By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 25, 2006
MANILA -- Raymond Palatino's cellphone pinged loudly, and a text message lit up the display: "Other students are already marching. Where are you?"
Palatino and hundreds of others -- nearly all carrying cellphones -- were on their way to Manila's gated presidential palace for a protest rally. Palatino and what people here call a "text brigade" were still a couple of miles away, about to board buses in the steamy midday heat.
"No, not ready," he typed, holding his phone in both hands, his thumbs flying across the buttons. "We're 30 minutes away."
In a string of unsolved murders in recent months, trade union leaders, government critics, students, journalists and others have been killed. Students had begun clamoring for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to do something.
Once they might have called a demonstration by printing fliers. Now, they do it by mass texting. Palatino had spent days getting the word out, banging out text after text on the keypad of his little Nokia phone.
"WEAR RED. BRING BANNERS." The messages -- faster and cheaper than phone calls -- went to thousands of young people, telling them to gather near Morayta Street.
"I didn't talk to anyone," said Palatino, 26, a university graduate who has a contagious smile and aspires to be a teacher. "All the organizing is done through texting. It's affordable and instant."
Cellphones and text messaging are changing the way political mobilizations are conducted around the world. From Manila to Riyadh and Kathmandu protests once publicized on coffeehouse bulletin boards are now organized entirely through text-messaging networks that can reach vast numbers of people in a matter of minutes.
The technology is also changing the organization and dynamics of protests, allowing leaders to control, virtually minute-by-minute, the movements of demonstrators, like military generals in the field. Using texts that communicate orders instantly, organizers can call for advances or retreats of waves of protesters.
This tool has changed the balance of political power in places where governments have a history of outmuscling dissent. In April, Nepal's King Gyanendra ordered authorities to cut cellphone service after protesters against his absolute rule used text messages to help assemble street protests by tens of thousands of democracy advocates.
The Philippines, widely called the text-messaging center of the world, has led the way. When President Joseph Estrada was forced from office in 2001, he bitterly complained that the popular uprising against him was a "coup de text."
This country of 85 million people has only 2 million Internet users and 3 million people with land-line telephones. But there are more than 30 million cellphone subscribers here, according to government statistics, more than double the figure in 2002.
Initially, mobile phone companies offered free texting. Today, a text message still costs just 2 cents, a fraction of a call. A typical Filipino mobile phone user sends about eight texts a day, spending far more time texting than talking.
Every major Philippine political party and nonprofit group has a database of its supporters' cellphone numbers. Many use computers to automatically generate mass text mailings to those phones with news about issues or rallies or upcoming votes.
"When Estrada was ousted, we realized the power of texting," said Palatino, the slight, well-spoken president of a national youth party. "Since then we have never stopped using it to advance our causes."
At 1:30 p.m. on a recent day, Palatino and three students lingered near the doughnut case in the 7-Eleven on a congested corner of Morayta Street. They stood in the air-conditioned cool, cellphones in hand, waiting for a text.
Outside in the sweltering sunshine, amid street kiosks selling goods from iced coconut drinks to 1973 National Geographic magazines, other young people stood around, trying to blend in and avoid the notice of a few police officers who walked up and down, watching. Some of the students carried rolled-up banners that said "Stop the Killings." Each clutched a cellphone.
They knew police had been ordered to disperse unauthorized crowds near the presidential palace and would not hesitate to use wooden batons and water cannons to do it. So organizers wanted to make sure that everyone converged at the same time to make the rally harder to break up.
Soon Palatino's phone was alive with a flurry of texts from coordinators and marchers anxious to start.
One asked: "Are the media here?"
About a dozen TV cameramen and newspaper photographers gathered outside. They, too, had been summoned by text.
At 1:45, Palatino's phone pinged again, this time with the message: "ASSEMBLE RIGHT NOW!"
A smile crossed his face. With a few more taps of his thumbs, he forwarded the command down the text brigade ranks. He sent it to those on his phone list, and each who received it did the same. In seconds, about 1,000 students were in the street, stopping traffic and sending cars and bicycle taxis scattering.
Two students quickly hooked up a public address system to the battery of a vehicle. One by one, leaders climbed on top of it to fire up the crowd. Palatino demanded that President Arroyo do more to end the killings and allocate more money for universities.
"Books, not bullets!" he shouted.
The all-at-once strategy worked: The police were caught off guard. Only a few officers were on the scene, and they quickly pulled out their own cellphones to make urgent voice calls. Within minutes, scores more officers arrived.
They lined up to block the demonstrators. Many wore helmets and carried riot shields. A red firetruck arrived at the intersection. It stopped, its water cannon pointed at the crowd.
Palatino looked at the growing confrontation, worry creeping across his face for the first time. "It will be a success if we can stay long enough to get our message out," he said.
As the speeches continued, a police commander negotiated with a female protest leader.
At 2:38, she stepped away and composed a text, which she sent to Palatino and eight other organizers. In a mixture of Tagalog and English, the country's two official languages -- a popular combination known as Taglish -- she called for a meeting to plan their next move.
They huddled in the middle of the street like a football team. It started to rain.
The protest was a success, the leaders agreed. It had lasted an hour already and surely would make the evening news. They worried about the police, but decided to take their chances and keep going. They agreed to press on toward Mendiola Street, historically a popular protest site within sight of the presidential compound.
They knew they couldn't break through the police lines. So they decided to take a different route, Bustillos Street, which the police might not expect.
Then came the next mass text command. "BUSTILLOS!"
At first, the police looked pleased: The students were retreating. Then, they realized the protesters were only changing course. Officers hustled into new positions and cut off the crowd closer to the palace.
At 3:30, violence broke out. The students retreated, police running after them, hitting them across the back, head and arms with batons. Thwack! Thwack!
Caught up in the melee, ducking from the swinging batons, Palatino heard his phone ping loudly.
"GET OUT OF THERE. You are in a dangerous place," warned the text, from a friend who could see that Palatino was about to be pinned between the crowd and a wall.
An officer grabbed Palatino.
"ID! ID! Now!" the red-faced officer demanded.
A small group of officers closed in around Palatino, whose eyes were suddenly wide with terror.
Students who saw it quickly typed a text alert to others, using Palatino's nickname: "Mong is being arrested."
But as suddenly as they had grabbed him, the police let him go and ran off to help another group of officers who were beating a group of students.
Relieved but shaken, Palatino walked quickly toward a Shakey's Pizza on España Boulevard, where earlier texts had instructed everyone to meet once the protest ended. As he walked, his phone pinged loudly with text after text.
Like other leaders, Palatino was responsible for making sure everyone in his group was safe and accounted for.
Texts of "WHERE ARE YOU?" raced through the crowd.
After an hour, 10 people out of the 1,000 had not replied. So organizers dispatched people to police stations and hospitals to check for the missing.
An hour later, students started filtering home in time for the 6:30 news, which was filled with graphic scenes of police officers beating the young protesters.
Just after 7 p.m., Palatino received a text with the final tally: 34 students injured, eight seriously. Ten people detained, then released.
"Before, we had no choice but to keep quiet and listen to the president," Palatino said, still holding his tiny phone. "This is a development for democracy."