Philippines shows the way with its peaceful revolution

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The Independent Online

The Philippines is the biggest English-speaking country in Asia, but also one of the most neglected. Several factors make the tumultuous events of yesterday important for Europe and the west.

The Philippines is the biggest English-speaking country in Asia, but also one of the most neglected. Several factors make the tumultuous events of yesterday important for Europe and the west.

For a start, the sprawling archipelago has a crucial strategic position, close to some of the most sensitive waterways in south-east Asia, a bridge between the oil fields of the Middle East and the fuel-hungry industrial powers of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

A stable and democratic Philippines would be a friendly democracy in the heart of one of the fastest-growing and most unpredictable regions in the world. But in its present state of rampant corruption and weak central leadership it has become a base for commercial piracy which threatens shipping across the region.

But the disorder of political life in the Philippines has another side - with little doubt it is the freest society in south-east Asia, with the noisiest and liveliest press and civil society. All over the region - from East Timor to Burma - Philippine NGOs are actively campaigning against injustice and providing voluntary aid.

Above all, Philippine history provides a noble example of how peaceful protest can bring about change. The Philippines made the phrase "people power" famous 15 years ago. In 1986, three years before the revolutions that swept eastern Europe and brought down the Berlin Wall, millions went on to the streets of Manila.

They demanded an end to the rule of the loathed and deeply corrupt Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, famed for her extravagance and vast collection of shoes.

To have one peaceful revolution is unusual; to have two is truly astonishing. There are clear parallels between the events of recent days and the snap revolution of 1986. Cardinal Jaime Sin, the leader of the country's powerful Catholic Church and one of the most powerful critics of Marcos in 1986, was back in action. Cardinal Sin yesterday called on the protesters to stand firm against the president, Joseph Estrada, at the Edsa shrine, which was constructed to honour the protests which felled Marcos. "I am calling on all of you to stay at Edsa the whole day. Do not go anywhere," he said.

As in 1986, when Corazon Aquino - widow of the assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino - took over from the dictator, a corrupt president is being replaced by a woman leader who is perceived as clean.

In some ways, however, the differences are as important as the similarities. The success of the first revolution meant that the Philippines was already a democracy, even before yesterday's dramas which brought armoured cars on to the lawn of the Malacanang Palace once more.

The first People Power revolution, like the revolutions of 1989 and then the October revolution in Belgrade last year, used people power to ensure change in an ossified system which kept its hold on power only by refusing to allow alternative voices to be heard.

The Philippines, by contrast, has since the the fall of Marcos been as free as anywhere in Asia. Perhaps Joseph Estrada's most fundamental mistake was that he failed to appreciate how much his country had changed.

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