In recent years, the “Occupy” movements and “Arab Spring” came to symbolize popular actions for social change across the world. In Southeast Asia, the massive gathering of citizens against an unjust political order is more widely known as an expression and legacy of “People Power.”
The idea of People Power became a potent political force when it led to the ouster of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Many scholars believe that the Philippine brand of uprising – peaceful and spontaneous assembly of ordinary masses – inspired several democracy movements around the world. This trend also influenced the political tactics of opposition parties and grassroots organizations across the Southeast Asian region.
As we commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of dictatorship in the Philippines, it is also timely to review how the discourse of People Power has been appropriated in the region.
In 1988, two years after the successful use of People Power in the Philippines, Burmese students actively mobilized against the junta. The pro-democracy movement was quelled but it didn’t stop the opposition from clinching a victory in the polls two years later. However, the junta prevailed by ignoring the results. In 2007, the Saffron Revolution led by monks seriously challenged the military dictatorship.
Indonesia’s turn to use People Power tactics succeeded in deposing President Suharto in 1998. After ruling like a strongman since 1965, Suharto was forced to step down as thousands of young protesters assembled in the streets for several weeks to call for his resignation. During that time, Indonesia was reeling from the fallout of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
A more recent example of People Power in action was the Bersih protests in Malaysia. It started as an election reform crusade until it became a national movement for democracy and social transformation. Last year, the Bersih rally demanded the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak, who was being implicated in a corruption scandal.
Meanwhile, it is difficult to categorize the daring actions of Bangkok protesters – both the so-called Yellow Shirts and Red Shirts – as worthy examples of the People Power legacy. Indeed, the protesters invoked the name of democracy to justify their actions, but their politics directly benefit elite interests. One of the demands of the Yellow Shirts was to do away with free elections.
Thailand’s provocative street protesters have led us to reconsider the many uses of People Power as a political weapon. It can be harnessed to inspire a revolution against tyranny on one hand, but it can also degenerate into a dangerous mob rule on the other.
In terms of boosting democracy, it can be argued that the Philippine People Power was also a failure since it didn’t end the rule of oligarchs in the country. In fact, People Power became necessary again to remove a corrupt president in 2001. An increasing number of Filipinos have become cynical about People Power as political alternative because the conditions in the country have fundamentally remained the same despite the successful replacing of leaders via extralegal means.
The lesson from both the Philippines and Indonesia is that it is not enough to simply remove a president and patiently wait for change to emerge. After the fall of unpopular governments, the people’s movement must continue to work for more structural reforms in society. Otherwise, democratization will appear meaningless if it is not accompanied by an overhaul of the system that feeds on poverty, inequality, and injustice.
The term People Power has become less popular today but many continue to speak its core principles. Perhaps the rise of social media is a manifestation of People Power. Or maybe it is reflected too in the surprising electoral victories of candidates with no links to the old oppressive order.
What is clear is that People Power and its other names — such as Occupy or Bersih — are still relevant as a legitimate choice of citizens who desire change in society. As we mark the 30th anniversary of People Power in the Philippines this week, we should celebrate its liberating power, acknowledge its failures, and reaffirm its democratic potential.
A vibrant People Power will definitely energize the political dynamics in Southeast Asia, especially in countries where civilian rule is undermined and democracy is redefined to legitimize dictatorship.