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  • Organizing "People Power" in the Philippines
  • Dette Pascual (bio)

Four years ago, the Philippines regained its freedom after a bloodless revolution. Men, women, and youth—using their frail bodies as shields—stood between two opposing armies and brought about a peaceful change of government. The chant during this demonstration of "people power" was, "Tama na! Sobra na! Palitan na! ("Enough is enough! We want a change!")

Today we realize that loving freedom and regaining it are not enough. Maintaining democracy also requires responsibility. We must be responsible for what we love and what we fought for. Just as Filipinos organized themselves to bring down the Marcos dictatorship, so today they are joining together in citizen groups dedicated to preserving and strengthening our nation's democracy. [End Page 102]

Under the dictatorship, there were basically only two kinds of interest groups: pro-Marcos or anti-Marcos. You were considered either a loyal follower or a subversive rebel. Today, however, the Philippines teems with nongovernmental organizations pursuing a wide range of concerns, including economic development, human rights, land reform, and environmental protection. Such is the pluralism of democracy.

The role of citizen groups as an essential vehicle of people power is explicitly recognized in the new Constitution of the Philippines. Article XIII, Section 15 states:

The State shall respect the role of independent people's organizations to enable the people to pursue and protect, within the democratic framework, their legitimate and collective interests and aspirations through peaceful and lawful means.

People's organizations are bonafide associations of citizens with demonstrated capacity to promote the public interest and with identifiable leadership, membership, and structure.

Section 16 of the same Article further states:

The right of the people and their organizations to effective and reasonable participation at all levels of social, political, and economic decision making shall not be abridged. The State shall by law facilitate the establishment of adequate consultation mechanisms.

I have been actively involved in three citizen groups in the Philippines: the National Citizens Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), the Evelio B. Javier Foundation (EBJF), and the Women's Movement for the Nurturance of Democracy (KABATID). These three organizations will be the focus of this report not only because I am most familiar with them, but because I see in them a natural progression, with one building upon the accomplishments of the other. Tracing this progression can help to illuminate the vital role played by civic groups both in the transition from authoritarian rule and in the consolidation of democracy.


NAMFREL was conceived during the crisis that followed the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino on 21 August 1983 as government soldiers led him off the plane that had brought him home from exile. The grief and anger provoked by his murder quickly led to widespread public defiance of Marcos's authority for the first time since the declaration of martial law in 1972. More than two million people joined Aquino's funeral cortege. This unprecedented turnout was [End Page 103] surpassed only by the four million who came three years later to hear his widow, Corazon Aquino, speak out against the fraud committed by President Marcos in the 1986 election.

NAMFREL began on a September evening in 1983, when a group of 20 concerned citizens led by Jose Concepcion, Jr. gathered in the home of Mariano Quesada to discuss the acute political tensions in the Philippines following Aquino's murder. The discussions that night among a mixed group of professionals, businessmen, housewives, church leaders, and students led us to three conclusions about our country's political future. First, Marcos would never voluntarily resign, for to give up the protection of Malacañang Palace would be tantamount to suicide. Second, the regime's use of violence against continuing street protests would eventually drive a frustrated people to opt for its own violent means of forcing a change of government. Finally, the resort to violence would force Filipinos to choose between living under an increasingly repressive regime or fleeing to the hills to join the leftist insurgency of the New People's Army.

From the outset, NAMFREL's goal was to restore popular faith in the electoral process, despite the clamor...


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