[ANALYSIS] 'They tried to bury us. They didn't know we were seeds'
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds!”
Among all the responses to the wipeout of the opposition in the midterm elections, none sums up my feelings as I write this piece as the brief parable of the seeds. I do not even know who coined the phrase, but it simply caught my eye as I browsed through messages sent by friends and some by strangers. It reminds me of the Gospel injunction: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will bear no fruit.” (I am sure that Samira Gutoc will be able to tell us its equivalent in the teachings of her faith.)
“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds!” resonates because it reminds me that soon after they killed Ninoy Aquino in 1983, outrage was converted into a line: “Hindi ka nag-iisa!” When the rage became courage, it was transformed into a rallying cry: “Tama Na! Sobra Na! Palitan Na!” The rest, so they say, is history.
I write these thoughts, because I wish to share with you the answer to the same question posed to some of us again and again: How do we move on from here? How can we continue to resist, in a resilient and relentless manner? Allow me to go back to the basics, and share the results of a serious comparative study.
A landmark study reviewed the literature on 323 civil resistance and social movements around the globe from 1900 to 2006. Conducted by a Harvard University researcher, the political scientist Erica Chenoweth, assisted by the researcher Maria Stephan of the International Centre of Nonviolent Conflict, it's entitled, “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of NonViolent Conflict.”
The 3.5% rule
The Harvard study established the so-called “3.5% Rule” which concluded, based on its data-driven research, that when 3.5% of the people engage in serious protests in a country, then change becomes possible.
Is the “3.5% Rule” relevant to today’s Philippines? Can we really bring about profound social change by peacefully coming together, or bring about a peace that is just and durable by peaceful ways? And, can our social media-savvy youth help catalyze the efforts?
I have worked in non-violent social movements all my life from Lakasdiwa in the '70s, to KAAKBAY in the '80s which formed part in the struggle to oust the dictator Marcos, and later the diverse efforts to protect human rights and build just peace in our country and abroad in the organizations I worked with: Amnesty International and International Alert.
Allow me then to underscore the lessons that I think can be relevant to us from the Harvard study:
- Non-violent protests are twice more likely to succeed than violent attempts at bringing about regime change;
- Once a threshold of 3.5% of the population actively participate in protests, serious political change then becomes possible, “although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors” both intrinsic and extrinsic.
Although the 3.5% rule is highly probable, there is no guarantee of success. The study notes that peaceful protests also failed in 47% of times, most notably in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, East Germany in the ‘50s and Bahrain as recently as 2011 due predominantly to intrinsic factors.
Moreover, and this is my personal anguish: most of the political upheavals that fall under people’s power movements tend to end up with the power of the citizens usurped by traditional politicians, that is, unless people exercised “eternal vigilance.”
Unless the people muster a laser-like focus on the ways of governance, then the return of the old despots or the emergence of new so-called “leaders” with the habits of the old politics are hastened.
In other words, there is no such thing as a “free ride” when it comes to the journey of building a nation.
Reviewing peaceful protests
In 2014, I served as a teaching and research fellow on people’s participation in peace processes at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. In a series of lectures at the University and on radio, I presented in interactive graphic detail the phenomenon of peaceful people’s protests in diverse regions of the world.
Among the countries we then discussed besides the Philippines and which the Harvard study also focused on were the following:
- The 1989 Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution in Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. It brought down communist rule which led to the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel becoming president.
- The Singing Revolution in Estonia from 1986 to 1991. This unique upheaval by song led the independence of Estonia from the Soviet Union in 1991 and the liberation of the other Baltic States (Latvia and Lithuania) from repressive rule as the people massed in mile-long “chains of freedom." (WATCH: Estonia's Singing Revolution)
- The 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia. The uprising ousted Eduard Shevardnadze as people stormed parliament with flowers, roses among them.
- Poland’s Solidarnosc Movement from 1988 to 1989 and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991. The workers’ Solidarity movement challenged communist rule which later cascaded into the fall of the Berlin Wall.
- Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 and Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution. Both upheavals led to the ouster of repressive rule in both countries by means of relentless protests in the streets of Kiev and Bishkek.
- Greece’s Syntagma Square protests against austerity measures from 2010 to 2012.
- The short-lived Taksim Square people’s protests in Istanbul from 2013 to 2014.
- The Arab Spring, consisting of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution of 2011 and Egypt’s Tahrir Square upheavals in 2011 and 2013.
- The apartheid-era boycotts in South Africa. This global effort led to the isolation of South Africa. Due to public pressure from within and abroad, the South Africans freed Nelson Mandela who was jailed for nearly 3 decades. He then emerged as the leader of the “rainbow nation” upon his election as president in 1994.
- Nepal’s mass protests in 1995 and 2005. These two upheavals saw the end of the monarchy and the start of the peace process which brought in all the political parties, including the Maoist party, to draft a new constitution.
- Korea’s protests in 1987. The continued sit-down strikes and other forms of protests in Seoul and other cities ended strongman rule in the country.
More recently in 2019, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria were forced to abdicate after decades in office due to sustained people’s resistance.
There is in fact a case in point that is more relevant to our young of the successor generation. The “Extinction Rebellion,” initially led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, has reverberated in Europe and other parts of the globe. They have been directly inspired, according to their youthful leaders, by the findings of the Harvard research.
What then accounts for the success of sustained peaceful people’s protests, and perhaps we can likewise ask what undermines their short-lived “success”?
Based on my own experience, study and discussions, and based on a few insights from the Harvard study, there are at least 10 critical factors which we may consider – some of which can be “game-changing”:
Strength in numbers. The Harvard comparative study based on hard evidence concluded that “once around 3.5% of people had begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable.” In other words, the capacity to mobilize numbers has been a critical element in bringing about change.
Sense of common purpose. The movement for change must be unified by a common sense of purpose, inspired by a higher cause. My own experience in the streets tell me that people must retain their capacity to sacrifice, to be willing to accept the price for one’s actions, rather than inflict injury on the other. In the end, by occupying the high moral ground, the movement defends against the onslaughts of an embattled regime and the purveyors of “fake news” and the proliferation of trolls.
No overnight change. If the aim is not just the changing of the guards, then be ready to be involved in a protracted process since overnight change is normally a mirage. Moreover, anchored on our own history, culture, and values, we have to learn, as Pepe Diokno long ago reminded us, that we have “to sing our own songs” and march to the beat of our drums.
Resilience in the face of repression. There is a Rappler phrase that embodies the brave attitude against repression that comes in different guises: “Hold the Line!” The movement must learn to hold the line, so to speak, and yet have the capacity to adapt in order to survive. It must also be willing to learn from people on the ground and must have the humility to incorporate ideas from sources other than its own.
Courage of collective leadership. If hope will be sustained, then the leadership must be strong. However, there can be no dependence on a few – and no one can be indispensable. In sports parlance, coaches speak about the importance of having a solid “rotation.” In other words, there must be people willing to step up and be counted when called “to step on the plate,” so to speak, so that the team can finish stronger, whatever in the meantime happens.
Art of imperfect creation. I have always subscribed to the fact that politics is the art of imperfect creation. Thus, what we usually achieve is normally unfinished and the transition to a new order takes time, patience, and much humility. And there is another irony, respect for the rights of minorities is a means necessary to sustain majority rule; so beware – “super-majorities.”
Engagement with social media. In the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, we did not have cell phones, computers, or social media. I recognize their value and importance. Our youth particularly can do wonders by the strategic and wise use of modern technology and the calibrated deployment of social media in language and imagery that people can understand.
Creativity and the ability to laugh. The genius that was the Jesuit Horacio de la Costa recognized the 3 jewels of we, the pauper, namely, our faith, our music, and our laughter. And so, to be able to speak to our people we must employ our gifts in the arts, in music, and memes, our humor and wit.
“Chel-it, Mr President!” is a phrase that comes to mind. Insulted by the Curser-in-Chief, the candidate Chel Diokno preferred the use of wit to respond to the President’s pun on his name spiced with insult.
You can silence the pompous and the proud by making fun of the humbug, as the British love to say. In our society made singular by taking things with a shrug or a laugh, we must learn to speak in the language that best touches our people’s hearts as well as their minds. We have to ask ourselves the critical question: how can we best communicate to those who may initially prefer to be on the safe side or the sidelines?
Importance of vigilance. In our own experience shared by many in my generation, it was crystal clear how peaceful protest and prayer combined to confront a recalcitrant regime to retreat. However, as our painful experience has also shown, there is no guarantee against the resurgence of the “old regime” unless people sustain their vigilance. Because the majority of our people remained poor, dispossessed, and largely excluded from political processes, the dispensers of “patronage politics” have returned to center stage.
Promise and perils of People Power. At the end of the day, what we are up against is exclusion, both political and economic as well as identity. Our challenge is to transform power and politics, and deal with poverty and inequality in meaningful ways.
Finally, in bringing about inclusion, we may have to negotiate relationships at different levels: national, local, and social; the political and personal – and that may in fact require a lifetime, or two. – Rappler.com
Ed Garcia is a founder of one of the country’s early non-violent movements, Lakasdiwa, during the First Quarter Storm in the 1970s. Inspired by the philosophy of Gandhi’s non-violence and Martin Luther King’s campaign for civil rights, he was jailed for engaging in civil disobedience. He later studied in Latin America and worked with Amnesty International in the UK. Upon his return to the country, he joined Ka Pepe Diokno, JBL Reyes, Randy and Karina David in the formation of KAAKBAY. Participating in the efforts of citizens to mobilize against the dictatorship, he was later tasked to be a framer of the 1987 Constitution. He taught political science at the UP, Latin American studies at the Ateneo, and is consultant on the formation of scholar-athletes at FEU.