Absent from EDSA
By Melinda Quintos de Jesus
SOMETIME IN August 1985, I had to leave the country to be with my family in the US. It was a sabbatical away from work that my husband and I had planned to do. He was appointed as exchange professor at the University of Michigan (UM) in Ann Arbor on the Fulbright Program. I was invited to spend the same year as “journalist-in-residence” in the same university.
This commitment wrenched me away from my work in Veritas NewsWeekly, where I was working as associate editor and columnist. Veritas was among the alternative publications which advocates for change had established so people could know more than the news provided by the Marcos-controlled press.
I left with a heavy heart. Although I knew it was going to be a great adventure, I had this feeling that I would be missing something big. We were then monitoring the decline of Marcos’ health—the crude attempts of the crony newspapers to project him still very much in charge, using photos of the obviously ailing man holding up the newspaper of the day.
I thought perhaps it would be the big story of his demise that I would miss reporting. At that point, we had someone in the staff researching what would go into a Marcos obituary.
The Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at UM made known there was a scholar and a journalist from the Philippines. Soon we were both busy giving talksand speaking at conferences around the state of Michigan and the East Coast. Students and scholars, civic groups and Fil-American communities were seeking information about the state of the country, wanting to understand the options between Marcos and the Communists. They wanted to know more about Corazon Aquino.
Even before I left Manila, international interest in developments in the country had spiked. There were more scholars and journalists gathering news from the parliament in the streets and other protest fronts. Foreign correspondents were staying longer, setting up more permanent offices to make sure their newspapers, among them, the LA Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times would be on top of Philippine news.
Philippine government still hosted American bases, which made the country’s affairs significant in geo-political terms. A talk show, Sunday with David Brinkley, one of the most recognized news anchors who had retired to host this weekly program, featured an interview with Ferdinand Marcos, who prodded by the questioning, announced that he would hold snap elections to prove that he still had the country’s vote.
Settling into my program, I found a circle of wonderful people, the company of 14 journalist fellows, most of whom were American journalists from around the US, covering a range of beats and US politics. There were three other Asians, senior reporters from Japan, Malaysia and South Korea, all covering international affairs.
But perhaps, because I was in their midst, everyone got hooked on Philippine news. My colleagues in Veritas kept us current on everything that was happening. We were also in touch with the academics studying in the Philippines. We knew early enough that the American historian, Alfred McCoy had found the evidence from documents that the war medals Marcos boasted about were fake, that the guerrilla unit that he claimed to lead, the Maharkila, which had filed claims for compensation was non-existent.
When McCoy revealed his story to the New York Times and the Sydney Herald in Australia, we were on the phone to alert Veritas to publish the same story, as McCoy had already arranged for Veritas to do simultaneously with international publications.
It was also the year CNN launched its 24-hour news service, which brought us close to the action back home. CNN showed leaders of the opposition along with the officials of the Marcos government. They interviewed ordinary Filipinos who were helping the vote watch during the snap elections. Most of the time, they reported on Cory Aquino and her national campaign to lead the country. It had taken sometime for this happen but when it happened, the opposition to Marcos consolidated its strategy to win the people’s vote.
It was the middle of the night in Ann Arbor when the news broke about the gathering of people on the streets to defend the breakaway group of soldiers and then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in Camp Crame. I sat in our living room watching the flickering images on the screen with a faltering heart. What if the soldiers shoot at the crowds? What if the tanks carry out the threat? What, I wondered, if I could never go back home?
The rejoicing after EDSA lasted for sometime. We were invited to sit in forums and conferences around the US to examine and discuss the meaning of People Power. What now, Philippines?
But louder than these questions were the cheers of ordinary people, who recognizing us as Filipinos, expressed their admiration for what we were able to do, throw out a dictator without bloodshed. A cab driver from India, driving us into Chicago, said, “I watched it all! That was great what you people did!”
The coverage everywhere echoed how we had captured the world with the images of courage, nuns holding rosaries, women approaching the moving tanks with flowers, Filipinos from all walks of life taking the stand on the streets with hands holding the “L” sign, thumb and forefinger set apart, “Fight!”
Before the year was over, our group began watching the protest in the streets of Seoul, where people had adopted the same gesture of protest, “Laban!”
Recalling my absence, I comfort myself for knowing how the world looked at us then, how Filipinos held so many other freedom fighters in thrall with our success.