Sunday, August 2, 2009

Two Cheers for Democracy

I wouldn't dream of butting in on the Filipinos' period of mourning for Cory Aquino. As an outsider in this country, after sixteen years of visiting and two years of living here, I am not a disinterested observer of its history. Too many foreign residents, especially those conducting business, have the attitude that as long as there is a minimum of stability and at least some semblance of order, it doesn't matter how the country is run. Other expats, finding comfort in their detachment from events, see the chaotic struggle of the forces of liberalism and an almost feudal despotism - the opposing legacies of four hundred years of Spanish and American colonialism - diverting. I, however, feel somehow involved with what is happening, and what has happened, here.

First, and above all, Cory Aquino had incredible courage, and not just morally or spiritually. The source of her physical courage was probably her hatred for her husband's murderers and her determination to chase them out of power and, if possible, into prison. She showed that courage again in her last days.

Unlike other great Asian woman leaders, like Indira Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Benazir Bhutto, who all followed their fathers into politics, she followed her husband, and only after his own political mission was cut short. But like them (except of course for Indira), she became a symbol and an instrument of peace and freedom.

If I am dubious of her "icon of democracy" tag, it is only because "People Power" is not the shining example of democratic rule that everyone here thinks it is. It was a revolution - mob rule, whether the mob, in this case, happened to be right or not. But it was the Philippine Army that made her election to president in 1985-86 possible. The current president understood this better than anyone.

Deep down, her motives on assuming power may not have been noble. So many of her reforms had vengeance written all over them.

Unlike the current woman in the presidential palace, she had a genial, confident relationship with her public. And their love for her has been pouring out again since the announcement of her cancer. She was fallible, but she never pretended to be an expert, again unlike the current president.

As Stanley Karnow pointed out in his history of the Philippines, In Our Image, she put back in power the oligarchs whom Marcos had kicked out, and of which her own family was a part. But "in fairness" (a popular expression among Filipinos), they were the only ones around after she cleaned house who knew anything about running the country.

She was admired and respected internationally, which cannot be said of any Philippine president since.

She honored her murdered husband in many ways, not least for his having lived up to - and died for - his famous words.*

It took a "change of heart" to convince President Reagan to stop his support of Ferdinand Marcos and accept the results of the 1985 "Snap Election" (the election was in November '85 and the results were announced February '86), to Reagan's - and America's - shame.

Despite all of these quibblings, it was as much for what she represented as what she actually accomplished that she has gone down in history. What she represented was hope - for real democracy in the Philippines.

*Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino is on the Philippine 500 peso bill, with his words, "The Filipino is worth dying for" on the right hand side. I have often wondered at this famous quote because it doesn't sound the least bit exceptional. Nobody would think of saying that "The Italian is worth dying for", or the Egyptian or the Japanese. Everyone would think such statements were self-evident and didn't warrant stating. But it is only because Aquino's words are not self-evident that they were considered remarkable, even revolutionary - because Ferdinand Marcos was convinced, and tried to convince his followers, that the Filipino was not worth dying for. It was finally Aquino that made the words true. I wonder how many others in the Philippine government really believe in them?

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