As the Philippines marked earlier this week the 34th anniversary of the historic 1986 People Power uprising that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, the current president, quite unsurprisingly, skipped the official commemorations.
Known worldwide as a strongman in the same league as Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Rodrigo Roa Duterte was in no mood to celebrate the downfall of his idol Marcos and his current friends, the Marcos family.
Let’s try to explain why it has to this.
When Filipinos made the final push to oust Marcos in February, 1986, Duterte had been working for nearly a decade at the Davao prosecutors’ office.
Mindanao was by then a hotbed of revolution and of resistance to the fascist regime. The Bangsamoro were up in arms to assert self-rule, while the Communist-led New People’s Army was challenging Marcos’ troops who were often acting as security guards to landlords and multinational companies seeking profits at the expense of the Bangsamoro, farmers, and Lumad.
In urban areas, people in Cagayan de Oro and Davao staged demonstrations.
In the case of Duterte, we could say mothers knew better — or best: Soledad Duterte had been a key leader in the Davao’s protest and, in fact, personally led many street protests.
In fact, if there’s anyone who owes the 1986 People Power uprising his political career, it is none other than Rodrigo Roa Duterte. After firing all local officials, Corazon Aquino appointed officers-in-charge, including Duterte who Aquino named as OIC vice mayor of Davao City.
Still healthy at the time, with a full head of hair complete with bangs, and donning John Lennon-style glasses, Rodrigo Roa Duterte in March, 1986, took his oath as OIC vice mayor, right outside the city hall. His mother Soledad looked on, alongside members of the Duterte family.
That post-EDSA appointment was arguably the start of Duterte’s long road to the palace: From OIC vice mayor in 1986 to president in 2016.
Duterte aligned himself with Aquino and most incumbent presidents during his long career as a local official.
In the 2010 elections, Mayor Duterte endorsed and campaigned for Benigno Aquino III, the son of the post-EDSA president who started his political career.
President Duterte, however, has been very different from Mayor Duterte.
Duterte’s bestowal of highest honors for the burial of Ferdinand Marcos became the first major flashpoint of his presidency. The act drew nationwide condemnation and rallies in the capital.
Prior to the 2019 midterm elections, Duterte’s daughter, his official First Lady and now Mayor Sara Duterte, stood as a sponsor in the wedding of the son of Imee Marcos. Observers said it cemented the Duterte-Marcos relationship.
Sara would openly campaign for Imee Marcos, and she would win in the 2019 elections as part of Duterte’s senatorial slate.
Duterte also backed President Marcos’ son and namesake in his election protest seeking to unseat Vice President Leni Robredo. Duterte has twice appointed and sacked the vice president from his administration.
While in the presidential campaign he rode on deep-seated public disenchantment on the failures of post-EDSA presidencies, President Duterte has for all intents opportunistically moved to coalesce with the Marcoses who have regained political clout in the their vote-rich home region.
Not only has Duterte embraced the Marcoses; but he has also followed in his footsteps: Jailing the opposition, cracking down on the press, using the Red bogey, and establishing a de facto police state.
Oppositionist Senator Leila de Lima has been in prison for three years now, and former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV faces a new sedition charge, on top of the regime’s successful invalidation of an amnesty he had been granted.
Duterte has cracked down on media and press freedom, with the regime targeting online news network Rappler and its executive editor Maria Ressa. Alternative media outlets have been subjected to either distributed denial-of-service attacks or to outright arrest of its staff.
Today, the country’s biggest broadcaster faces possible closure as Duterte backers move to deny it a new franchise. ABS-CBN was one of the broadcast networks Marcos shut down in 1972, and turned over to his cronies. And if Marcos had a crony press, Duterte is said to have a “fake news and disinformation network,” parts of which had been taken down by Facebook for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Duterte turned his back on campaign promises to free all political prisoners, to forge a political settlement with the Communist Party of the Philippines, and to become, in his own words, “the first left president” of the country. The military is scuttling the peace talks with the Reds. Meanwhile, he has been in a tight embrace with the Communist Party of China.
For two years, Duterte placed Mindanao under martial law and the entire country remains under a formal “state of of national emergency on account of lawless violence.” He has since used the drug war, anti-terrorism, and anti-communism to obtain the loyalty and support of local officials and oligarchs.
It is thus unsurprising that Duterte was not in a celebratory mood for the 1986 uprising’s 34th anniversary. He cannot be reminded that he owes it for starting his political career. He cannot be seen celebrating the downfall of the political family with which he has solidly aligned himself.
Duterte’s absence tells where his loyalties lie, the political history he and his allies have tried hard to rewrite, and the ambitions he apparently pursues. Remembering 1986 is incompatible with and fatal to those who don’t learn the uprising’s singular lesson: That Filipinos ousted a tyrant and they could do it again.