billions of dollars allegedly stolen from state coffers and stashed in secret accounts abroad.

Meanwhile, communist and Islamist insurgencies that exploded during Marcos's years also continue to rage and claim many lives each year.

Rights groups say a culture of impunity also still pervades, with officials free to flaunt the law and organise the killings of activists or journalists.

And the military has also shown a deep reluctance to relinquish its control on power, mounting a string of coup attempts immediately against the regime that followed Marcos, as well as other less frequent ones in recent years.

Many now pin their hopes on the presidency of Benigno Aquino, who came to power in a landslide election win last year on the back of lingering support for his mother, the "people power" heroine Corazon Aquino.

After her husband was murdered, allegedly by Marcos's men, "Cory" Aquino famously transformed from humble housewife to revolutionary leader and spearheaded the 1986 uprising.

Unfulfilled potential

The matriarch Aquino was installed president after Marcos and oversaw a rewriting of the constitution, a document many laud for its integrity while lamenting the lack of respect many in power now show for it.

Benigno Aquino, the current president, himself noted that many tyrants had been toppled peacefully around the world through similar uprisings since 1986.

"The Filipino people made this possible. And while we gave that possibility to the world, another possibility has for so long eluded us - that of our nation fulfilling its great potential," he said this week.

James Ross, policy and legal director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, agreed that events in Egypt were distant ripples of the Philippine revolt.

"Events in Egypt - and previously in Poland, Indonesia and Tunisia - should make Filipinos proud of their contribution to human freedom throughout the globe," he said.

But Ross, who as a young lawyer prepared damning reports about the Marcos regime, said genuine civilian authority must be allowed to take root if other countries today are to avoid the Philippines' missteps.

"The road ahead (for them) is treacherous and long."