August 3, 2009 / 9:16 AM / 10 years ago

WITNESS: Aquino's "people power" swept up reporters, too

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was a brilliantly sunny morning in March of 1986. Several dozen foreign journalists were up on the roof of the Manila Hotel looking down in disbelief at the shouting sea of yellow before us.

The children (L-R: Kris, Noynoy amd Ballsy) of late former Philippine President Corazon Aquino sing the national anthem before their mother's casket at the Manila Cathedral August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Francis r. Malasig/Pool

We were in the middle of a remarkable revolution. Cory Aquino, a soft-spoken, unglamorous, motherly figure, was about to drive out of office the powerful and corrupt Ferdinand Marcos — without any bloodshed.

We didn’t know it, but we, the journalists, were part of the story. Tens of thousands of her “people power” supporters rallied around the hotel. Dressed in yellow, they were not planning to charge Malacanang Palace, where Marcos and his family were holed up, defying the results of the election that Aquino had won just days before.

They were not planning to seize weapons and fight the military. They just hoped that by turning out, singing, shouting Cory’s name, and literally showing their colors, they’d shame Marcos into conceding.

It worked. Just weeks later, Marcos and his family fled Manila in the middle of the night, leaving wondering crowds to shuffle through his palace, discovering Imelda’s fabulous shoe collection and leaving the Filipino people free to choose their own leaders.

BENIGNO’S ASSASSINATION

When the international press corps descended on Manila in February of 1986, we were fully expecting to see Marcos steal the election and perhaps jail Aquino, maybe even have her killed. After all, we’d all seen her husband Benigno Aquino, an opposition leader and former senator, shot and killed as he returned to Manila from exile to challenge Marcos in 1983.

As we followed the poll monitors, we ourselves became election observers. “Marcos won’t dare to steal the election while you are here,” people told us.

Later, they would approach us as we watched them rally, as we slept in the streets with them outside the main military camp, as we photographed them handing out yellow T-shirts to supporters in the provinces. “Marcos will not kill us while you are here to watch,” they told us.

In crowds so packed no one could move, a path would miraculously open when a group of journalists approached. “You are welcome here,” the smiling demonstrators would say.

As Aquino rallied on the island of Cebu, I hopped onto an open truck loaded with television camera operators to see better. People in the crowd approached the truck, just to reach up and touch our hands. We were supposed to be neutral observers, but somehow, we were actors too.

The next night, I joined a crowd besieging Malacanang Palace back in Manila. Rocks were thrown, and I thought, “This is it. Now the violence will start.” Instead, in the middle of the night, the crowd surged and I found myself among those wandering through the abandoned palace.

It was over. Aquino’s courage and the perseverance of her supporters had won. Marcos was gone and the Philippines was changed forever.

A few months later, a package arrived at my home in Hong Kong. It contained a medal. Those of us who had covered the events of February and March 1986 had been declared Heroes of the Philippine Revolution.

Later, Aquino’s presidency became troubled. She was challenged and herself accused of corruption. The fledgling rally in the Philippine economy fell flat, and it became clear that the peaceful political revolution was not going to transform the country’s economy, society or culture overnight.

Soon, we journalists were no longer special, either. Crowds even booed us. But that was good. We were back to our natural role, as observers, often carrying unwelcome messages as we reported the news.

Even though Cory Aquino did not preside over a glorious transformation of her country, she did help change the world. Her People’s Power revolution helped inspire others — in the Czech Republic, where the model of peaceful resistance worked, and in Tiananmen Square three years later, where it did not.

Slideshow (18 Images)

Many of us who covered Aquino’s triumph were there in Tiananmen Square, and I remember feeling arrogantly that maybe we were making a difference by being there, too, a shield protecting the young men and women gathered in the Chinese capital to demand democracy. That idea was destroyed 20 years ago this past June, when troops cleared the square, with a still uncountable toll.

At least Aquino was able to die of natural causes. And she left her country free to choose its own way.

—Maggie Fox has been a correspondent for Reuters for 19 years. Before she joined the company she worked as a journalist for the U.S. Mutual Radio news network in Manila in 1986 when Corazon Aquino challenged Ferdinand Marcos for the presidency, won, and proceeded to lead the peaceful revolution that made him relinquish power. Following the death of Aquino on Saturday at the age of 76, Maggie Fox shares her recollections of the “people power” marches that marked these tumultuous months.—

Editing by Bill Tarrant

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