A new First Quarter Storm?

Commentary by Eloy A. Calimoso, Philippine National Inquirer, Monday 17 January 2000

Thirty years ago, militant students, workers and farmers staged demonstrations in the streets of Manila to protest oil price hikes, graft and corruption in government, and the worsening economic situation at that time. Invariably, these protest actions turned violent and bloody as law enforcers responded with tear gas and, in some instances, with bullets.

This period of politicization marked by the series of massive protest marches between January and March 1970 have come to be known among activists and political observers as the First Quarter Storm, or simply the FQS. The numbers of participants and the militancy of the forms of protest during the FQS were eclipsed only by the spontaneous crowds that formed the mass movement during the post-Aquino assassination period in 1983.

For those who lived through those turbulent days, the historical significance of the FQS in the struggle against colonial rule and oppression remain unsurpassed. It produced thousands of young and highly idealistic political activists and hard-core ideologues. But because the 1986 EDSA revolution happened without them, there are many today who fail to recognize the fact that these products of the FQS comprised the backbone of the struggle that finally overthrew the tyrannical Marcos dictatorship.

The First Quarter Storm was in 1970. Now, let's fast-forward to year 2000. Again, the students are getting restless. And a myriad of issues against the government are adding fuel to this restiveness. In just the first two weeks of the year, students in Manila universities have launched numerous mass actions. Last Tuesday, three groups simultaneously staged various forms of protest actions at the House of Representatives, Camp Crame and Roxas Boulevard. This is the first time in many years since the ouster of Marcos in 1986 that student activists have conducted simultaneous protest actions in different places.

In Camp Crame, a lightning rally was held by militant youth who denounced what they called the militarization of the metropolis with the deployment of Philippines Marines in malls and in some parts of Metro Manila. The protesters belonged to the League of Filipino Students (LFS) and a relatively new group that calls itself Anakbayan.

About the same time, another group, the Kilusan ng Kristiyano Kabataan ng Pilipinas (KKKP), picketed at Roxas Boulevard to protest the operation of the Manila Jumbo Palace floating restaurant perched behind the Folk Arts Center owned by Macau casino king Stanley Ho.

Student leaders belonging to the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) also trooped to the Batasan complex that day to condemn the manhandling by House security personnel of some of its members who had staged a lightning rally in the session hall as the House of Representatives deliberated on the budget for the year 2000.

The students, who came mostly from the University of the Philippines and Polytechnic University of the Philippines, were opposing the Estrada administration's proposed P700 million cut in the budget of the Education department which would then be used to save the P30 billion internal revenue allotment (IRA) of local governments.

It is worth noting that in the 70s, the NUSP, under the leadership of the late Edgar Jopson, was the largest student organization in the country. But the group, composed of student councils in universities and colleges nationwide, was considered moderate, compared to the radicals of the time, led by the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) and the Samahan ng mga Demokratikong Kabataan (SDK).

At any rate, given time and the government’s continued indifference to the people's issues, the present protest movement, led by the nation's youth, could still snowball into a considerable force strong enough to hurt the Estrada administration.

There are several factors that could bring this about. Aside from the President's sagging popularity, the student activists enjoy support from various quarters. The NUSP's fight against cuts in the education budget has the support of their elders, especially in the public sector. The outspoken Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines is backing the KKKP's opposition to the entry of businessman Stanley Ho's casinos into the country. The fears of Anakbayan and LFS regarding the use of Marines for civilian peacekeeping are being echoed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and various human rights groups.

Moreover, the activists have more than enough issues that they can rally against in the coming days. There are the resurgence of crony capitalism, the impending oil price hikes, rampant graft and corruption in government, the attempt to exonerate known Marcos allies in the multibillion peso coconut levy and the dictator's ill-gotten wealth, the proposed new taxes, and others.

Even as the present crop of student activists has yet to attain the critical mass of their predecessors, and even as the current level of discontent is not yet where it was in the 1970s, the President and his government would do well to heed these storm warnings.