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The Boston Globe

Aquino’s Ripple Effect

Today the formal mourning ends for Corazon Aquino, the former president of the Philippines who died at the beginning of this month, but her significance as a figure of hope will live on. Robert Kennedy once spoke of each act of courage as a ripple sent forth to cross with other ripples, ultimately "to build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." That defines the exact legacy of this woman whom The New York Times described as "a soft-spoken homemaker who became a global icon of democracy."

When hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets at Aquino's funeral last week, it was impossible not to think of the millions who rallied to her during the "People Power Revolution'' of 1986. The tyrant Ferdinand Marcos had ruled the Philippines under martial law since 1972, and when he tried to steal the election Aquino had clearly won, the people poured into Manila's largest square, sporting yellow. Aquino's husband had been murdered by Marcos supporters, but she bravely faced down the dictator - even rejecting a US attempt to prop up Marcos with a "power-sharing'' deal. The massive resistance went on for three days, with Aquino insisting on its nonviolence. When Marcos sent tanks into the square, unarmed civilians stood before them without moving. Soldiers refused to fire on the protesters. Finally, Marcos fled. The Philippines was transformed - including the end of its century-old role as an American military outpost.

But the ripples had only begun to move. Those three days of "people power'' in February of 1986 were a key part of the transforming current that swept the world's imagination. Against the iron assumptions of a realpolitik consensus, resolute nonviolence had trumped armed uprising as a source of social change. A moral revolution had begun.

In South Africa, where Kennedy had spoken 20 years before of the ripples of hope, Nelson Mandela had just refused the Apartheid government's offer to release him from prison on the condition that his movement cease resistance. Mandela had been a leader of armed struggle, but his refusal to be released turned his imprisonment itself into a source of people power, and ushered in the nonviolent denouement of the campaign to transform South Africa. By the time of Mandela's unconditional release in 1990, the once-unthinkable reconciliation was underway.

Only a few months before Aquino's triumph, the governments of Ireland and England had come to the Anglo-Irish Agreement - Dublin affirming rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland, London affirming Dublin's role. The stage was set for the Irish people themselves to transform the ancient conflict, and, drawing energy from the worldwide current of peace, they did. Soon the nonviolent leader John Hume and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams began the dialogue that eventually included Protestants David Trimble and Ian Paisley, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement.

Not long after Aquino's election, the so-called Esquipulas Peace Process was launched in Central America by Costa Rica's Oscar Arias, with the region's five presidents agreeing a year later to peaceful resolution of conflicts and new structures of economic cooperation. Arias's role as mediator in the current Honduran crisis shows that he still defines democratic hope.

In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev had been elected head of the Communist Party in 1985. What he felt flowing toward Moscow from the streets of the Philippines was the current of the grassroots democracy movement that would soon break the surface in the Soviet realm itself. First, the satellite nations ("Solidarity'' in Poland, the "Peaceful Revolution'' in East Germany, the "Candle Holders'' in Czechoslovakia), and then the Soviet republics themselves, even including Russia (the Russian White House coup attempt in 1991), would be disarmed by throngs of nonviolent protesters in streets and squares.

Each of these developments occurred independently of events in the Philippines, and not all ripples of hope swept down injustice: when a million people went to Tiananmen Square in 1989, the soldiers obeyed orders to fire. But the decade following the People Power Revolution in the Philippines showed that nonviolent social change could no longer be dismissed as wishful thinking. A modest woman who overcame her fear to speak truth and uphold justice started something that is not finished.

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James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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