Swans Commentary » swans.com March 14, 2011  



Blinded By People Power
Stephen Zunes on the Ousting of Dictators


by Michael Barker





Author's Note (added March 15, 2011): My apologies for an indefensible error in the text of this article in which I assert that Stephen Zunes referenced William I. Robinson's book Promoting Polyarchy. This is not the case. Therefore, please ignore paragraphs two and three and, in their place, I would like to insert the following paragraph:

"Reviewing Zunes's chapter is an important task to undertake, because while other authors (like for example William I. Robinson and Kim Scipes) had previously shown in painstaking detail how the US 'democracy-promoting' community subtly worked to co-opt and manipulate the people's movement in the Philippines, Zunes decided to treat all this evidence as inconsequential. Such shortcomings should not go neglected, as Zunes's 'scholarship' can have fatal consequences for progressive activists seeking to emulate the type of social movements that ostensibly succeeded in the Philippines. For those who are unfamiliar with such critiques of the US government's interference in the Philippines, see my recent summary of William I. Robinson's work: 'A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People-Power in the Philippines.'"


(Swans - March 14, 2011)   Dr. Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies, and since 2006 he has served as the chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict's academic advisory board. As the author of three books, with his earliest being a co-edited collection (coauthored with Lester Kurtz and Sarah Beth Asher) titled Nonviolent Social Movements: A Geographical Perspective (Blackwell, 1999), Zunes is well known amongst progressive intellectuals. In addition, Zunes is an industrious activist trainer and prolific writer, and in May 2007, he popped over to Egypt to lead a seminar on nonviolent civic strategies at Saad Eddin Ibrahim's Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, while more recently he has taken the time to publish a series of nine articles about "Egypt's pro-democracy movement." (1) He is thus well versed in the history of popular insurrections, so given the relevance of the Filipino people's power movement to current events in Egypt, this article reviews Zunes's chapter in Nonviolent Social Movements that outlines how the people of the Philippines rose up to oust their residing Mubarak (i.e., dictator), Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986.

[ed. March 15, 2011: See Author's Note supra. This paragraph should be ignored.] To begin with it is critical to observe that in the introductory chapter to Nonviolent Social Movements, Zunes (and his coauthors) write that the "process of democratization is often coopted into programs of polyarchy" (i.e., neoliberal democracy) -- by which they are explicitly referring to the analysis presented in William I. Robinson's ground-breaking book Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Thus, given their reference to Robinson's work, I will review Zunes's chapter on nonviolent activism in the Philippines safe in the knowledge that he is aware of Robinson's close and critical study of the Filipino people-power movement. I say this because Zunes refers to Robinson's work in his introductory comments, though the rest of his book (all contributors considered) absolutely fails to make any reference to Robinson's work or the ideas promoted therein.

[ed. March 15, 2011: See Author's Note supra. This paragraph should also be ignored.] So while Robinson documents in painstaking detail how the US "democracy promoting" community subtly worked to co-opt and manipulate the people's movement in the Philippines, as will become clear, Zunes decided to treat all this evidence as inconsequential. Such shortcomings should not go neglected, as Zunes's "scholarship" can have fatal consequences for progressive activists seeking to emulate the type of social movements that ostensibly succeeded in the Philippines. For those who are unfamiliar with Robinson's critique of the US government's interference in the Philippines, see my recent summary of his work: "A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People-Power in the Philippines."

[ed. Note added March 15, 2011 (sorry for the inconvenience, but scrubbing is not allowed on Swans): The above two paragraphs should be replaced by the following paragraph:]
Reviewing Zunes's chapter is an important task to undertake, because while other authors (like, for example, William I. Robinson and Kim Scipes) had previously shown in painstaking details how the US "democracy-promoting" community subtly worked to co-opt and manipulate the people's movement in the Philippines, Zunes decided to treat all this evidence as inconsequential. Such shortcomings should not go neglected, as Zunes's "scholarship" can have fatal consequences for progressive activists seeking to emulate the type of social movements that ostensibly succeeded in the Philippines. For those who are unfamiliar with such critiques of the US government's interference in the Philippines, see my recent summary of William I. Robinson's work: "A Warning for Egyptian Revolutionaries: Courtesy of People-Power in the Philippines."
[ed. March 15, 2011: The article continues below.]

Zunes's chapter "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines" begins by celebrating the successful overthrow of Marcos as "one of the world's more remarkable nonviolent uprisings," which he correctly refers to as a "nonviolent revolt or a nonviolent coup" rather than a revolution. Shockingly, Zunes is evidently pleased that this powerful people-power movement did not attain many of its participants' revolutionary goals, because he chooses to belittle those naysayers "on the left" who displayed "widespread skepticism" over the prospects of successfully bringing about meaningful progressive social change in the Philippines by replacing Marcos with Cory Aquino (who just so happened to be an extremely pro-American member of the ruling class). (2) If one is talking about change above and beyond a transition to neoliberalism, then it turns out that such people "on the left" were actually correct. (3) But as Zunes's celebratory history of social change in the Philippines does not progress beyond the ouster of Marcos, this historically significant fact does not stand in the way of his mythical tale of a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Zunes, however, is spot on when he points out that "there has been relatively little analysis of the fact that the successful use of nonviolent action in the overthrow of the Marcos regime was not wholly spontaneous, but a culmination of years of preparation for such an uprising through the training of Filipinos, both in the years preceding the uprising as well as during the hours of the uprising itself, in the methods of nonviolent resistance." Likewise he is right to conclude that the assassination of Cory's husband Benigno Aquino, Jr. (in 1983) increased the "growing disillusionment among the Filipino elite over the Marcos dictatorship," which had the effect of bringing the middle classes into the poor people's movement resisting Marcos's oppressive regime. (4)

Unfortunately, Zunes's analysis remains so firmly wedded to demonstrating the unrelenting power of nonviolent activism that he ignores the history of violent resistance to Marcos. This is not to say that violence is in any way more effective than nonviolence, only that the threat of its use should be duly considered (and certainly not ignored) if one wants to progress beyond pacifist platitudes and understand the dynamics of social change. Zunes's only reference to violence came when he suggested that people adopted nonviolent tactics for pragmatic (as well as ethical) reasons, primarily because they had seen "the Marcos government's ability and willingness to use great amounts of force against a well-organized armed resistance movement during that same period, the Communist Party of the Philippines' New Peoples Army (NPA)." Furthermore, the adoption of nonviolence became a more attractive option when upper- and middle-class citizens joined the opposition movement, because the regime's military were "less likely to murder nonviolent protesters when there are large numbers of people and they have a middle class component..." (5)

Zunes observes that state-led massacres rarely occur when "the whole world is watching"; and "Fortunately for the Philippine opposition, the whole world was watching during the events in February [1986]," which was "a major factor in the success of the movement." (6) Indeed, in the run-up to the snap election of February 7, 1986, the nonstop international media coverage devoted to the growing peoples' movement certainly influenced the trajectory of their cause -- although not necessarily in positive directions.

But despite highlighting the importance of foreign media support for the Filipinos, what remains unmentioned in Zunes's account is the massive financial and political support that the more conservative/reactionary parts of the opposition movement obtained from the US foreign policy elites. This is no small omission for a writer purporting to give his readers the full story about People Power in the Philippines. All the same, there is no doubt that it was precisely this talent for "misreading" US foreign policy objectives (which is quite rare among critical intellectuals), combined with his dedication to the sidelining of the influence of radical groups, that led to his recruitment to defend the "democracy promoting" community via his appointment at the imperialist International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. Thus in the case of Zunes's article on the Philippines, a key "democracy promoting" agency he defends through omission, not commission, is the US government's National Endowment for Democracy (NED) -- a group that successfully channeled millions of dollars to Filipino organizations during the 1980s. According to Robinson, the NED -- which overtly carries the programs formerly undertaken by the CIA -- bestowed its beneficent largesse upon some of the following groups:

[T]he Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), which mobilized the business community against Marcos; the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP), a minority, conservative union federation affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and which competed with more radical and left-leaning labor organizations [like the KMU]; Philippine "youth clubs" established under the guidance of US organizers to mobilize Philippine youth; the KABATID Philippine women's organization (KABATID is the Tagalog acronym for Women's Movement for the Nurturing of Democracy), also established under the guidance of US organizers; and the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL). (7)

With his evident distaste for revolutionaries, particularly those of a radical persuasion, Zunes manages to somehow briefly mention the role played by unions in the people's movement (in a few scattered sentences), but that is it. No critical commentary, and certainly no emphasis on the manner by which external support in the millions of dollars was channeled -- through the AFL-CIO's Asian-American Free Labor Institute -- to reactionary unions, like the TUCP, in a deliberate effort to counter the radical challenge posed by the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU-May First Movement). In fact, if one was inclined to believe Zunes's crude caricature of the people-power movement, masquerading as history, one would barely realize that it was the unions, most especially KMU, that played a central role in organizing the uprising against Marcos. In his book on this subject, labor sociologist Kim Scipes fills in the cavernous gaps left by Zunes's deliberate hatchet job on the Filipino labor movement, and in particular emphasizes the key role played by KMU. By way of a summary Scipes notes how:

[D]riven by economic necessity and political determination, especially after [Benigno] Aquino's assassination, the workers' movement grew, becoming more militant and more powerful. The number of strikes increased from 155 in 1983 to 282 in 1984 and to 405 in 1985. The number of workers involved grew from 33,638 in 1983 to 65,306 in 1984 and 109,000 in 1985. The number of working days lost due to strike activity increased from 581,291 in 1983 to 1,907,762 in 1984 and 2,440,000 in 1985. And of the 405 strikes led in 1985, 70% of them were led by the KMU. (8)

After vastly underplaying the role of labor in the uprising, Zunes even goes so far as to suggest that the "forming of a parallel nongovernmental election commission (NAMFREL) proved to be a pivotal institutional alternative in the movement, which culminated with the formation of a parallel government and the swearing in of Cory Aquino as president while Marcos still held claim to power." (9) One might look within Zunes's "analysis" for a discussion of why, from the day the NED was created in 1984, it decided that supporting NAMFREL should be one of its key priorities. Instead we just get more cheer-leading from Zunes as he writes how:

The most powerful uses of nonviolent direct action in the campaign were in the activities of the National Movement for Free Elections in the Philippines (NAMFREL), which sent an estimated 500,000 volunteers, largely consisting of priests, seminarians, and nuns, to cover the most sensitive and vulnerable precincts in an effort to minimize violence and electoral fraud. (p.142)

It is of course important to gain a little critical insight into the reasons why the US government would support NAMFREL; and strangely, here we can turn to Zunes's own words:

The use of NAMFREL was not just aimed against Marcos, but also against the left, which was insisting that there was absolutely no hope of there being a free and fair election. NAMFREL was seen as the one hope to prevent a Marcos victory -- or at least make its unfairness obvious enough so as to negate such a victory -- and to thus prevent the leadership of the opposition to be seized by radical forces. (p.143)

To gain further critical insight one has to turn to other sources. And contrary to Zunes's rendering of NAMFREL as representing a stunning example of people power, NAMFREL is just the opposite. In Robinson's view, "the creation of an observer apparatus for the 1986 election, and for subsequent ones, gave US officials important experience in the use of electoral observation as part of overall policy." Moreover, the background of NAMFREL belies its commitment to people power, as Robinson notes it was established in 1951...

... by a former civic affair director of the Philippine army with the help of US government funds and officials. This "good government" organization played an important role in the political-electoral aspects of the massive counterinsurgency underway at that time against the Huks. In particular, NAMFREL became the vehicle for building a political machine that could deliver the 1953 electoral victory of the CIA-backed candidate, Ramon Magsaysay. (10)

Former CIA agent in the region, Joseph Smith, in his autobiography Portrait of a Cold Warrior: Second Thoughts of a Top CIA Agent (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976), describes in detail how NAMFREL was created by the CIA. Furthermore, he writes:

On the ground, NAMFREL and the MFM [Movement for Magsaysay -- another group created by the Manila CIA station] did an effective job of thwarting corruption. From the United States did come, though, a large number of reporters. They came from Asian countries, too. This operation was "orchestrated" (a favorite word of Frank Wisner whenever he referred to the propaganda operations of the Clandestine Services) by the Manila station and FE [Far East] Division. The purpose was to scare Quirino [the then-president of the Philippines whom the CIA was seeking to replace with Magsaysay] out of trying any last minute tricks under the eyes of so many trained observers.... The New York Times ... in an editorial about the election on September 17, not only took the station's line but, without identifying it, praised nearly the entire CIA election effort. (11)

Strangely, although Zunes's chapter makes a valiant effort at recounting the long history of local commitment to nonviolent activism, by way of a contrast he says that after the 1983 assassination of Benigno: "Much of the new-found interest in nonviolence, especially in the Catholic Church, can be traced to the influence of nonviolent organizations outside the country." How nice of the democratic trainers from the West!

He continues, "Since the 1920s, activists affiliated with the International Fellowship of Reconciliations (IFOR), an ecumenical pacifist organization, had made extended visits to the Philippines." Moreover, as of 1984, IFOR "led workshops on active nonviolence throughout the Philippines." Such nonviolent sessions were apparently apolitical and available for all, and even "representatives of the Aquino family" received training. While for the clerics involved in the movement, Zunes adds, "active nonviolence offered a militant resistance strategy free from rigid Marxist dialectics and the emphasis on class struggle." Here Zunes is most likely referring to the class conscious activism of the KMU (which had some 500,000 members in 1985). (12) Either way, Zunes, having ignored the anti-democratic history of NAMFREL, then notes how activists from AKKAPKA, the Philippine chapter of IFOR, then "met with NAMFREL leader Jose Concepcion to share contacts across the country in their nonviolent network that might assist NAMFREL." (13)

Although Zunes doesn't really have anything critical to say about Cory Aquino, he does mention how she (but not the U.S.) attempted to control the nonviolent movement through a media bureau, which "warned their supporters against 'forms of protest against the Marcos regime not sanctioned by Mrs. Aquino and the new formed advisory committee on civil disobedience,'" and how she emphasized the fact "that the public should check with the headquarters of 'Cory's Crusaders' on the approved methods." He also points out that when the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) (14) and the KMU called on their supporters to take to the streets to engage in general strike actions on February 26, 1986 -- that is, the day after Aquino was sworn in as president -- to ensure that the people's demands were met by the new administration, "Aquino encouraged her supporters to stay at home or in churches during the strike." Zunes then even stoops so low as to defend Aquino's "insistence that people avoid such public protest" by speculating that she may have done so "both from a concern over a possible outbreak of violence discrediting the movement, as well as from a fear that leftist elements, even if they did remain nonviolent, might seize leadership of the resistance campaign." (15) The latter, of course, was a very real possibility.

Backtracking a few days to February 22, Zunes describes how when Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos first "announced their revolt... many saw it as an act of desperation." "The rebels," he continues, "were badly outnumbered and were holed up in highly vulnerable army bases in the Manila suburbs." Yet the small revolt rapidly expanded, and the people's movement rallied to their defense: "The stage of massive non-cooperation had begun." But, as Zunes notes, President Reagan still "maintained his support of the Marcos regime," right to the end, at least that was "until masses of Filipinos appeared on the streets." This massive outpouring of nonviolent support for Enrile and Ramos in turn meant that the military revolt could not be simply crushed (as Marcos had planned on doing), and US ambassador Stephen Bosworth was forced to call Marcos "with what he claimed was a direct warming from President Reagan not to use heavy weapons against the rebels." Indeed, "By the time the Marcos entourage fled on February 25, there were more than 250,000 Filipinos directly surrounding the base, and hundreds of thousands more on the streets demanding the president's ousting." (16)

According to Zunes, the reasons activists in the Philippines succeeded against the odds, owed to many factors, like for example the role of the church and the people's desire for democratic institutions. But two important factors that he also highlights are that the Philippines had a "relatively free press and few restrictions on freedom of movement"; and, luckily, that "the Philippines had much of the world's media attention during the critical house of the [military revolt] standoff at Camp Crame, which led to the threat of sanctions by the United States..." In Zunes's blinkered version of events, all of this was due to the power of nonviolence, and none of it due to external interference by the US government. Thus, in Zunes's eyes, Filipino activists should simply be thankful that the international media just so happened to decide to focus all their attention on their cause, because as he admits: "In contrast, a dramatic and large-scale nonviolent uprising against the regime of Pakistani dictator Zia al-Huq in 1983, also a recipient of generous US military and economic assistance, got little media attention, and thus not threatened cut-offs of aid. The revolt was crushed." (17)

At no stage does Zunes contemplate the not impossible idea that the U.S. was happy to see Marcos gone, so long as the Aquino administration could be trusted to be an erstwhile ally in the region (which was the case). Instead all we get from Zunes is a mythological and downright dangerous treatise on the power of the people, and no history on the US government's vital geostrategic priorities in the region. (The U.S. had always been interested in the Philippines because of the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base: military bases that were key strategic sites from which every US invasion of Asia had gone through since 1898.) Instead Zunes writes that "State Department officials have since acknowledged that the use of nonviolence made [US] intervention on behalf of Marcos virtually impossible..." (18) Of course this is true to an certain extent, but given that Zunes thinks (incorrectly) that "the goal of the uprising was the honoring of an electoral mandate, not fundamental social change" -- this was only the goal of the more conservative parts of the movement -- and that the movement was largely middle class, why does Zunes think that the US ambitions in the region were thwarted because there was a transition to "democracy" under Aquino? This was far from the case, because as Scipes points out:

[R]eplacing Marcos with Aquino left a brutal state apparatus intact, which Aquino used to kill peasants, workers and the urban poor. In fact, KMU leaders told me that the human rights abuses under democrat Aquino were worse than under dictator Marcos: she couldn't control her generals. However, whether she couldn't control them or if she didn't want to control them -- Alfred W. McCoy in Policing America's Empire (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009) claims the latter -- the fact is that unless the brutal state apparatus is dismantled, and especially the Police and the torture agencies, the repression could be re-instituted. (19)

Zunes's evident stupidity is astounding: does he not know about the violence that was visited with a vengeance upon progressive Filipino activists under Aquino's reign of "democracy"? He either does and he has chosen to ignore such inconvenient truths, or else he is writing on subjects about which he has no knowledge. In both cases he should shut up, but this is unlikely, as both explanations also help explain why he was recruited to serve as the chair of the academic advisory board of Peter Ackerman's imperialist International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. (20) Zunes is a well-known intellectual and activist who is writing on Egyptian developments. However, because he is so well known, it is important that people understand that he misrepresented what happened in the Philippines and ignored other key analyses that contradicted or challenged his own -- especially Robinson's work -- resulting in his giving an incomplete if not inaccurate analysis of what happened in Manila in February 1986.


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in the UK. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008, 2009, and 2010 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com. Please help fund his work.   (back)


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1.  Elsewhere I have provided a full critique of the only book that Zunes's has written alone. See "Stephen Zunes and the Zionist Tinderbox."

For an examination of the intimate connections that Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies maintain to the US "democracy promoting" community, see "Egyptian People Power Versus the Oligarchy."

Some of Zunes's recent articles on Egypt can be found here.  (back)

2.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.129, p.152, p.129.  (back)

3.  For a must-read analysis of the post-Marcos developments in the Philippines, see Kim Scipes, "Review of the Month: Global Economic Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, and the Philippines," Monthly Review, 51 (7), December 1999, pp. 1-14.  (back)

4.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," pp.129-30, p.138.  (back)

5.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.130.  (back)

6.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.130, p.131.  (back)

7.  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, pp.125-6.  (back)

8.  Kim Scipes, KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines, 1980-1994 (New Day Publishers, 1996), pp.32-3.  (back)

9.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.132.  (back)

10.  Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy, p.130. "[T]he leaders of the NAMFREL, the TUCP, and the KABATID sat on each other's boards [of directors] and came constitute a national network, with interlocking directorates..." (p.134) For example the secretary-general of the reactionary TUCP "was also a member of the Executive Council of the NAMFREL." (p.137)  (back)

11.  Smith, Portrait of a Cold Warrior, p.112. In the wake of the 1986 ousting of Marcos, the CIA once again showed renewed interest in waging a "low intensity conflict" against the Filipino's, particularly those involved in radical organizations like the KMU (which was regularly smeared as being controlled by the Communists), and the Communist Party of the Philippines' New Peoples Army. This rabid anticommunism which "was pushed by the Filipino military... had outside help. US General John Singlaub (ret.), Chairman of the World Anti-Communist League who has worked with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), became particularly active in the Philippines during early 1987. It turned out that Dr. Ray Cline, a former CIA deputy director, had been working quietly with Singlaub in the country since October 1986.

"In March, U. S. involvement in the Philippines became much more obvious. The lead of a story in the San Francisco Examiner noted, 'The Reagan administration has approved a $10 million, two-year plan for increased CIA involvement in the Philippine government's insurgency campaign that includes technical intelligence assistance and covert political action, according to sources familiar with the plan.' Included in this was a 10% increase in CIA personnel attached to the US Embassy." Scipes, KMU, p.54.  (back)

12.  Scipes, KMU, p.33, p.10. "The emergence of the KMU divided the labor movement into two forces. One was composed of those unions associated with the [NED-backed] TUCP, which practiced collaboration with management, the Marcos Dictatorship and the imperialist AFL-CIO. The second consisted of the militant, genuine and nationalist unions under the KMU." (p.25)  (back)

13.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.138, p.140, p.142.  (back)

14.  Scipes describes BAYAN as "an alliance of national democratic organizations, whose members are organizations of progressive workers, peasants, women, students, urban poor, and those organizations focused around specific political campaigns like anti-US bases groups or the Freedom from Debt Coalition." He adds that: "Central to BAYAN, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) is a key player in the Philippine struggle for national liberation." Scipes, KMU, p.xii.  (back)

15.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.145. "The leftist trade union, the May 1 Movement (KMU), endorsed the general strike schedules for February 26 and called on its 300,000 members to join. There was also tacit support from the Trade Unions of the Philippines (TUPAS) and the Federation of Free Workers. It was clear that a showdown was coming, but few suspected it would come so quickly or dramatically." (p.146)  (back)

16.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.146, p.147, p.152, p.151.Zunes writes: "The role of the [local] media was significant. Unlike many authoritarian situations, there had been an active opposition press for at least two years prior to the uprising. The business community and the church establishment, which was funding much of the nongovernment media, had been moving into open opposition following the assassination of Benigno Aquino. Their widespread noncompliance made it difficult for Marcos to enforce his restrictions on the media, though he had more success in controlling the smaller and more radical press." (p.147) Again strangely no mention is made of external funding and diplomatic pressure.  (back)

17.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.153.  (back)

18.  Zunes, "The Origins of People Power in the Philippines," p.151.  (back)

19.  Kim Scipes, e-mail to author, February 12, 2011.  (back)

20.  For a critique of Ackerman's most recent imperial venture (see "Promoting the Real Spirit of America") and for a critical (ironic) examination of the vice chair of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (see "In Honor of Berel Rodal").  (back)


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Published March 14, 2011