Monday, August 24, 2009

Cory Aquino: Angel of democracy

THE death of Mrs. Cory Aquino on August 1, 2009, Mother of the Yellow revolution brought back beautiful memories to me. In 2002, I visited Manila and had the rare privilege of being invited to dinner at the Malacanga Palace with President Gloria Arroyo. As the gates of the Palace flung open to receive us, I whispered to our hostess who had arranged the dinner: Gosh, I wished that I had come here while Mrs. Cory Aquino was in power. Without looking at me, she said: If you were not a priest, I would have thrown you out of this vehicle. We all laughed. Dinner with Mrs. Arroyo was great, but truly, my heart was elsewhere.

To me, after Mother Theresa, Cory was one of the most special women I admired. Her death therefore marks the beginning of the end of the era of the great icons of democracy in the last century. Although in a different context, she did for democracy and freedom in Asia what Mr. Mandela has done for us in Africa. She has secured a special place in the pantheons of the greats. She definitely deserves the medal for being the Queen of Democracy along with her 24 international awards and 14 honorary doctorate degrees she garnered from around the world while in power. Sadly, in 1986, she lost the Nobel Prize for Peace to Mr..Elie Wiesel, of the Holocaust fame.

Like other women around the world, she sprung to prominence from the shadows of her husband, Mr. Benigno Ninoy Aquino whose brutal assassination provided the spark for her ascent. In her six years in power (1986-92) she brought courage, glamour, integrity to both Democracy and Womanhood. She was catapulted into power with almost no previous experience or preparations. Her husband had fled to the United States after he and others had been sentenced to death in the wake of the proclamation of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos. During her husband's exile, she went to mass every day, prayed three decades of the rosary daily and fasted. While his exile lasted, she banned her children from attending parties, going to the salon or buying new clothes. Little wonder, her life was shrouded in such miracles.

It is important to recall some of the events and the forces that shaped her political profile and how these helped to change the story of Democracy in many parts of the world. The most significant force in the transformation of the Philippines of course was the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, traditionally seen as a conservative voice in the area of social change became the force for the radicalisation of politics in the Philippines. The nature of these forces is complex, but they are worthy of just a mention.

Mr. Aquino, a very popular politician and part of the Philippino elite had been in self exile in the United States for three years. He decided to end his exile and return home in 1983. However, it seemed that the government had planned to welcome him with a casket. On August 21, 1983, he was shot dead as he alighted from the plane at the Manila International Airport. By this action, the Marcos government set in motion a constellation of events which would later consume him and change the course of history and politics in the Philippines

It is important however to note that the Catholic Church was only one out of six main power blocks in the Philippines. The others were: the Marcos regime itself (made up of the Executive, Legislative, Judiciary and Bureaucracy) the Military, Protestant Churches, the Evangelical Churches, and the Communist Party. Although the Marcos regime was firmly in power, like all dictatorships, it sustained itself by playing one group in the opposition against the others. The death of Ninoy Aquino offered the Catholic Church the opportunity to step forward, take control of the cockpit of power and safely landed their nation on Democracy's run way.

The role of the Catholic Church in the revolution demonstrated two things. First, that when injustice has become pervasive, it normally carries the seeds of its own destruction within its own womb. Secondly, that with the right leadership, contrived differences can be overcome and genuine change can unite people across every divide. The challenge often is how a nation can find its niche when fate throws up time, moment and events.

When Marcos sensed that the ground was moving from his feet, he decided to call what has come to be known as the snap elections. All he wanted to do was to catch the opposition off guard. In the face of growing and crippling inequalities, landlessness and poverty, some Catholic priests and nuns became radicalised and very sympathetic to the cause of the Communist party and the left. The pressure from them and other social forces within the country compelled the leadership of the Church led by Cardinal Jaime Sin to shift ground and move quickly to the centre. Rallying the Catholics and a wide range of supporters across the board, a new strategy of communications was adopted. It proved to be very effective as a rallying point.

The first tool Radio Veritas which had merely been a spiritual voice for the Catholic Community mutated into a political weapon for rallying the people. The second strategy was the adoption of the writing of Pastoral Letters which, though addressed to the Catholic Community, spoke to most citizens. Two months to the snap elections, the Catholic Bishops issued three Pastoral Letters. The first was Message to the People of God issued on December 28th, 1985. In it, they told Christians that religion and politics were not opposed to one another and that voting was a Christian duty. On January 19, 1986, a second Pastoral Letter insisted that all citizens must ensure that the elections did not become a national scandal.

Barely one month later, on January 25t, they issued the final letter, We must Obey God Rather than Men. Mrs. Aquino, sending that this was the death knell of the Marcos regime, nailed her colours on the mast provided by the Church. In a speech on February 5th, two days to the elections, she said: We cannot win this election without God's help. I have no cheating experience. I have no salvaging experience. I have no experience in arresting and terrorizing people...We have our people's overwhelming support. Prayer is all we need right now.

When Marcos was declared winner of the elections, the Catholic Bishops responded by issuing what they called a Post Election Statement in which they declared that the elections recorded an unparalleled fraudulence. Cardinal Sin would from here, rally a broad spectrum of Philippinos across all religious, ideological or class lines. Thus was the candle of People Power lit. After four nights and three days of non stop prayer and peaceful protest, Mr. Marcos was ferried off to Hawaii on exile and Mrs. Aquino installed President. In her first year in office, she fought off 8 military attempts to overthrow her. By sheer moral force, she lit a flame that did finally cast off the darkness of ideology and inspired the world to the barricades of democracy. Thus, from Warsaw to South Africa leading this flame finally led to the overthrow of apartheid and Communism. Thus, Peoples power became the rallying cry for victims of dictatorship all over the world. This is why, the world will not be the same again because of her contributions. May her flame never go out.