The other night I watched a documentary based on “The Tiananmen Papers : The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words” (Perry Link, Orville Schell) which is a fascinating book. The documentary had a heart-stopping moment (for me, at least) when the footage being shown showed one of those walls on which the protesting students pasted their manifestos, slogans, and articles they found inspirational. One of the items was a xerox copy of a book about People Power, complete with the famous image of nuns kneeling in front of Philippine Army tanks. Definitive proof that People Power in 1986 was among the inspirations for the students protesting against the Chinese government (just as it was an inspiration for those protesting against the Warsaw Pact Soviet satellite governments). The Chinese government was faced with a dilemma: call in the troops? And do what, if the public is opposed to the troops? At which point might calling in the troops result in the troops shrinking back from orders to shoot civilians? And yet, if you aren’t prepared to shoot the civilians, then they win by default.
It’s therefore important to examine the question of what is decisive in a People Power event: is it the people, or the military? Or: what makes a coup different from People Power?
In 1986, Juan Ponce Enrile, Fidel V. Ramos, and Gregorio Honasan planned a coup. It was exposed, and was in the process if being crushed, when Enrile et al. holed up and pleaded for help. Prior to that, a gigantic crowd had already materialized in Rizal Park claiming victory for Cory Aquino, who called for civil disobedience to bring down the Marcos dictatorship. Marcos, in reaction to Cory’s call, was prepared for a long and bruising fight, but one which he was confident of winning. The opposition didn’t quite know how long it would take, but were also hopeful of eventual victory. The failed Enrile coup changed things.
Left to their own devices, Enrile and company would almost certainly have ended up arrested and liquidated as part of a larger crackdown that would engulf the political opposition. Cardinal Sin threw his support behind the rebels, calling for the people to save them. The people rallied to that call, in which others like Butz Aquino joined in. Cory Aquino kept her distance, among other things, to see how the situation would evolve, and to avoid being dragged into the preferred scenario of Enrile and friends, which was a junta in which Cory Aquino would have a token participation.
Marcos made a show of not wanting to hurt people, going as far as to publicly scold Gen. Fabian Ver, while continuously ordering, in private, the quick elimination of Enrile and the suppression of the crowd. This put the armed forces in the uncomfortable situation of having to contemplate massacring civilians, which, if they were composed of Communists would have been OK with them, but since the crowd included the middle class, nuns, priests, and so forth, all of them unarmed and offering flowers and sandwiches to the soldiers, was something they weren’t used to. The public, too, reacted to the prospects of physical danger with genuine courage. Military resolve faltered and further lobbying led to defections. Thus was People Power born.
In January 2001, the armed forces had been lobbied by the opposition, and the armed forces itself, after the traumas of 1986 and the coups of 1987 and 1989, was not interested in the possibility of soldiers having to fire on fellow soldiers. Up to the second envelope incident, most people were expecting a slow boil and a long, drawn-out fight: either Estrada would be acquited, which might trigger something, or he might be convicted, which would settle matters, too. The Cardinal again called the people to rally, and people showed up: though this time the element of danger wasn’t present because Estrada was not the type to order a violent dispersal, and because the armed forces had resolved not to have to face a violent dispersal order, in the first place. Cory Aquino, the Cardinal, the Supreme Court, the military and the politicians also decided to head off the attempt by the Left to play a defining role in People Power by closing off what should have been the inevitable consequence of People Power: a revolution.
In May, 2001, Estrada loyalists and their allies capitalized on a public outpouring of sympathy for Estrada by calling for People Power, but it seems their objectives were muddled: was it to spring Estrada out of jail, or simply to whip up popular support for the elections? The military, for one, were not about to reverse themselves so soon after abandoning Estrada. But neither were they prepared for an uprising that went beyond the past, well-organized demonstrations. Either from ambivalence or a lack of familiarity with handling People Power, the Estrada group kept stoking the rage of the protesters while holding back from unleashing them; this gave the government enough time, for example, to convince the Iglesia ni Cristo (standing in for the Catholic Church in this particular model for People Power) to withdraw its support and cut off coverage. When, finally, either intentionally or accidentally, the crowd was unleashed, the military was unprepared for it. The protesters swamped the police and military defenses, and a certain amount of tactical thinking seems to have been applied, which is why Civil Society found itself besieged in Mendiola and the PSG found themselves defending from within the Palace itself, instead of the defensive perimeter that had been established as the base for operations since at least 1989. I am still convinced that greater command and control on the part of the leaders could have led to a situation resulting in the President having to flee, or the Palace actually being invaded; but in the crucial hours, enthusiastic but lacking leadership on the ground, the protesters were held back until reinforcements from the provinces finally arrived -then there was a manhunt in the environs of Santa Mesa and Sampaloc. What could have happened if the protesters were better led, and more of an effort made to try to convince the military to defect? Or was that prospect closed off the moment Edsa Tres turned violent?
Since May of 2001 of course, the government and the military have learned their lessons. New gates have been built, pushing out and strengthening the Palace’s security perimeter. As much as possible, no crowds have been allowed to form close enough to give the crowds a tactical advantage in storming the Palace. All routes to the Palace have been fortified: the manner in which the protesters in January 2001 rolled over the police massed in defense of Mendiola bridge was already the first lesson; the manner in which protesters mauled policemen on Nagtahan bridge and rolled over outposts on JP Laurel St. and Mendiola in May, 2001 was the final lesson. But this closes off the traditional, post-1986 People Power model. That is, things cannot start with a crowd.
But a crowd can still come into play, if you revert to a traditional coup model, or if you attempt to institutionalize (or is operationalize?) the 1986 model. You can decide things simply by force of arms, which means you only need a greater concentration of firepower than the defenders of the Palace can muster, and neutralize them further through a combination of air and possibly naval power. Then you present the politicians and the public with a fait accompli. Or, you can decide to hole up somewhere, proclaim the rebellion, and encourage defections while hoping the public will respond to your call by surrounding you. This was, in fact, the Oakwood Mutiny model, but it foundered because of the scatterbrained approach of the rebels, and their apparently being deprived of civilian support by the rest of the military preventing civilian reinforcements from either gathering, or arriving.
But if rebels learned in 1986 that the civilians can save them; if they learned in 1987 and 1989 that the civilians are suspicious of them; if they learned in January 2001 that the civilians welcome them if they take a back seat to the civilians; and in May 2001 that the civilians are meaningless if they lack disciplined and committed leadership; and furthermore in 2003 that they cannot succeed if they are fragmented and because of that fragmentation, the civilians can be prevented from reaching them: then you have a new model, in which the military will only want to move, if it is fairly cohesive, that it cannot simply follow the civilians, but instead, must goad them into action, and you are in the midst of a modified 1986 scenario.
And here lies the important distinction: the military, by themselves, can never decide the issue, just as the civilians, when it comes to toppling a government, cannot do it by themselves. A fine balance is required: but it’s a balance even more difficult to achieve, because so many individuals, not to mention groups, have to be involved.