Republic of the Philippines, Aquino Presidency
Mendiola Massacre, Fidel Ramos, Philippine Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile, MNLF
Aquino took office amid high expectations that she would undo all of the wrongs of the Marcos years. She quickly used her presidential powers to free all political prisoners, abolish censorship of the media, replace many officials installed under Marcos, and institute legal proceedings to try to recover Marcos’s ill-gotten wealth. Domestic support for Aquino was severely undermined in January 1987, however, when about 15,000 demonstrators gathered at Manila’s Mendiola Bridge to demand land reform. In what became known as the Mendiola Massacre, government security forces opened fire on the protesters and killed at least 20 people. The incident illustrated that the military was not under Aquino’s control. The public’s disillusionment only intensified after the incident when Aquino turned the issue of land reform over to the mostly conservative legislature.
A new constitution, endorsed by Aquino, was approved in a national referendum in February 1987. It provided for a bicameral legislature and a president as chief executive. It limited the president to one term of six years and gave Aquino a mandate to govern until June 1992. Aquino won a vote of confidence in the May 1987 legislative elections when parties allied with her Lagas ng Bayan (People’s Power Movement, an opposition party founded in 1978 by Benigno Aquino) won a majority of seats in both houses.
Meanwhile, the Philippines faced massive foreign debt accrued during the Marcos years. The Aquino government was obliged to seek debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which required severe austerity measures and structural reform. The government dismantled monopolies established under Marcos, eliminated a wide range of tax exemptions that had benefited Marcos’s associates, and sought to decentralize state participation in the economy in order to stimulate the private sector. However, the government failed to institute substantive reforms to alleviate the poverty in which most Filipinos continued to live. A land reform law approved by the legislature in 1988 was largely ineffectual due to loopholes and lack of enforcement.
Another initiative of the Aquino government was to negotiate a cease-fire with Muslim rebels who had been fighting a secessionist war in the southern Philippines since the 1970s. In August 1986 the government agreed to grant autonomy to four Muslim provinces on Mindanao as part of a cease-fire truce with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF); however, subsequent negotiations became deadlocked. The MNLF demanded autonomy in 23 provinces, while other Muslim guerrilla groups that were excluded from the negotiations continued to demand complete independence. In November 1989 the government arranged a plebiscite in 13 provinces to vote on the proposal of autonomy. The MNLF appealed to Muslims to boycott the vote. However, four of the provinces voted in favor of the government proposal for autonomy and became the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The Philippine military was hostile to Aquino’s policy initiative to negotiate with the rebels. Aquino survived several coup attempts, most of which were led by dissident factions in the armed forces. The unwavering loyalty of Aquino’s defense minister, Fidel Ramos, and continued United States support helped Aquino stay in power. In December 1989 U.S. Air Force jets assisted Philippine government forces in suppressing a coup attempt that included officers loyal to Marcos. Juan Ponce Enrile, whom Aquino had dismissed as minister of national defense after a 1986 coup attempt, was implicated in the abortive coup and arrested in February 1990. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court declared Benigno Aquino’s murder trial a mistrial and a new investigation was initiated. In September 1990 a special court convicted 16 military officials of the murder, as well as the murder of Benigno’s alleged assassin.
In June 1991 the unexpected eruption of Mount Pinatubo in central Luzon killed hundreds of people and caused massive, widespread damage. The United States evacuated nearby Clark Air Base, which the eruption had rendered unusable. In September the Philippine Senate adjudged the U.S. bases to be infringements of Philippine sovereignty and refused to renew the leases. United States forces departed from Subic Bay Naval Station in 1992, and Clark Air Base remained closed.
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