Philippines Free Press Cover Story
May 12, 2001
the May Day Rebellion
by Manuel L. Quezon III
IF politics, even the politics of a rebellion, is addition, then we must begin with doing the math. At the height of the gathering of the masses at the Edsa Shrine, three million Filipinos gathered in a shared hatred for the administration, the Church, so-called “Civil Society” and their allies in government. A source speculated that of these, roughly a quarter were paid to attend, another third went of their own volition, and the rest either attended out of obedience to the religious allies of Joseph Estrada, or simply out of curiosity and to join in the “fun”. Using these estimates, which are as good as any, this means at its height, the allies of Joseph Estrada, if not his family itself, managed to pay 750,000 Filipinos to go to the shrine; and a full million went there because they sympathized not only with Estrada, but with what speaker after speaker bellowed on stage: resentment and hatred of the prelates of the Church, of Civil Society, of the President, of the politicians and the pervasive nature of the poverty they felt was the fault of big business and their Leftist and intellectual allies.
Reduce, if you will, the crowd to a million, which may have been at the Edsa Shrine on the fatal early May Day morning when the crowd’s patience finally cracked and they either spontaneously decided to stop agitating and actual rise up, or were told to storm the Palace, and the numbers still astound: 250,000 paid hacks, close to 340,000 convinced individuals; and of these, perhaps a hundred thousand dared to actually begin the march to storm the Palace though accounts vary as to whether 50,000 or less actually made it to Mendiola and J.P. Laurel. Government itself said it had to fight off ten thousand of its countrymen in what the media –which suddenly had the courage to dodge rocks and risk bullets, face being lynched and otherwise face the loss of life and property it dared not risk the previous six days– christened “the battle of Malacañang.”
This is the story of the days that led to that battle. A battle which was won by the government but which only in retrospect could be said was one government could inevitably win. At the time, as the Americans put it, it was too close to call. The reasons for the defeat of the mobs at Edsa are obvious: not only the superior firepower of the AFP which backed up the truncheons of the police, the firmness of the President in the face of adversity, but the cowardice of those behind the rebellion and thus, the lack of any cohesive leadership on the field.
Thursday, April 27, the night immediately following the arrest of Joseph Estrada was the beginning of what I originally –and snidely– termed the “karmic insurrection.” At half past midnight I decided to go have a look-see at what was happening at the Edsa shrine. Taking Ortigas, and then Santolan, I found the entry to Edsa blocked; you had to continue down Santolan, then through White Plains, and thence to the other side of Ortigas leading to Robinson’s Galleria.
Reaching the part of Ortigas leading to Robinson’s, I parked my car behind an ambulance and walked past a hundred or so riot police sprawled on the pavement, then hopped over the island on to the other side, and made my way to right across the big arch that serves as the entrance to both Robinson’s and the Edsa shrine.
I planted myself there, beside a man who I suspect was the advance party of some politician. He kept texting and then answering his phone, saying Bosing this and Bosing that, people are marching from Baclaran, almost the entire slate of the Puwersa ng Masa senatoriables are here, all with a certain amount of gruff glee. The steps of the Edsa shrine, where I had stood during those historic January nights, were full; the crowd was noisy, cheerful. The ammonia-like reek of the odor of urine filled the air.
Two motorcycles arrived and parked near me. From one alighted a man with Philip Morris cigarettes stuck over his earlobes; from another alighted a fairly fair-skinned man and a woman who looked like the was a small office manager. The Philip Morris man and the woman sat beside me; the other man vanished.
Where once the people partied to ask Erap to resign, now were his loyal fans. How many do you think are here, I asked Philip Morris man. “Easy, he said. At least ten thousand.”
“Oh yes,” he said confidently. “The Araneta coliseum easily holds 7,500 people. There’s much more than that here.” He grinned. I grinned back. The woman beside him grinned at me. We grinned at each other for about five minutes until the delegations began to arrive.
What to call the delegations? The chinelas gangs? The purontong brigades? All I know is, clumps of dozens of teenagers would come down Ortigas, toward Edsa, slippers flip-flapping on the pavement as they bellowed, “Erap pa rin! Erap pa rin!” As each group passed, the woman beside me clapped and laughed; Philip Morris man would grin at them and wink.
“You know,” the woman said, “I wish Brother Mike would tell the rest to come already.” Relishing my role as secret agent I decided to play agent provocateur: “Well you know,” I said with deep conviction, “Brother Mike has a great sense of timing; he will know when to sound the call.”
The woman seemed pleased: “you are right,” she said. More grinning, and then I said, “after all, they’re putting the squeeze on him.” Wink, wink, if you know what I mean. She got the point. “Yes,” she said indignantly, “they’re really putting the squeeze on the poor man.”
Philip Morris man chuckled and said, “well, now our time has come.” The woman piped in: “Yes,” she said virtuously, “I didn’t come here during Edsa 2; but now it’s our turn.”
A taho vendor approached; I ordered a cup; two cops, one wielding a baton, came along and wanted taho too. I passed thirty pesos to the taho vendor and told him the taho for the cops was on me. The cops grinned. I grinned back and saluted them. I did a lot of grinning that night.
The woman, as i gulped down my soya drink, proceeded to tsk-tsk about the way Erap was being treated. “He’s the real president, you know.” Philip Morris Man jumped in: “not only the real President, but our president.” A gummy old man joined us and said he’d been there since 9 p.m. and that “this is the beginning!” The woman put her hand on my shoulder and, with a happy twinkle in her eye, proceeded to look into the future.
“Imagine, in such a short time, we’re so many here. And more and more are arriving every minute. By tomorrow there will be more.” She looked at me intently, and broke out into the biggest smile I’ve ever seen: “and then it will be the weekend and big things will really happen!” I smiled and proceeded to inform her that there were busloads coming from Tuguegarao, but they were being stopped at checkpoints; and that Erap’s provincemates from Laguna were already close at hand. To both bits of information that i’d looted off the radio on my way to the Edsa Shrine, she replied, “but of course, that’s just right!”
Philip Morris man complained about the poor sound system; but then, as he and the gummy man were laughing over some joke I couldn’t quite get, the crowd on the shrine began to sing a song I’d last heard as I was leaving the vicinity of Malacañang on Erap’s last day in the Palace:
Gloria, Gloria labandera!
Gloria, Gloria labandera!
Gloria, Gloria labandera!
Labandera si Gloria!
And so on and so forth. strangely enough, when they weren’t singing that and shouting, “Hatol ng Masa, Ibalik si Erap!” the sound system would blare “Sex bomb” by Tom Jones. I texted a friend I should be in bellbottoms.
Obscure mayor after obscure mayor ascended the platform and bellowed to the crowd; the crowd would bellow back; between the grinning which a lot of people seemed to be doing, the rest of the time was spent bellowing.
“Return our President to his rightful place!”
“This is the beginning!”
“Edsa Three, Edsa Three, Edsa Three!”
More delegations of youth arrived; one politician mentioned that the Iglesia ni Cristo was present; Philip Morris Man was wreathed in smiles.
The lady whispered to me, “you see, it has started.” The woman harrumphed: “you know, look at all these soldiers, they didn’t do that to the others, they’re trying to intimidate people into not going here.” Philip Morris man, to cheer her up, pointed out that while the crowd only extended to the steps of the Edsa shrine, during the hour we’d been sitting there, the crowd was just ten feet away from us. “They’re coming,” he said, face wrinkled with pleasure as if he hadn’t been grinning enough all night as it was; “look how quickly everything is falling into place.”
The speeches continued; the hooting continued; more hooting stragglers arrived bearing streamers: Navotas, San Juan. An announcer screeched that the province mates of Estrada were approaching the shrine. Gringo Honasan’s name began to be chanted and chanted –perhaps he made another appearance.
Then the announcer told everyone to stand up to sing the national anthem. Everyone stood; the people at the shrine began singing, but quickly things became unsynchronized; the flyover finished several bars after those at the shrine had finished the Lupang Hinirang.
More people kept trickling in. The spy beside me was texting even more frantically than I was. I don’t know to whom he was reporting; I was texting a blow-by-blow account to my friends.
Then things heated up. Someone got on stage and proceeded to say that the time had come for the masses to free Estrada. He said the time was coming for them to march on Malacañang. The time had come, he said, to bring back the one, true, legitimate President of the land.
The woman beside me clapped and said, “that’s the truth!” The announcer said that the time had come to reclaim Edsa from the Godless and the evil represented by Cardinal Sin, by Cory, by Ramos. The crowd roared. The woman roared along. Philip Morris Man croaked along too. Then the woman said she had a meeting, and anyway she was “low batt.” Mischievously I told her, “but this happens only once in a lifetime.” More of the grinning at her ritual. Then she said, “anyway this is the start, I want to be fresh for the weekend!” She went off to look for the man to drive her motorcycle. Philip Morris Man told her to hurry as her motorcycle might disappear in case either he or I decided to move somewhere else.
Baby Asistio arrived. I left.
At 2:30 a.m., walking to my car, a smiling Gary Estrada, in the company of three or four friends, passed me by. He glanced at me. “Hi,” he said. I said “hi” back. I should have asked for his autograph.
Driving home, circling to Edsa through the Megamall bridge and then up the Ortigas flyover, fireworks, red blue and green, were popping in the sky. And on a loyalist station, a man was yelling into the microphone: “to Gloria Macapagal, you will get what you have done to others. Now the time has come for truly God-believing people to reclaim the shrine from the forces of the Devil.”
From the first night it was obvious that there were already more than there were on the first night of Edsa 2; by the second and following days, the crowds dwarfed those that had once rallied at the shrine by anywhere from ten to one. And the logic of the announcers on the Iglesia ni Cristo owned media were irrefutable: if crowds could chant “Oreta is a whore” and “Osmeña is a faggot” there a few months earlier, who could question the right of the masses to hurl abuse at the current tenant of Malacañang? The Catholic Church condemned the “desecration” of the shrine, its use by politicians, the unruliness of the mob; but aside from the color of the skin of the masses proclaiming themselves Edsa 3, and the obviously repugnant politics they adhered to, what desecration or abuse of the shrine could the Church complain about that it hadn’t tolerated in the past? Monsignor Socrates Villegas was pale and wept; few were inclined to weep with him. Instead, the forces of Civil Society and the Left turned pale and found themselves fearful and lost.
What was evident on day one heated up, increased, swelled and reached a crescendo 5 days later, with Miriam Defensor Santiago, Juan Ponce Enrile, Ping Lacson and a seemingly never-ending troop of obscure mayors and even councilors backing them up. Ominous news kept on filtering through that busloads of people were en route to the capital from all over Luzon, while boat loads of indignant citizens were steaming in from the Visayas and Mindanao. And even as the news got grimmer, the crowds thicker, the rhetoric more incendiary and downright seditious, the rich and civil society retaliated –with text messages.
Another source told me Ronnie Puno actually started the hate-mongering, contemptuous of the poor text messaging campaign that drove even more of the poor who originally didn’t want to get involved, but now began to view the historic demonstration as a matter of class loyalty; he was said to have gotten the ball rolling with 200 cellphones, sending messages the rich and middle class gleefully passed on with wild abandon until it filtered through to the masses.
But if Civil Society and the Left and even the Church felt the masses could be laughed away, or exorcised by nuns and and the pious gathered in the churches of the wealthy praying the rosary, they were as wrong –and as guilty of fanning the flames of incipient class war– as the media which began by trying to ignore and play down the ongoing events. Such was the irresponsibility –or fear, if you will– of the media that what was featured in the news for six days was the danger the mob posed to the supposedly gallant media rather than what the mob itself was up to; it took the government’s reading the riot act to both Brother Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai and to Eraño Manalo of the Iglesia ni Cristo for the only source of information during those days, the coverage by the Iglesia stations, to be pulled off the air, and the followers of the two leaders told to go home.
This was on April 29, right after the crowd at Edsa had reached its peak of 3 million from the late hours of the 28 until the early morning of the 29th, when an impatient crowd was told to wait, and wait… and waited for the signal that never came to storm the Palace . The government acted not a moment too soon; it would announce on the 29th that a coup attempt had been aborted and all seemed well; with the Iglesia off the air, and its leadership placated, government and the people heaved a sigh of relief.
The relief proved premature. It may be true, as I maintained at the time, that the gravest danger to the government did come and go from the 28th to the 29th. But there was still the 30th; and on that day three things happened.
First, the crowds came back. Second, the call to arms by Cardinal Sin having been made, Civil Society said it would answer his call and defend the Palace; third, the Left announced it would hold a triumphant rally at Mendiola on May 1st. A line was drawn in the sand; it had to be crossed now, or never. The political opportunists egging on the mob to march night after night reappeared and issued the call; lunatic fringe lawyer Oliver Lozano, two nights earlier, had early committed sedition by announcing –and receiving thunderous approbation of his announcement– that he would declare that the masses at Edsa neither recognized nor accepted the validity of the Supreme Court’s decisions and thus, the legitimacy of the Arroyo presidency. Now Miriam Santiago appeared on stage one final time to issue her most strident call for the crowd to storm the Palace; Rep. Dinangalen followed through with an even more incendiary call to arms. The crowd itself, frustrated the night before by being told to wait, had itself been bellowing to move, to march, to attack and thereby triumph.
At two in the morning the crowd finally had its way, egged on or not by the politicians.
The AM stations had to breathlessly announce in hurry the quick series of events that ensued. The sudden rush toward waiting jeeps and trucks; the massed ranks of the poor filling the entire width of Ortigas Avenue. When news of the first attempt to stop the crowd near Club Filipino broke, I rushed to Greenhills only to see thousands already running around, jeeps roaring forward, trucks blasting their horns. Avoiding Ortigas, I detoured –and by the time I made it to Greenhills West the mob had already broken through the next line of defense at Santolan.
For the next hour and a half, I stood by the gate of Greenhills West watching the poor march. And march. Hooting, screaming, singing, chanting, holding pieces of wood and banners proclaiming they were out to drive the washerwoman out of the Palace.
By the time I got home, the battles had already taken place at Santa Mesa and the vanguard of the attacking mob, which had split in two, had already arrived at Mendiola and neatly pinned the terrified ranks of the police and members of Civil Society –whose fewness of numbers itself had served as an incitement to action and false confidence on the part of the attackers– between the vanguard and the hordes streaming down Nagtahan, which they had also simply rammed through, lynching a policemen in the process and further adding to their arsenal of looted police batons and riot shield taken from fleeing cops. With these shields and clubs they crushed the barbed wire and shoved aside the barriers at JP Laurel and made it to gates 6 and 7 of the Palace itself.
Hours of attack and counter-attack followed; only at around 6 a.m., when provincial reinforcements silently and grimly marched through the mob and secured Gate 7 of the Palace, did the advantage finally pass to the government. Crucial hours had been lost, due to a lack of leadership on the part of the attackers. It was this that saved the day for the government and prevented more casualties than might otherwise have been the case –this, and a historic, measured response from the AFP and the PNP. Buy noon, the crowd was in full but fighting retreat; a state of rebellion declared; the Palace secured; and the triumphalism and arrogance of the Church and the Left and Civil Society suddenly restored.
By the afternoon of May Day, a triumphant Mass was being celebrated at the Edsa Shrine, followed by the waving of the red flags of labor and speeches by the political allies of the administration.
But at Mendiola –silence; bloodstains; the abandoned slippers of the mob; the burnt-out hulks of vandalized media vehicles; a Catholic College suddenly emptied of the terrified members of Civil Society that had, only hours before, feared for their very lives but were at that moment, singing gleefully at a “liberated” Edsa Shrine. And even as the self-satisfied Left and Civil Society and Churchmen went home that night, the military was left to guard the Edsa shrine, and in Sampaloc and Sta Mesa, shots still rang out, politicians were being hunted down, and a nation was numb with horror.
It was not much of a victory, for it was a war that never should have been allowed to erupt at all.