Monday, February 1, 2010




The Philippines was not spared from the political ferment generated by student protest movements that shook the world from the mid to the late 60s. Taking the cue from their counterparts in the United States, Europe and Asia, Filipino students took to the streets in increasing numbers starting in the mid-60s to demand academic freedom and an end to the Vietnam War. The protest actions, sparked by a nationalist reawakening in the 1950s, peaked in 1970, when students along with other sectors launched a series of demonstrations, now collectively known as the “First Quarter Storm”, whose political repercussions are felt even today, four decades later.

The Gathering Storm

I was a freshman student of Political Science at the University of the Philippines as the decade of the 70s started. The university campus was already in ferment then, with teach-ins and discussion groups, and many students joining protest rallies and demonstrations. I was not a member of any of the radical student groups in 1970, but I found myself, like many others in my gen¬eration, drifting more and more to¬wards radicalism, and inexorably drawn right into the eye of a gathering storm.

The portent of things to come was January 26, 1970. Out of curiosity, I joined a march that started from the Welcome Rotunda in Quezon City to the old Congress building in Intramuros, Manila—a distance of about five kilometers—where then President Ferdinand Marcos was to deliver his State-of-the-Nation address. We gathered in front of the parliament building along with thousands of moderate and radical activists listening to speakers denounce the existing state of affairs in the country. Then, as Marcos was leaving the Congress premises on board a shiny black limousine, I saw a wooden coffin symbolizing the death of democracy being thrown his way. That’s when all hell broke loose, the riot squad swinging their rattan truncheons at hapless demon¬strators and bystanders alike. We scampered in all directions, running as fast as our feet could carry us. But a number of rallyists were not so lucky: a group of students aboard on board a UP Ikot jeepney were beat¬en black-and-blue. The next day, I learned that my brother Antonio, also called “Tonyhil” by friends and comrades, was confined at the University of the Philippines Infirmary, where he had been brought the night before for injuries suffered during the po¬lice mopping-up operations. Like the others who were caught inside the jeepney, he was severely beaten by truncheon-wielding policemen. When we visited him at the infirmary, his head was covered in bandage, and he complained of aches and pains all over his body. But he seemed to be in high spirits despite his injuries, and true enough, he was up and about after a few days and looking forward to the next demonstration.

Which came four days later, on January 30. We retraced our earlier route, starting off again from Quezon City and making our way to the Congress building, where speakers lambasted the Marcos regime for subservience to the United States and doing nothing to help the poor.

Shortly before sundown, I decided to go home and call it a day. But the estimated 30,000 or so demonstrators headed towards Malacañang Palace—a few kilometers away—punctuating the creeping nightfall with rhythmic chants of "Makibaka, Huwag matakot! (Fight, be not afraid!) Upon reaching the palace grounds about an hour later, a stone flew above the heads of the crowd and found its mark on a light bulb, sending shards of glass crashing down the pavement. Not long after, the police came and chased the demonstrators away, sending them fleeing towards the warren of streets in nearby University Belt. Thus began a seesaw battle between the police and soldiers on the one hand and radical youth and students on the other that raged throughout the night.

The revolution had begun, but the Philippine version of the storming of the Bastille was no dinner party. It exacted a heavy toll on life and limb. By crack of dawn, the insurrection had been crushed, the city pervaded with the unmistakable miasma of agony and death. Four youths lay dead, while scores of others writhed in pain in various hospitals as a result of injuries sustained in pitched battles that erupted throughout the night in the labyrinth of streets and alleys near the presidential palace.

For the radical activists who laid siege on Malacañang Palace on the night of January 30, 1970 and kept the whole nation teetering on the edge of turmoil throughout the first three months of the decade of the 70s, there was no turning back. As Philippine society stood on its head, they reasoned, it needed to be turned upside down. Armed with nothing more than angry slogans and sticks and stones, those who manned the barricades during the First Quarter Storm would undergo a baptism of fire that would change their lives forever.

The demonstrations on January 26 and 30 were but the opening salvoes of bigger protest actions or¬ganized by radical groups. For the next two months, the nation seethed with unrest as militant youth and students, joined by intellectuals, professionals and contingents of workers' and peasants' organizations, took to the streets in increasing numbers to clamor for radical changes in society. In February, thousands of people converged at Plaza Miranda in downtown Manila in three huge public meetings to ventilate their opposition to the Marcos gov¬ernment and what they perceived to be American imperial outreach. In March, leftist groups organized two big marches that snaked their way through the streets of Sampaloc, Quiapo, Sta. Cruz and Binondo districts in Manila and culminated in violent confrontation between rallyists and police in front of the US Embassy premises.

These protest actions rocked Philippine society to its foundations, sending chills of apprehension down the spines of those in positions of wealth and power, who saw in the rallies not the manifestations of a chronic social crisis, but the ominous signs of an impending communist takeover.

The First Quarter Storm of 1970: Its Significance

In retrospect, the First Quarter Storm was bound to happen. Nearly a quarter of a century after the grant of formal independence in 1946, the Philippines remained a backward agricultural nation with per capita income among the lowest in the world. Feudal structures in the coun¬tryside kept the majority of Filipinos in extreme poverty. The inequitable distribution of wealth and the gap between the rich and the poor in Philippine society was often de¬scribed by radical activists in terms of a pyramid where a mere five per¬cent representing the ruling elite controlled the nation's wealth and kept the broad base consisting of 90 percent of the total population—workers and farmers and other low-income folk—in a state of perpetual dependency.

As Filipinos reeled under the weight of poverty, graft and corrup¬tion became endemic in the government bureaucracy. The political system itself afforded little hope for change since neither the two political parties then offered the people a real choice in terms of alternative programs. Political warlordism was on the rise. Despite five changes in government administration in the post-independence era, the nation remained mired in the politics of patronage and personalities. When the Sixties ended, there¬fore, the nation was in the grip of economic crisis, and popular clamor for change was beginning to reach fever-pitch.

The First Quarter Storm of 1970 was the logical outcome of two decades of nationalist re-awakening in the post-World War II era. This nationalist re-awakening gave impetus to the growth of a popular movement aimed at ex¬posing American dominance of Philippine economic and political life. Claro M. Recto and other nationalists questioned parity rights given to the Americans in exchange for post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction. Recto also criticized the presence of huge American military bases in the country as an affront to Philippine sovereignty. For his part, Renato Constantino, a prominent historian, focused his writings on how the Americans had imposed their own values on the Philippine educational system, leading to what he said was the “miseducation” of the Filipino. Constantino also ventured a radical reinterpretation of Philippine history that put a high premium on the struggles waged by popular move¬ments against colonialism.

The nationalist awakening of the 1950s led to the establishment in the early 1960s of the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism (MAN). This was followed by the creation in 1964 of the militant Kabataang Makabayan (KM), which stood in the forefront of mass protests against the Vietnam War and American military presence in the Philippines starting in the mid-60s. Other youth-student groups, notably the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK), came to the fore and joined the KM in exposing the ills of Philippine society through protest rallies and demonstrations as well as teach-ins and discussion groups in university campuses and urban communities.

All this, situated within the context of the worldwide upsurge in the student movement, the rise of Black con¬sciousness and the emergence of a strong antiwar movement in the United States, made the First Quarter Storm inevitable. By 1970, as the radical groups saw it, the Philippines was ripe for a revolu¬tion. If the First Quarter Storm held any significance, it was to bring to the light of day the problems of poverty and inequity bequeathed by history. At the same time, it served to popularize the need for a radical solution to the Philippine crisis.

Student activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s thrived on various issues. Among them was academic freedom. But the student movement soon began to look outside the walls of academe and increasingly took positions against oil price hikes, foreign monopoly control of the oil industry, the presence of US military bases on Philippine soil, the US military involvement in Vietnam, graft and corruption, foreign domination of the economy, and state fascism as exemplified by police brutality and suppression of popular protest actions.

More than anything else, the First Quarter Storm was an assertion of Filipino identity. The radicals who shouted "Down with American imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism!" were serving notice to the generation before them that they were breaking free from the past and charting a new future for themselves and succeeding generations.

After the tumultuous months that made up the First Quarter Storm, the history of this nation was dramatically altered. The Marcos regime, its capability to effectively govern thrown under a shadow of doubt, began to increasingly isolate itself from the very people it swore to serve, the most telling manifestation of which was that the streets leading to Malacañang Palace were perma¬nently barred from being used as venues for protest until 1986. Refusing to heed the handwriting on the wall, the Marcos government chose to bend the rules to suit its own purposes, suspending the writ of habeas corpus on August 21, 1971 and a year later, on September 21, 1972, usurping all power by imposing martial law.

For many of those who took part in these rallies and demonstrations, the First Quarter Storm was a valu¬able training ground for the revolutionary enterprise, a period in their lives like no other. For it was the time that they first opened their eyes to what was happening in their midst, and made them realize that change in the Philippine society lay not in the peaceful pursuit of piecemeal reforms, but in the radical overhaul of power relations, that is, giv¬ing the poor and powerless majority the means to take their future in their own hands. And it was the time when the activist culture took root, a counter-culture that developed in opposition to the escapism of the hippie movement. It emphasized Mao's dictum of serving the people. This meant simple living and hard struggle, and working for change in society despite tremendous odds.

The First Quarter Storm of 1970 was a dress rehearsal and a sneak preview of the People Power Revolution of 1986 that the world applauded because it represented a clear victory over tyranny.
Observers of the Philippine political scene have pointed to the assassination of opposition stalwart Benigno Aquino in August 1983 as the nodal point that marked the beginning of the end of the Marcos regime. I am not inclined to dispute this assertion. But I believe the link between the First Quarter Storm and the People Power Revolution of 1986 has not been given the importance it deserves. The historical continuity between the two events must be established because they represent important landmarks in the Filipino people's long struggle for democracy.

For all intents and purposes, the mainstream Left was instrumental in laying the ground, preparing public opinion for the People Power Revolution of 1986 that ousted Marcos. And yet, in a twist of fate, when the Marcos dictatorship was finally overthrown, the Left was nowhere to be found. In a way, the Left is now in search of another revolutionary surge that will relive its days of glory and attest to the correctness of the radical option.

The First Quarter Storm of 1970: Its Impact on the Present

The First Quarter Storm of 1970, as has been pointed out, served as dress rehearsal for the 1986 People Power Revolution. But its impact extends even to the present. While many student radicals eventually joined the New People’s Army to take part in armed struggle against the Philippine government—the country now hosts the longest-running Maoist insurgency in Asia—many others have continued their activism through others means.

The Philippines claims the distinction of having the liveliest civil society movement in the world with the proliferation since the 1980s of various NGOs engaged in various issues: development, human rights advocacy, and environmental concerns. Many former activists are now working in NGOs and people’s organizations (POs) where they take part in social development, human rights advocacy, and environmental protection. For them, this is merely a continuation of the radical politics they espoused in their youth.

A few former FQS activists have joined government where they feel they can make a difference in the lives of Filipinos. Several veteran activists have entered mainstream politics, either as party-list representatives or as local government officials. The militant party-list groups offer a refreshing departure from the traditional politics characterized by the dominance of political dynasties that manage to hang on to power through the use of guns, goons and gold in elections often marred by cheating and violence.

The influence of the radical left in Philippine politics is also evident in the cooptation by the establishment of their language. When traditional politicians in the Philippines today speak of ‘empowerment’, what they simply mean is that they want to provide livelihood to their constituents or put up irrigation ditches in rural farms. But for radicals, empowerment is a complex process of organizing and mobilizing people for definite political ends, not for political expediency.

Towards the Future

Mendiola Bridge sits at the approach to Malacañang Palace, the seat of government where the Philippine president resides and holds office. The bridge is an unprepossessing structure, no more than several hundred yards in length. But what was it about this bridge that irresistibly drew the citizens of the nation, like moths to a flame, to repeatedly cross its short span, fearing neither hail of bullets nor history's harsh judg¬ment?

Forty years ago, Mendiola Bridge stood guard at the gates of political power, a mute witness to the lamen¬tations that were sent to the heavens by those crying for deliverance from their wretched lot. Today, many years later, it occupies a central place in the consciousness of many Filipinos, serving as a grim reminder of their long struggle against political repression, and as a fitting symbol of their continuing search for a better future.

•(The author writes a weekly column for the Business Mirror OP-ED page. This article was originally published in German in the September 2008 issue of the quarterly journal Südostasien)