THE CHALLENGES AND HOPES OF PEOPLE POWER

Thank you for inviting me to last night's very meaningful and inspirational commemoration of the 8-8-88.

I'm sending by attachment my reflections and I hope it will generate some thoughtful interaction on how to strengthen the campaign for democracy in Burma.

Peaceful regards,

Virginia
Dr. Virginia F. Cawagas
Educational Policy Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta Canada


By Virginia F. Cawagas President, LINGAP Institute

First of all, let me thank the sponsors for inviting me to participate in this special commemoration of the 13th anniversary of the August 8, 1988 uprising by the people of Burma. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest admiration of and solidarity with all those involved in the continuing struggle to restore peace, democracy and human rights in Burma. Furthermore, together with many peace advocates and peace educators worldwide, I also wish to acknowledge the inspiration of the Nobel Peace Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as she demonstrates to this very hour, her commitment to nonviolence, justice, and democracy.

After only a few years of the Free Burma Campaign, the "campaign victories" are quite impressive. The list of successful campaigns shows some fifty companies that have withdrawn their business or divested their holdings from Burma, two of which are airline companies owned by ASEAN member countries, Brunei and Thailand. Many more business companies and universities are currently facing students demonstrations demanding for divestment from companies linked to the Burmese military regime (Free Burma Coalition, 2001). These small successes and ongoing projects are hopeful signs that peoples’ nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, though long and arduous, will inevitably bear fruit.

My humble contribution to this evening’s reflection on the value of nonviolent struggle for transforming society stems mainly from my personal experience in people power in the Philippines and from my academic orientation as a peace educator and researcher.

Historical Examples of Nonviolent Struggle

While there may be a long list of heroic and inspirational examples of nonviolent struggles of peoples worldwide, a publication of the Albert Einstein Institution (2001) featured a few significant events which I would like to discuss briefly in this introduction.

Probably the first recorded demonstration of people power took place in 494 B. C. when the Plebeians of Rome refused to work for days until the Roman consuls agreed to correct the Plebeians grievances against them.

For a decade, from 1765-1775, the American colonists engaged in nonviolent resistance campaigns against British rule, which resulted in de facto independence of nine colonies by 1775.

For almost two decades, from 1850-1867, Hungarian nationalists mobilized nonviolent resistance to Austrian rule leading to self-governance for Hungary as part of an Austro-Hungarian federation.

In Russia, from 1905-1906, peasants, workers, students and the intelligentsia organized themselves to stage strikes and other forms of nonviolent action forcing the Czar to accept the creation of an elected legislature.

For half a decade, from 1913-1919, peaceful campaigns for woman’s suffrage led to the amendment of the US constitution guaranteeing women’s right to vote.

One of the best known examples of nonviolent struggle in contemporary history is the Indian independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi from 1920 to 1947. To this day, Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence continues to inspire many peoples’ movement for justice and human rights.

In 1944, two Central American dictators, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez of El Salvador and Jorge Ubico of Guatemala, were ousted through nonviolent civilian insurrections.

The Civil Rights Movement in the US, from 1955-1968, using a variety of nonviolent methods, resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The nonviolent resistance of Czechoslovakia in 1968-1969 to the Soviet invasion also demonstrated possibilities of alternatives to military resistance.

In 1986, the Philippines "people power" movement brought down the oppressive Marcos dictatorship.

And in August 8, 1988, thousands of students, monks, ordinary peoples of Burma protested against the Burmese military regime demanding the restoration of democracy. Thousands were either killed or arrested. Many of those who managed to escape are still in hiding.

Social and political events in the last three decades of the past century unfolded a generation of people power that achieved modest as well as radical reforms in different parts of the world. In the West, people power played an important role in tearing down the Berlin Wall and in dismantling authoritarian regimes of the former Soviet Bloc. In South societies "small" people managed to stop powerful private interests and governments from completely destroying the environment as in the case of the Chipko movement and the Narmada campaign in India (Shiva, 1989; Shiva, 1986). In a number of societies, massive exercise of people power swept off military dictators from their thrones of greed and oppression. Thus the last quarter of the twentieth century might well be remembered as a period when movements of diverse people came together for a common goal of transforming society to become more just and peaceful (Francisco, 1995).

What People Power means in the Philippines

Philippine People Power 1 in February 1986 and People Power 2 in January 2001 are not creations of individual personalities or one dominant organization. As early as the 70s, in what is now commemorated as the First Quarter Storm in the Philippines (Casino, 2001), thousands of students, teachers, professors, labourers, lawyers, religious, and all kinds of ordinary citizens, braving the barrage of water cannons and real bullets whizzing over their heads, marched along the main road leading to the Presidential Palace, guarded like a fortress by Marcos’ Presidential Security Guards.

Mass movements and mass struggles have always been part of the Filipinos political history since the first colonial power set foot on our islands. While it took more than three centuries for the Filipinos to free themselves from the yoke of colonial power, historical records are rich with stories of struggles in many parts of the 7,109 islands of the archipelago. Though most of them are armed struggles, the major catalyst for the final independence movement was the nonviolent movement initiated by our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal.

Much later, in February 1986, the Filipinos were acknowledged for their contribution to an alternative mode of "revolution" through the world-acclaimed expression of People Power I. And more recently, despite the claim of some Western media that People Power II was nothing but a "mob rule," the wider world community has again confirmed the Filipino peoples’ contribution to the growing movement of nonviolence.

For their courageous example of people power, the Filipino people received an award from the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Foundation (Nobel Foundation) and the Center for Global Non-Violence on February 25, 2001. The Philippines is the first country to receive such recognition for the promotion of change through peaceful means, as exemplified by People Power I and II, the two popular revolts that toppled the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986 and Joseph Estrada in January 2001. The Nobel Foundation is composed of peace advocates such as Nelson Mandela of South Africa, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina.

The Nobel Foundation chair, Pierre Marchand recognized the Filipinos’ exercise of direct democracy as a living example to the world that change could be effected without shedding blood. Ramos-Horta paid tribute to the Filipino people for doing a repeat of the "great revolutionary legacy" it gave the world through People Power I. He thanked the Filipino people for serving as the "inspiration" of the East Timorese people for their own peaceful democratic revolution. The Christian-dominated East Timor officially ceded from Indonesia in 1999 following a UN-sponsored referendum (Rivera, 2001).

In a real democracy the people have a voice in running the government. The peoples’ voice can be heard through their elected leaders and representatives in Congress or Parliament. But the peoples’ voice can also be heard directly from them through their organizations. The right of the people and their organizations to participate at all levels of social, political, and economic decision-making are basic to any democratic state. And it is expected that the State shall provide adequate means of consultation with peoples’ organizations.

Peoples’ organizations are bona fide associations of citizens who have demonstrated their capacity to promote the public interest and with identifiable leadership and membership. Examples of peoples’ organization are those formed by farmers, fisher folk, rural women, indigenous groups, market vendors, and so on. These organizations provide a collective voice of their particular group so that their concerns can be heard.

One of the most visible peoples organizations in People Power II in the Philippines were the farmers organizations and those coming from labour. Their highly visible presence in the mass demonstrations from November 2000 to January 2001 disputes the claim that People Power II was a collusion of the rich and political elites unhappy with their exclusion from the former Philippine President Estrada’s economic kingdom.

A more recent coinage to describe these groups of peoples either as NGOs, POs or civic associations is "civil society." In essence, civil society refers to the "activities of citizens who lack the authority of the state, and are motivated by objectives other than profit." Some of the characteristics of civil society include voluntarism, community organizing, grassroots activity, advocacy, representation, and service delivery. The composition of human bodies who took turns occupying the protest areas during People Power II in the Philippines was mostly civil society, despite the high profile and prominent media coverage of business groups and other economic elites.

The Hopes of People Power

As the world begins a new millennium, there are increasing demonstrations of a paradigm shift in how nations, groups, communities and individuals relate to each other. From the battlegrounds of large-scale wars and armed conflicts to more localized intergroup and interpersonal sites of violence like homes, schools, and communities, a greater understanding of the practice of nonviolent people power is clearly emerging. Much hope and inspiration have been generated by peoples movements that seek nonviolent alternatives to the complex challenges of living together in peace and harmony (Floresca-Cawagas, 1996).

Certainly the story of nonviolence is not a new one. Over the thousands of years of recorded human history, communities and leaders of different faiths have been urging individuals, rulers and governments to abandon violence in their ideas and actions. But often, such voices have usually been overshadowed by the forces of violence. As several peace researchers and advocates lamented,

The twentieth century can well lay claim to being the most violent century in recorded history. With two World Wars and hundreds of lesser but still deadly wars to its credit, the perfection of genocide … and finally the development and use of atomic weapons of mass destruction, no other century comes even close in sheer killing power. (Kavaloski, 2000, p. 1)

Hopefully, this century may well provide the critical spaces for the culture of nonviolence and peace to grow and replace the culture of violence and war that so characterized the last century. In essence, nonviolence as a philosophy seeks to cultivate structures, which do not use strategies of violent force. Many traditions and faiths worldwide, over thousands of years, have promoted this concept of nonviolence, from Christian teachings of pacifism to Hindu and Buddhist principles of Ahimsa or non-injury and non-killing. Among many indigenous peoples, a spirituality of nonviolence can also be found. In modern times, nonviolence has been considerably catalyzed by such inspirational role models as Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Challenges of People Power

Political leaders worldwide, as well as modern political theorists, are very wary about people power. They see the direct exercise of collective power by the people as a threat to the security of stable institutions operating under a "culture of law." But the short-term and long-term benefits of nonviolent forms of struggle, such as "people power," need to be recognized and proclaimed throughout the world, especially today when armed uprisings and military interventions have become very difficult to justify morally, especially in terms of human costs.

In his analysis of the challenges of people power, Randy David (2001), a Filipino political scientist, outlines the following characteristics of real people power:

Real people power is autonomous, self-willed and well informed. It draws its courage and determination from the power of its convictions. It is inventive and free, and not constrained by dogma, political correctness or any party line. It is moral protest elevated to an art. It is not awed by power. It stands up to power, but it disdains power.

People power is unarmed, non-violent and highly disciplined. It is militant but never sad. Indeed it is festive and celebratory. It is angry at times, but never aggressive. It does not only claim the moral high ground, but it also regards itself as the force of the new, the vanguard of a hopeful future. The power that installs colonels or generals in successful military coups is not people power. That is the power of tanks and armed troops.

People power is never sycophantic. While it fights tyrants and corrupt leaders, it studiously avoids being used for narrow personal ends. And herein lies its paradoxical strength: people power is a political weapon with political ends, yet it resolutely rejects political ambition.

People power stays aboveground, but it creates its own arena of political engagement and its own modes of expression. It firmly opposes power, but it does so without attempting to match, weapon for weapon, the armed might of the state. Its nakedness is the source of its power. The world out there is its sole protection. So long as the media bear witness to its struggle, no further shield is necessary. The battle is waged not as a contest of arms but as a fight for legitimacy. Such terrain is unfamiliar to autocrats, generals and obsolete politicians. People power has seldom failed in a world covered by global media.

Advocates of nonviolence are guided by several key principles (Sharp, 1984). A central one affirms nonviolence as a moral, ethical or spiritual truth. Furthermore, nonviolent efforts at reconciliation are deemed more effective and more sustainable for resolving conflicts than the use of physical force. Another key principle in nonviolence links ends with means. It is vital to promote peace and nonviolence by the consistent means of nonviolence. Using violence only lays the basis for more violence, fueling a continuing cycle of violence and counter-violence (Toh & Floresca-Cawagas, 1999).

Nonviolence proponents also see the need for the "powerless" to recognize that the "power" of those in dominant positions is derived from their own "obedience" or "consent" to be so "dominated." Hence, if the "ruled" refuse to "obey," the basis of the powerful’s rule will be weakened and can be challenged from below. The real source of power is the people. In analyzing the Philippine People Power II, Fr. Alfonso clarifies:

… The government’s hold on power is only incidental. A public office is a public trust--a privilege loaned to a few as long as they enjoy the trust and confidence of the people. It is never anyone’s property. No individual, no family, no dynasty has an absolute claim on it; for it belongs to the sovereign people. (PDI, page 13).

The processes and strategies for non-violence through "people power" are clearly complex and multi-dimensional. To begin with, a holistic paradigm of nonviolence is meaningfully built on the insights, analysis, practices and role models that can be drawn from nonviolent people power and diverse movements. The practice of nonviolence necessarily and urgently calls for simultaneous and complementary action at multiple levels and contexts of life, from the personal to the social, from formal to non-formal schooling, from media and the information superhighway to international nongovernment coalitions (Toh & Floresca-Cawagas, 1999).

People power is not easy to mobilize. Opportunistic politicians and pseudo activists may try to imitate it, believing that "people power is nothing more than just bringing large numbers of people to a designated place, and furnishing them with slogans to shout and banners under which to march" (David, 2001). This belief stems from an erroneous premise that people are "mobilizable masses" waiting around the corner to be called upon for mass action.

The nonviolent exercise of people power reflects the enormous energies, sweat, courage, risks, tears, pains and even sacrifices of countless human beings committed to a culture of peace. However, as already proven in the case of Philippine People Power I and II, a simple change of government with new leaders and civil servants will not suffice. Continuing advocacy and vigilance is essential to ensure that the transformation happens within government institutions, structures, and systems. Only then will the visions and principles of peace, justice, and human rights underpinning people power movements be effectively implemented.

As we begin a new century, our challenge is to join this journey into a culture of nonviolence, peace and justice, which many peoples constantly demonstrate in their display of nonviolent people power.

References

  • Albert Einstein Institution web site, http://www.aeinstein.org
  • Alfonso, N., S. J. (2001). Lessons on power. Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 31, 2001, p. 13.
  • Casino, T. A. (2001). Different folks, different strokes. Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 5, 2001, p. 1
  • David, R. (2001). What makes people power possible? Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 25, 2001, p. 13.
  • Floresca-Cawagas, V. (1996). Empowerment of the people: Insights from the Philippines. The Alberta Journal of Education, XLII (2), 161-169.
  • Francisco, J.M. S.J. (1995). Christian Social Involvement. Intersect. 9(1), 4-7.
  • Free Burma Coalition web site, http://www.freeburmacoalition.org
  • Kavaloski, V. (2000). Movement toward peace in the twentieth century: Internationalists and transnationalists. Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict. 1999-2000, e-version, p. 1-18.
  • Rivera, B. S. (2001) RP receives award for bloodless revolt. Inquirer News Service, February 25, 2001, p. 1.
  • Sharp, Rachel (1984). Varieties of Peace Education. In R. Sharp (Ed.) Apocalypse No. Leichardt: Pluto
  • Shiva, V. (1989). Staying Alive. London: Zed
  • Shiva, V. (1986). Ecology Movements in India. Alternatives 11(2).
  • Toh S. H. & Floresca-Cawagas (1999). Institutionalization of nonviolence. In L. Kurtz (Ed.) Encyclopedia of violence, peace, and conflict. New York: Academic Press

Dr. Virginia Floresca-Cawagas is president of LINGAP (Learning for Interdependence and Global Awareness of the Philippines) Institute, an NGO based in Edmonton. She is also editor of the International Journal of Curriculum and Instruction and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta.



Date last changed: 2007 September 25

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