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Sunday, 28 January, 2001, 09:00 GMT
No ordinary revolution
Widespread protests in Manila which led to the overthrow to President Estrada
Protesters in Manila demanded Estrada's resignation
By South East Asia correspondent Jonathan Head

There was a strong smell of frying fish as we were ushered into the hotel room. People wandered about, preparing for dinner.

We had come to meet the man who started the second people power revolution. But Governor Luis Singson is an unlikely revolutionary.

"I've done wrong, I know," he said, waving his hand and giving me a flash of his diamond-encrusted Rolex watch. "I'm ready to go to jail if I have to - but only if I go with the president."

He was living in a guarded hotel room, and could only move from place to place in a bullet-proof car, equipped with bodyguards and a rack of armalite assault rifles.

A woman at the protest to overthrow President Estrada
The protesters were mainly middle-class
Governor Singson is something of a survivor - he's held a tight grip on his province since 1972. But, since blowing the whistle on President Estrada's alleged involvement in illegal gambling back in October, he's received dozens of death threats.

Unconventional revolutionary

Living under armed guard he's had plenty of time to mull over the vagaries of political life.

"I was against Marcos," he said. "Cory Aquino didn't like me, and nor did President Ramos. But Joseph Estrada was my friend - when he won the election in 1998, I thought at last, I've got an ally in the presidential palace."

But it didn't work out that way. Governor Singson admits that he only turned against his friend because of his anger over Mr Estrada's decision to transfer the lucrative gambling racket to a political rival.

It was, apparently, just a row between two partners in crime that sparked off the second people power uprising. But Governor Singson wasn't the only unlikely actor in this drama.

Archbishop Cardinal Sin
Archbishop Cardinal Sin was one of Estrada's most outspoken opponents
Many of the would-be revolutionaries who joined the crowds protesting against President Estrada in Manila were school girls in neatly-pressed uniforms, clutching mobile phones, who were dropped off by their parents in air-conditioned cars.

Elite protesters

There were lawyers and businessman who'd left their offices early, and Roman Catholic nuns, following the lead of their archbishop, Cardinal Sin, who had long been one of Mr Estrada's most outspoken opponents.

They were armed with candles and hymns, not rocks or petrol bombs. It was so peaceful, in fact, that it was almost impossible to imagine this impeccably behaved protest movement having any impact at all on a president who'd said on many occasions that he would never, never resign.

And it wasn't, strictly speaking, people power. There was one significant section of society missing from this festival of protest - the poor.

I searched the tens of thousands of people surrounding the monument to the first 1986 people power uprising for anyone who looked as though they had come from the slums of Manila.
Former president Joseph Estrada
Estrada, a former actor, hoped his presidency would be his "finest performance"

There were a few - but they were just selling drinks and snacks. And when I asked some of them what they thought of the demonstrations, most showed little interest. "This is just the rich, ganging up on our president because he supports us, the poor," one food vendor told me.

Now that they have got rid of Joseph Estrada - and it happened a great deal more quickly and peacefully than most of the opposition had dared to hope - they're congratulating themselves on maintaining their tradition of peaceful political change. But was it really a revolution?

Military influence

The decisive moment was unquestionably when a line of olive-green caps could be seen pushing its way through the crowds. There had been rumours all morning that the chief-of-staff, General Angelo Reyes, would resign.

But no one had predicted his joining the protesters, together with nearly all his top commanders. And no one had predicted what he would say.

He announced that he was withdrawing the loyalty of the entire armed forces from their lawful commander-in-chief, the president, and throwing their support behind his would-be successor, Vice-President Gloria Arroyo.

Gloria Arroya
Gloria Arroya is the Philippines' new president
It was a stunning blow to Mr Estrada, one from which he never recovered. Within 24 hours much of his cabinet had deserted him, and finally he was gently escorted out of the palace by the very same General Reyes, and ferried away to a private house in Manila.


As he drifted down the squalid Pasig River on a barge, Mr Estrada appeared shell-shocked by the turn of events, as though he could hardly believe that his adoring public had now turned against him.

But the public that had so successfully forced him from office didn't include the poor masses who had voted for him in such numbers just two and a half years ago.

It was the Manila elite - the lawyers, businessmen, activists and students who had been so appalled at the tales of greed and corruption inside the Estrada administration, who had organised his overthrow.

Weeks of patient negotiations with the military had paid off - they had ensured that the former actor's "greatest performance", as he called his presidency, had a very different ending from the one he had been planning.

It wasn't a revolution - it was a lot more like a military coup.

And while it achieved a result which has been applauded around the world, once the euphoria has died down, the opposition leaders who talked so much about their commitment to democratic values may stop to consider the implications of using the military to topple a popularly-elected president, on their own young democracy.

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada banned from leaving Philippines
20 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Joy at Estrada overthrow
20 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
World leaders welcome Arroyo
18 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Estrada tries to ride out storm
20 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
People power sweeps Philippines
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