Philippines: The Inner And Outer Motives Of Insurrection


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

Joseph Estrada won the presidency by building on his cinematic persona of the fugitive unjustly sentenced by the law courts who evades and even shoots it out with the police, but eventually wins justice for himself and his followers. Because his assumption of power coincided with the centennial of the revolution against Spain in 1896-1898, Estrada was able to politicise his movie image of the ‘Filipino battler’ by pointedly identifying himself with Andres Bonifacio, the founder of the Katipunan secret society that initiated the revolution in 1896.

Of the principal heroes of the revolution, the non-Hispanophone Bonifacio has been generally aligned with working class, even socialist, movements and the use of violence, if necessary, to mount a revolution of the poor. Estrada, accentuating his bad English, portrayed himself as leading a new revolution of the poor against the ‘peninsulares’. During the height of the impeachment trial, he alluded to his enemies as "peninsulares." In 1896 this would have meant the officials and priests from the Iberian peninsula who figured as the enemy in 1896; in 2000 Estrada was referring to moneyed mestizo executives in the Makati business club and priests of the Catholic church led by Cardinal Sin, who he believed were out to get him.

Estrada, however, seems to have totally ignored one of the basic arguments in Bonifacio's writings: that the sufferings of the people could be blamed, firstly, on Spain's non-fulfilment of a promise to bring knowledge and prosperity to the Filipinos in exchange for their loyalty and secondly, on the corruption and backwardness of the Spanish priests who were supposed to be models of behaviour. The aim of Katipunan manifestos was to drive home to their audiences the contradictions between Spanish rhetoric and actual performance, or how the ‘fine words’ of the friars could paradoxically lead to cries of misery among their Filipino wards.

The disjunction between image and reality in Estrada's appropriation of Bonifacio was apparent to the Left not long after he took his oath of office. Of course a true successor of Bonifacio could never have championed the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States and the IMF-ADB-World Bank recipes for trade liberalisation, privatisation of national assets, increased foreign investments and so forth. The more sensational issues of corruption only served to disseminate on a much wider scale the perception of emptiness and rot behind the president's rhetoric.

The ‘empty glitter’ constituting the President's image was relatively easy to impress upon the youth. The majority of people who massed on EDSA and marched towards Malacañang on 19-20 January were under 30 years old, mostly students who lived in Greater Manila and had never seen a Joseph Estrada movie in the first place. For them, an Estrada-as-Bonifacio figure was incomprehensible. To the politicised youth, at least, what made sense was that the story of the insurrections of 1896 and 1898 learned from their teachers, schoolbooks and the centennial celebrations, was being played out again in ‘People Power II.’

The public demonstrations were only the tip of the iceberg, however. Opinion polls revealed trust in Estrada among his lower-class constituents, to be slipping significantly after a month of the trial. It was the drama unfolding in the mass media, especially through the prying eyes of the TV camera that brought home to all social classes the contradictions underlying the claims of their cinematic-revolutionary president. But Estrada’s downfall cannot be attributed merely to ‘rich people power’ or to ‘mob rule’, as some foreign observers did.

At one level one can argue that personalities dominated the impeachment show, for among the senators involved were former presidential candidates, movie actors, a basketball star and a coup colonel, and everything they said and did on TV was subject to public scrutiny and embellishment.

However, TV also brought the workings of the state and legal system into focus. People from all walks of life became familiar with the legal-constitutional discourse through which a gripping story was told, highlighted by revelations of undeclared wealth, gambling collections and stock-market manipulations. The association of huge sums of money unimaginable figures, in fact, to the typical viewer– with the presidential name seriously undermined whatever credibility he had left. The insurrection, in fact, was sparked by a controversial vote – each moment of which was televised – which ruled that a mysterious envelope containing bank statements under Estrada's fictitious name should not be opened.

In this sense, the downfall of Estrada cannot be attributed merely to "rich people power" or "mob rule" as Time, Far Eastern Economic Review, and others put it. Filipino public intellectuals seem to concur that what happened on 20 January amounted to an insurrection more than a constitutionally mandated transition. They consider this "normal" in the Philippine context, citing the eviction of Marcos as a precedent. But the precedence goes even deeper, for no less than the official history of the nation-state is anchored in a popular movement against a corrupt Spanish regime that manipulated constitutional legalities. One can add that the insurrection of 2001 can be considered democratic as well because public anger was stoked by what Filipinos everywhere – not just on EDSA – saw on television. The insurrection of 2001 led to Estrada's replacement by vice president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Like Corazon Aquino in 1986, Arroyo cannot directly connect to one or the other of the revolution's principal heroes, who happen to be all male. Aquino never once mentioned the revolution in her early speeches but effectively portrayed herself as the widow of a martyr. Arroyo, however, in her inaugural address conspicuously referred to her government's task of continuing the ‘unfinished revolution’ – a reiteration of the principal slogan that her father Diosdado Macapagal deployed as president in the early 60s.

Macapagal was the first post-war head of state to establish a direct link between the past revolution and present-day projects. He is well remembered for having changed Philippine national day from 4 July (the day the US granted the Philippines full sovereignty in 1946) to 12 June, the day in 1898 when General Aguinaldo declared independence from Spain. President Arroyo thus began her term by resurrecting her father's claim to ‘finishing’ the revolution of 1896-98. With the ghost of the past continuing to haunt the present, I daresay her performance, like Estrada's, will ultimately be judged by the politics of ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, glitter and light.

WATCHPOINT: Arroyo, an ex- professor of economics and the daughter of a nationalist president, may prove to be much more conscious of the burden of history than ex-actor and ex-mayor Estrada ever was.


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