Letter from Manila (Edsa 3 days)

by Howie G. Severino
29 April 2001

MANILA, April 29, 2001 -- In this baffling country, it's been a week of supreme ironies outdoing each other.

A private citizen comes home to the Philippines recently after seven months abroad, thinking he had missed Edsa Dos and the most drama in Manila since 1986. No one had warned him that more bizarre events were yet to come.

First, former president Estrada gets arrested. The sweet irony of it: just months earlier the citizen had witnessed then-President Estrada swagger through the swanky Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, basking in the adoration of a sip-sip immigrant crowd, being serenaded by his US-based former leading ladies, and bragging about the atrocities that he had visited on Muslim communities in Mindanao.

The most powerful person in the Philippines later thumbed his racist nose at the demonstration outside his hotel and derided it as having attracted African-Americans.

Now just months later, Estrada was grimly posing for a mug shot in Camp Crame. Then he was shown lying on a cot inside a cell with wire mesh windows. The Philippine courts had actually thrown the book at a corrupt president and sought to punish him. It wasn't just justice, but poetic justice.

It didn't seem to require a college education to see that this was a historic step forward for the nation; one could almost hear a sigh of closure on a process that began in spectacular fashion last October.

Finally, after so much self-flagellation, it seemed Filipinos had summoned the political will to put a big fish, nay the biggest fish, behind bars. Why, this could be the key moment when the Philippine state actually begins to regard citizens equally. This could even be the beginning of the end of Philippine-style, no-holds-barred political corruption, once politicians saw that even presidents could go to jail. It should have been a shining moment.

Then the strange battle began to turn right into wrong.

Desecration

Proclaiming him innocent and his arrest inhuman, Estrada supporters would not let him go gently to his cell, nor allow the nation a moment to appreciate what had been accomplished. Instead, frenzied loyalists, claiming to be representive of the poor, tried to prevent the police from arresting their hero at his mansion in North Greenhills -- a gated community where they would normally never be welcomed by private security.

This demonstration featured none of the orderly marches or prayers or polite company of the anti-Estrada protests of three months ago that took place in Manila. Just rock throwing, wailing, and the kind of emotional outbursts one commonly sees in Philippine movies. Pipe-wielding goons also threatened and hurt media people, especially network TV crews that had given so much air time to the anti-Estrada protests. Their vehicles were also damaged.

This was polite company's worst nightmare, and it would get bigger. The pro-Estrada action soon grew into a massive, agitated gathering around the Edsa Shrine, site of both Edsa Uno and Dos, and in front of a mall frequented by the middle class.

Yet another irony: It appeared to be a mirror image of the anti-Estrada protests, with the same location for the stage, political banners hanging from the overpass, and even the same songs -- Bayan Ko, for example, being sung with the same pain of the oppressed. The rally would have been an amusing parody, if it wasn't so alarming.

To many well-heeled shoppers, the size of the crowd -- estimated at various times to be between 5,000 and half a million -- became scary. Stores in Robinson's Galleria were urged by security to close early, fearing a violent rampage and looting.

It was a gathering driven by a combination of free meals, cash allowances and genuine outrage. Men in new T-shirts distributed packaged food from the backs of small trucks. Street vendors selling everything from snacks to hats followed the crowds and filled the Edsa underpass. The stench of urine was everywhere. The piles of garbage were beginning to rival Divisoria's. Cardinal Sin cried desecration of a sacred shrine.

On the hot Saturday afternoon this correspondent mingled with the crowd, the numbers had thinned to a few thousand but were expected to grow as the day wore on. A long-haired rock band one would normally associate with more progressive politics was onstage trying to keep the audience worked up before the politicos would arrive later in the day. Some TV cameramen sported Erap wristbands, a new kind of anting-anting to ward off the vengeful mob.

Groups of cell phone-deprived people were disgorged by chartered jeepneys. Unlike the anti-Estrada protesters, there was little economic diversity in this crowd, no college students or office workers in evidence.

This was the so-called masa, but only a segment of it -- the kind that would blindly vote for whomever their leader told them, or the kind Estrada and his allies would have few qualms about using as human cannon fodder to produce a martyr or two.

Certainly, they were a far cry from the masa belonging to militant labor unions or people's organizations, who can usually articulate a moral and political justification for their actions.

Those interviewed at this Edsa farce simply insisted that Estrada committed no crimes, and incarceration was no way to treat their leader.

Victims of Philippine apartheid

There has been an attempt even by some sober media analysts to declare this a class war, pitting the vast numbers of the pro-Estrada poor against the mixed crowd that supported his ouster.

But the so-called Edsa Tres strikes this observer as resembling more of a personality cult. No one on Edsa now seems able to explain the details of a class-based ideology, not even what Estrada was doing that was worth reviving. They were there for Erap, period. He had declared that he was for them in ways they could understand. It didn't matter that he was accused of plunder against the nation. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, "We don't care if he's an SOB, as long as he's our SOB."

If anything, what this crowd signified is a desperation borne out of a form of economic apartheid.

South African racial apartheid legally created separate residential zones and facilities for different races. In the Philippines, much more so than in any other country in Asia, economic class is the dividing line.

Entire communities, shopping centers, even office building elevators are in effect off limits to the poor. Inside many gated subdivisions, signs explicitly prohibit household help from using the swimming pool and other facilities. In the US, where the gap also yawns between rich and poor, any outsider can drive or walk through Beverly Hills. In chi-chi Makati, the communities are walled off; one can't even look inside. Most of the roads in Makati, in fact, are for private use only of those on the fortunate side of this type of apartheid.

Perhaps the more discerning among the pro-Estrada protesters camped outside his well-guarded neighborhood might have realized that their idol himself was very much on the opposite side of the fence in this system.

Outside the cities, land and other natural resources are still concentrated in the hands of the rich to a degree not seen outside Latin America.

Language enforces the system

Philippine law is technically blind, but language enforces the dividing line. All the political institutions speak a colonial language only the highly educated can understand. Much of the Estrada impeachment trial was conducted in English. No wonder many of the uneducated poor are insisting none of the evidence is true.

The leader of the politicized Catholic church, Cardinal Sin, issues his statements in English.

The major newspapers are exclusively in English. Past presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos would speak Filipino when they were cracking jokes or trying to be folksy. But when it came time to discuss economic or foreign policy, it was almost always in English, as if the masa either had no interest in anything complicated or didn't deserve the same explanation. Knowledge of the English language was a requirement for any kind of upward mobility.

And here now is President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Georgetown University graduate, delivering a statement to the nation about the present crisis... in English, as if she's addressing only foreign investors, diplomats, and the college-educated.

So the multitudes who cannot hope to learn enough of a foreign language comprise a highly disadvantaged underclass, unable to get a fair deal from an English-speaking judicial and political system. Neither can they follow national debates about social justice or corrupt leaders conducted in the most influential newspaper columns -- the majority of which are in English.

The communist movement made a serious attempt to use language to mobilize the poor, conducting their organizing and publishing their newspapers in the vernacular. But the state was always trying to crush the communists.

So this vast underclass with its own society and language was ripe for any charismatic leader who knew how to speak to them.

That is how the silver-tongued Mike Velarde was able to attract so many poor Catholics to his El Shaddai. The Iglesia ni Kristo, which has been broadcasting the pro-Estrada rallies almost non-stop through its TV station, communicates to its flock only in Filipino languages.

And that is how Joseph Estrada, speaking the language of his heroic movie characters, rose to power. When he used Filipino to bond with his constituents, they could understand him. In a political system designed for the English-speaking, Estrada appeared eager to include them.

The tragedy is that Estrada really didn't. He exploited the poor's vulnerability in a conspiracy to transform the state into a giant criminal syndicate where he would be Godfather.

His arrest and prosecution are intended to uphold the rule of law so that it benefits everyone, rich and poor. But those massing at Edsa at this very moment don't seem to know or care. To them, the political system has always been rotten. Under Estrada, the system still sucked for the poor, but he created the illusion that they would somehow be included. Pro-Estrada candidates are taking turns on stage feeding the illusion, and distracting from the possibility that returning Estrada to power would doom the best chance this society has had to clean up its politics.

At the time of this writing, anti-Estrada groups are planning a series of mobilizations, to support the arrest of the former president. The pro-Estrada forces are vowing to continue their mass action, until their leader is at least transferred to house arrest from the lonely, air-conditioned prison quarters set up for him. A violent showdown would cause the military to step in, and may hurt even those criminal elites urging an attack on the government.

Many of the poor today are gathering on Edsa in numbers that give them real power. The greatest irony of all is they are using it to demand not an end to Philippine apartheid that condemns them for their poverty, but its continuation.

*Howie G. Severino is a journalist based in Manila.

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