Why EDSA Matters by Cristobal Zarco

This past February marked the thirtieth anniversary of the EDSA revolution. A generation has passed since Filipinos in the millions stared down the tanks and troops of the Marcos regime on Metro Manila’s main highway that the revolution was eventually named after. To those who lived through it, now reaching middle age, EDSA was an unbelievable, transformative, even spiritual experience of how faith and the people’s will could peacefully topple a dictator. For younger Filipinos without any memory of EDSA, it already seems dated and simply another chapter of the Philippines’ tumultuous political history. What exactly did EDSA accomplish? Thirty years on, why does it matter?It’s worth going back to September 1972 and the very beginning of martial law to fully understand the context of the events that toppled Marcos in February 1986. After a staged assassination attempt on Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos declared martial law, granting himself powers far beyond those allowed to him under the Philippine constitution. Enrile was the architect of martial law, creating the legal and military framework for what would eventually be known as the Bagong Lipunan or “New Society.” According to Marcos, the New Society would transform Filipinos into strong, disciplined, and law abiding people. The instruments of change would be the armed forces and police, which Marcos would turn into the pillars of his regime.

Ferdinand Marcos and Juan Ponce Enrile By the early 1980’s, cracks began to appear in Marcos’ rule. The Philippine economy, once one of Asia’s fastest growing, was in free fall and tens of millions of Filipinos lived in grinding poverty. To add insult to injury, Marcos and his family flaunted their ill gotten wealth as Filipinos faced more hardships. But the weakest link in the system was Marcos himself. He was suffering from a debilitating case of systemic lupus erythematosus, requiring kidney dialysis and extensive treatment that interfered with his ability to govern. Worst of all, he had alienated key figures responsible for upholding his regime. Defense Secretary Enrile, author of martial law, was isolated and dissatisfied with his position within the government. Marcos had also passed over Fidel V Ramos, a distant relative and high ranking general, for promotion to AFP Chief of Staff in favor of the incompetent but loyal Fabian Ver.

Fabian Ver

An even more volatile element was added to this combustible mix of power politics. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan was a young, ambitious, and charismatic military officer whose career, along with many others in his generation, had been put on hold by Marcos’ preference for older, more reliable cronies. The President refused to allow Honasan and other young officers to rise in rank lest they displace the power and positions of older generals and admirals personally loyal to him. Honasan created a secret organization within the military which came to be known as RAM, the Reform of the Armed Forces Movement. RAM was filled by angry young officers, many from elite Special Forces units, all eager for a chance to shake up the military and government hierarchy. Defense Secretary Enrile was quick to see the potential in such a group and quietly cultivated Honasan as his protégé.

Gringo Honasin

As Marcos’ health declined, the power of the opposition grew, especially around the fiery and eloquent Senator Ninoy Aquino. Aquino had been imprisoned during the 70’s but released and sent to the United States for a life-saving operation. There, he became a lightning rod of opposition against Marcos’ regime. Upon his return to the Philippines on August 21, 1983, he was assassinated, with the culprits responsible for ordering his death unknown to this day. In the court of public opinion, Marcos was guilty of Ninoy’s death and rather than squelching the opposition, resistance to his rule increased, now coalescing around Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino. This was the stage in the middle of the 1980’s in the waning years of the Marcos regime. Enrile and Honasan were biding their time for an opportune moment to strike at the ailing dictator, knowing the poor state of his health. At the same time, Cory Aquino had become the face of the opposition. Because of her status as a housewife, political outsider, and widow of the martyred Ninoy, she proved extremely difficult for Marcos loyalists to attack or defame. Showing one final spark of the political daring and intuition that brought him to the Presidency two decades before, Marcos called for a snap election to prove once again his popularity and mandate to rule. As Cory and Marcos began to campaign, Enrile and Honasan began planning a coup. All their destinies would come together during four spectacular days from February 22 to 25, 1986. Corazon Aquino waves to the crowds at the victorious conclusion of EDSA Fearful of the real result, Marcos and his loyalists rigged the election in their favor. The fraudulent Marcos victory was denounced by international observers and the Philippines’ own Committee on Elections, or COMELEC. The powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines also opposed the result. But the real action would come from Enrile and Honasan’s disgruntled rebel officers. Sensing the regime’s weakness, Honasan planned a coup in which the commandos would seize Malacanang Palace, TV stations, and key military bases around Metro Manila. It’s an important point to remember that EDSA did not begin as a spontaneous expression of people power against dictatorship. In its original form, the toppling of Marcos would have been a violent takeover with Filipinos killing each other in the streets of Manila. Unfortunately for the would-be revolutionaries, and miraculously for the Filipino people, loyalist officers discovered Honasan’s plans and Marcos ordered the arrest of Honasan and the other coup leaders. Enrile and Honasan scrambled as Marcos turned the tables on them. It was now, that Enrile showed his skills as a consummate politician and insider. He contacted Fidel Ramos, head of the Philippine Constabulary (today the PNP) and asked for his support. The rebels who had once planned to attack the Presidential Palace now holed up inside Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. Though Marcos could have ordered his vastly superior forces to crush the rebels immediately, he opted to negotiate. It was a critical error. Ramos and Enrile bought time negotiating with the dictator as Ramos convinced military units all over the country to change sides. Ramos was still resentful of being passed over for the top job in the Philippine military, AFP Chief of Staff, and was far more respected in the military than Fabian Ver, Marcos’ top crony in uniform. The most powerful endorsement of the rebels came from Jaime Cardinal Sin. Cardinal Sin and other church leaders urged their parishes and religious orders to go out and support the rebels, even at personal risk. Led by priests, monks, and nuns, some two millions Filipinos streamed onto EDSA, concentrating around Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. Now, even if Marcos ordered his men to attack, they would not be able to defeat the rebels without killing untold numbers of fellow Filipinos. With Enrile, Ramos, Cardinal Sin, and the teeming millions of Metro Manila out in the streets against him, the balance of power had shifted decisively against Marcos. Military units faded away and joined the rebels until finally, Marcos was only master of Malacanang. A US military helicopter whisked him and his family out of the palace to a base in Ilocos, then to a plane towards exile in Hawaii. In the next few days, thousands of Filipino would wander wide eyed through Malacanang Palace, discovering Marcos’ dialysis machine and Imelda’s infamous shoe collection. After two decades in power, the most formidable President in modern Philippine history practically faded away. Though the plot devised to overthrow him called for violence and bloodshed, there had been virtually none. The most iconic images of this peaceful revolution would come from EDSA itself, where nuns prayed the rosary in the face of soldiers and tanks. It was not hyperbole for many Filipinos to describe the events of the EDSA revolution as a miracle. Continuing the dictatorship, civil war, and all the worst case scenarios involving bloodshed and loss of life had been avoided. Perhaps the political miracle was the involvement of millions of Filipinos once the revolution was underway. The presence of the masses in the revolution transformed what would have been a violent, selfish grab for power by Marcos insiders into a noble, heroic effort where the Filipino people were the true heroes. Because of “People Power”, Cory Aquino would become President and return legitimate, constitutional government to the Philippines. The age of martial law and military rule was firmly ended. Because of the unlikely, maybe even miraculous events of EDSA, young Filipinos grew up in a country that was not destroyed by civil war or still enduring a corrupt dictatorship. A fragile respect for the rule of law returned to the country after EDSA, spearheaded by Cory Aquino and other reformers, seeking to repair the damage done by martial law. Of course, EDSA did not right all the wrongs done during martial law. Many of those who disappeared were never found and many who had committed terrible crimes were never brought to justice. The Marcos family, for better or for worse, has returned to politics. Imelda Marcos is a representative in Congress, with son Bongbong a Senator, and daughter Imee governor of the province of Ilocos Norte. The Aquinos became a political dynasty of the first class because of the actions of Ninoy, then Cory once she was President. Corazon Aquino and her son Benigno Aquino III are the only mother and son to have become Presidents of the Philippines. For Ramos, because of his leadership during EDSA and the respect he commanded in the military, he became Defense Secretary under Corazon Aquino, then President in his own right in 1992. Gringo Honasan and Juan Ponce Enrile are still in politics as well, both as senators. Though some of its key figures are still with us, the EDSA revolution is gradually fading into the background. While it was imperfect, it remains an example of how a nation can avoid breaking upon the rocks of civil war and domestic strife. For Filipinos too young to remember or who were born afterward, we owe a peaceful childhood and upbringing to those three days in February thirty years ago.

EDSA will continue to be the standard for what Filipinos were at their best, what they should be, and what they can be again.

Any Port in A Storm - Philippine Safe Haven


The plight of an oppressed Muslim minority from Myanmar, the Rohingya people, has made headlines worldwide recently. After months of floating across South East Asia, they have found temporary safe haven in the Philippines. The decision to take in the Rohingya was met with international approval, as other Asian nations refused to allow them entry. The case of the Rohingya is not the first time South East Asia faced a refugee crisis.

April 30 2015 marked forty years since the fall of Saigon. After communist victory in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other Indochinese people left their homes. Hoping to escape repressive regimes, they took to sea in small boats and braved a harrowing journey across the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Storms, thirst, hunger, and pirates were just a few of the dangers they had to face.  “Thuyền nhân”, or boat people in Vietnamese, would become a concern for a generation of South East Asian diplomats and policy makers. The flow of refugees began with just a trickle in 1975, with few choosing to leave Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia so soon after the end of the war. The number fleeing the region increased dramatically each year afterward as economic depression deepened and political persecution intensified. The peak was in 1979, with nearly a quarter of a million refugees fleeing Vietnam during that year alone. Many were ethnic Chinese who became targets for revenge due to China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Refugees continued to flee Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for neighboring countries throughout the 1980’s, with the flow only stopping completely in 1994. By then, economic growth and political reforms in Vietnam had made it far less likely for people to leave the country.

While the Philippines was not the destination for the majority of the refugees, around 200,000 Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodians were processed by the two main centers in Morong, Bataan, and Puerto Princesa in Palawan. Boat people rescued by the Philippine Navy or Coast Guard would be taken to either of the two where they would stay until they were resettled permanently in other countries, with the United States the destination of choice. Many of the refugees suffered in diplomatic and political limbo, having no documentation or citizenship in the countries they wanted to resettle. As their immigration status and resettlement arrangements were handled, they lived and worked in the refugee centers. The term refugee camp brings to mind nightmarish images of tent cities teeming with disease and despair. Thankfully, the facilities in the Philippines were nothing of the sort. The main center in Morong and Vietville in Palawan were like pieces of Vietnam transplanted to the Philippines. Social services from a range of organizations, religious, governmental, and international, helped the boat people rebuild their lives and provide a semblance of normalcy. The Philippine government provided the land on which the centers were constructed and also guaranteed their security. International groups, primarily the UN High Commission on Refugees and the Red Cross, provided the funding.

any port in a storm 1

Sadly, the treatment the boat people received in the Philippines was not the norm across the region. In Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, they were often crammed into crowded and unsanitary camps. Singapore took the hardest line against refugees. The Singaporean Navy was ordered to intercept any boats and tow them out of Singapore’s territorial waters, regardless of the condition of the passengers or the seaworthiness of their vessels. The late Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was unapologetic about this policy, stating in November 1978 – “You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death… Can I afford to have people festering away in refugee camps, being hawked around to countries which are supposed to have compassion for long suffering humanity?” Undoubtedly, these actions led to the death of many boat people whose vessels sank before they could reach safe haven elsewhere. To some degree, Singapore’s policy was understandable. Hong Kong and Singapore in particular had little space or resources to devote to potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Philippines, an entire archipelago and several large islands, could afford to be more generous with space.

Yet the situation in the Philippines was far from ideal when it hosted the boat people. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw economic stagnation and increasing domestic turmoil. The EDSA revolution and the end of the Marcos regime in 1986 only brought a new set of challenges. The economy was in free fall and military coups against the new, democratic government of Corazon Aquino made an already unstable situation worse. The insult “the sick man of Asia” was never more truly applied to the Philippines than during the late 70’s and 80’s. Despite these challenges, the Philippine government addressed the refugee problem with surprising wisdom and humanity. By 1996, the centers in Morong and Palawan were closed, with the overwhelming majority of refugees resettled in the United States and other developed countries.

Philippine policy makers faced a difficult dilemma concerning the boat people. They had to balance national interests against the undeniable suffering of a people in need. To this day, the Philippines is not a rich country and much of its still growing population suffers from grinding poverty and inequality. These problems were even more acute in the 1980’s. Filipinos had to endure power shortages, military coups, and an economy that seemed to only get worse. The fact that the Philippine government managed to find a pragmatic and humane solution to the refugee crisis is all the more remarkable considering these difficulties. Vietnamese refugees in the United States expressed their gratitude in November 2013, collecting  nearly 2 million dollars in disaster relief after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Visayas. It is a high compliment to a nation’s warmth and hospitality when even its refugee camps are remembered fondly. Today, the Philippines and Vietnam work together in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea against Chinese expansion. The saga of the boat people proved that despite great hardship of its own, the Philippines could be a safe haven for those most in need.

About the author

10352321_10153026739129050_5599371636193964618_nCristobal Zarco was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York, specifically Long Island. He graduated with a degree in political science from Adelphi University. He enjoys tracking down books about Philippine history and exploring lesser known parts of New York City.

UniPro Commends Citizenship Pathway for Families of Fil-Am WWII Veterans

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Therese Franceazca Balagtas Frances.balagtas@unipronow.org



Recommendation allows certain family members of veterans to seek parole

New York, NY, July 20, 2015 - The Obama Administration has announced an expedited pathway to citizenship for families of Filipino American war veterans. Through collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, this program allows family members of Filipino American war veterans to come to the United States under a case-by-case, parole process. This will alleviate the backlogged immigration process often due to caps on visas, which has caused wait times that can exceed more than 20 years.

“It’s refreshing to see our President acknowledging this issue among the many he’s been addressing as part of his legacy of change,” states Iris Zalun, UniPro President. “Despite decades of advocacy that Filipino Americans have invested in our veterans, this is a small step towards the full realization of the benefits and recognition they deserve.”

“While this announcement is long overdue for the Filipino American community, this is a tiny recompense for Filipino Americans who have served this country,” states Ryan Natividad, UniPro Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Research. “Many veterans have been denied benefits, and many have passed on without ever seeing what was ‘promised’ to them. The government needs to be held accountable for its inactions.”

During World War II, more than 260,000 Filipinos enlisted in the United States military. During the war, the Philippines was a Commonwealth of the United States. However, the Rescission Act of 1946, denied the Filipino American war veterans of their benefits. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 contained a provision creating the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund. While 43,000 claims were filed, only 18,900 were eligible.

In 1942, Congress passed a law naturalizing aliens serving in the United States military. However, after the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation, the naturalization law expired at the end of 1946. The Immigration Act of 1990, after 45 years, restored citizenship to Filipino American veterans.

UniPro continues to advocate for the needs and well-being of all Filipino Americans, including the Filipino American veterans who have sacrificed greatly to fight for this country. We urge President Obama and Congress to provide our aging Filipino Americans veterans the rights and privileges afforded to them and to overhaul this broken immigration system.

About Pilipino American Unity for Progress, Inc. (UniPro) Pilipino American Unity for Progress (UniPro) is a New York City-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that envisions a unified and engaged Pilipino America. Founded in 2009, UniPro’s mission is to engage Pilipino Americans through collaboration, advocacy and education. It seeks to transform Pilipino students & young professionals into community leaders through its various programs, which incorporate professional development, history, and policy through the lens of the Pilipino experience. The organization allows Pilipino Americans the opportunity to explore their place in the community in the hope of owning their niche. Ultimately, UniPro asks Pilipino Americans to critically answer, “How do you define Progress?”

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This article was written by Ryan Natividad.

“They did their mission, we should do ours…for our lolos.”


“I want to be buried with that.” That’s what a Filipino-American World War II veteran shared with General Taguba in hopes that the sacrifices that he and thousands of his colleagues made during the conflict will finally receive the same recognition that Native American codetalkers and Japanese-American veterans have received: the Congressional Gold Medal.

It’s almost seven decades since the end of WWII. For the past few years, we’ve seen 70th anniversary commemorations for events such as the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the D-Day landings. In less than a couple years, we’ll see another one of those 70th anniversaries, this time not for a battle but for a law: the Rescission Act of 1946. The words that opened the legislation was itself damning:

Service before July 1, 1946, in the organized military forces of the Government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, while such forces were in the service of the Armed Forces of the United States pursuant to the military order of the President dated July 26, 1941, including among such military forces organized guerrilla forces under commanders appointed, designated, or subsequently recognized by the Commander in Chief, Southwest Pacific Area, or other competent authority in the Army of the United States, shall not be deemed to have been active military, naval, or air service for the purposes of any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges, or benefits upon any person by reason of the service of such person or the service of any other person in the Armed Forces.

The oath that a quarter million Pilipino recruits made years earlier by joining the United States Armed Forces Far East (USAFFE)—that pledge of "faith and allegiance...to the United States of America" and to "obey the orders...of the president of the United States"—seemed to have meant nothing in the eyes of the Rescission Act.

Thus began the decades-long fight for recognition, a battle that continued long after the war’s end. We’ve heard of the Fil-Am veterans who chained themselves in a park named after Douglas MacArthur, the USAFFE commander who led the initial defense and eventually the liberation of the Philippines. We’ve seen bills submitted to Congress over the years to bring such recognition only to end up not gaining traction.

Eventually some progress was made. The Naturalization Act of 1990 allowed veterans to become US citizens and one-time payments were delivered to them in the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund, which was embedded into American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

But even then such compensation ($9,000 to non-US citizens and $15,000 for US citizens) seems miniscule compared to what American veterans have received since the end of the war, with benefits ranging from medical to the GI Bill. And by then, thousands of Fil-Am vets have already passed away, thus reducing the number that needed to be compensated while 42% that are still alive and have applied have since been rejected.

As their numbers dwindle by the day, the imperative to act is immediate. Recently Hawaii representative Colleen Hayabusa introduced the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act. The latest attempt has spawned a grassroots movement called the Filipino American World War II Soldiers Recognition Project and is led none other than General Antonio Taguba, the closing speaker at this year’s UniPro Summit. Within that speech was a quote that struck a chord deep within, emotions that reminded me of my own grandfather who passed away shortly after the war…

“They did their mission, we should do ours… for our lolos.”

I recall ten years ago, when I’d envision General Taguba’s face every time I heard something about the Abu Gharib scandal. I was inspired to see a Fil-Am in the upper echelons of the Armed Forces. Now he’s leading the fight for another injustice, one that after seven decades is finally seeing progress -- but only after thousands of veterans have already passed away. Writing to members of our congress seems painless compared to the literal and symbolic battles that these individuals faced, but it’s powerful enough as a final gesture of gratitude before they pass on.

Fellow minority veteran groups received their recognition after years of constant lobbying. Now it’s time for our Filipino-American World War II veterans, our lolos, to receive theirs.

For updates on this important initiative, check out and like the Filipino American World War II Soldiers Recognition Project Facebook page.

Photo credit: Filipino American World War II Soldiers Recognition Project

More Than Just Books


A few weeks ago, the island of Taiwan was brimming with student protests over the country’s recent trade pact with the People’s Republic of China. After the ruling party, Kuomintang (KMT), had passed a Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China without any review from the Democratic Progressive Party, the opposing party. Promised to bring more life to the stagnant Taiwanese economy, the trade pact was feared to give even more control of Taiwan to China. Students were enraged over the KMT’s blatant dismissal of the public’s request for clause-by-clause review of the already controversial bill. Earlier this year, from March 18 to April 10, Taiwanese students took their protests to not only the streets of Taipei but into the chamber of the Legislative Yuan and Executive Yuan. I was talking to my American friend about the difference between Occupy Wall Street and the recent student protests in Taiwan, nicknamed the Sunflower Movement after a florist had donated 1000 sunflowers to the cause. He predicted that the Sunflower Movement would gain more success because the students had a specific goal—a call for new legislation that would monitor the China-Taiwan agreement process and to postpone the enforcement of the trade agreement until the legislation is enacted.

And for a while, that future seemed very likely. My friends would return from protests, and praise and inspiration would just spill out of their mouths. In the beginning, the protests were peaceful and strong. The professors at my university would encourage their students to join in. As a foreign exchange student, I couldn’t take part. My exchange program sent clear and direct emails warning me of possible deportation if I got involved, but that didn’t stop a lot of people from joining in on the singing, the chanting, the occupation of the governmental buildings, etc.

Being so close to the action, which was only a few bus stops away, was intoxicating. Protests in the US seem too far off and distant for me to feel connected because the country is huge and even events in the next state seem light years away. Here in Taiwan, however, I was so close to the action—my friends littered my newsfeed on Facebook with updates about the protests, every conversation mentioned some news, the university’s campus was covered in flyers and sunflower decorations in support for the students.

Despite the abrupt surge of violence during the latter part of the Sunflower Movement, the protest suddenly came to an anticlimactic halt. The adrenaline from the protests was languishing just as midterm season came around. Students came back to homes and directed their energy back to their studies. Just like that, the protests were over. A lot of my friends went out of their way to detach themselves from the protests. They viewed them as dumb and useless, and they were particularly smug after the protests had quelled down.

But the protests were anything but dumb or useless. Even though the outcome was not at all ideal, it was still incredibly inspiring to feel the power of the students. I felt so close to change, even though I as an American would not directly be affected by this protest. People from all walks of life took the students seriously because they were organized and driven in their desires to right the wrongs the Taiwanese government had done in order to pass the Cross-Strait Agreement. The weeks of protests and the students’ clamor for change were enough to force negotiations between the student leaders and the President. Although seemingly fruitless, the negotiations signaled that students are a force to be reckoned with and are more than just their school textbooks. These students have ambition and drive outside of academics, and they are the future of Taiwan.

Photo Credit: Aljazeera America