People Power: An eyewitness history

Ferdinand Marcos and his wife (with all her shoes) ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 when he was overthrown by a non-violent uprising against his rule, led by Cory Aquino whose husband’s assassination by Marcos in 1983 is regarded as being the catalyst that radicalised opinion against his rule. This book is a straightforward popular history using interviews with participants and images made by press photographers of the events in the Philippines which led to the downfall of Marcos. For twenty years Marcos had ruled the Philippines using the tried and tested combination of corruption, repression and violence all funded to a large extent by the US taxpayer who was helping to prop up this tinpot dictator as a bulwark against communism. Marcos called a sudden election in February 1986 in a last-ditch attempt to prove that his regime was legitimate (helped by vote rigging and intimidation) but this backfired on him and the Aquino gained widespread support as being the true winner.

This factor clearly influenced the Western media’s view of Marcos which had until now been relatively benign, or at worst his excesses were excused in the name of anti-communism. But the blatant electoral fraud was an issue that resonated with the media and it provided a easily understandable narrative for the outside viewers whose knowledge of Philippine politics was negligible.

The narrative is straightforward and uncontestable– beginning at the assassination of Aquino’s husband, moving on to the corrupt elections and then the street protests supported by the Church. Throughout the book references to the religious aspect of the protest abound, serving to further bolster the message that God most assuredly was on their side. Once confronted by street protests, the army dithered and finally split from Marcos causing his regime to collapse.

The first image and the final image in the book are to do with Aquino; the first is a video grab of her assassinated husband followed by images of his funeral while the last picture is of a newly elected President Aquino addressing a packed crowd of supporters, signifying that justice has prevailed. Even though Aquino only appears in a few images within the book, it is made clear that she is the personification of moral and political outrage against Marcos. The crowds of people, the nuns and the soldiers all present a chaotic backdrop to her assumption of power which unites everybody.  Images made by what appear to be local photographers are used throughout and they represent the events in a typically photojournalistic style. There are a few iconic images that provide further proof of the disparity between the ‘good’ supporters of Aquino and the ‘bad’ Marcos regime such as flowers being given to soldiers by female protestors and the nuns kneeling in prayer before soldiers. Such visual iconography is used to reinforce the simplistic message of the triumph of democracy over repression.

As usual in such situations, popular unrest is usually not enough alone to cause change; it usually requires the substantial sections of the military to split away and for influential figures to either flee or throw in their lot with the rebels. Here, once the Catholic Church, a hugely influential institution sided with the Aquino it legitimated and expanded the protest movement which effectively destroyed the Marcos power base.

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