RAM and the military action during the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution
‘We vied for honor to lead attack on Palace’
By Jose T. Almonte
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:50:00 02/26/2011
(The author is a retired general and one of the lead theoreticians of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement [RAM].)
MANILA, Philippines—To kill the snake, you must aim for its head.’
Of the three senior leaders of the RAM, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Batac, who was then chief of the Research and Analysis Office of the intelligence division of the Philippine Constabulary/Integrated National Police, was the strategist, the planner-intellectual.
Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo “Red” Kapunan was the organization man, with wide-ranging contacts among the field commands. Lieutenant Colonel Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, baron of his class, the charismatic fighting man, was the movement’s leader.
Eventually, the three told me what they planned. They would ambush General Roland Pattugalan, commander of the Presidential Guards, whom the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was touting as his next Chief of Staff. Since General Josephus Ramas, the Army commander, also coveted the post (which was then being held by Marcos henchman, General Fabian Ver), Ramas could easily bear the blame for Pattugalan’s death. Marcos’ generals would begin quarreling among themselves—and RAM could then take advantage of the confusion in the Marcos camp.
I suggested that revolutionary politics did not work that way. Dealing with an authoritarian ruler was like trying to kill a cobra. Would-be regicides like us should aim for its head. We shouldn’t bother with the cobra’s tail or even its body. We did not have the luxury of a second strike.
The plan altered
After some debate, RAM decided to alter the plan: we agreed we would attack Malacañang Palace itself. In the process, it was likely the whole of the Marcos family would be killed. I insisted the Marcoses should be taken alive, so that they could face a people’s court.
Honasan pointed out, correctly, that capturing the Marcoses alive would require a larger attack force than the group we already had. (When the showdown came, we had a total of 770 men holed up at Camp Crame.) We would need to recruit more fighters. Not only would that risk the discovery of our plot: it would also raise the volume of casualties on both sides.
But I feared the fickle nature of history whose judgment of historical figures is never final.
In the end, we decided to build up a larger force. Meanwhile, we also made up a list of the personages who would compose our transition government.
The seven-person junta—called the Movement for National Unity (MNU)—was to be made up of Cory Aquino, Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, Jimmy Ongpin, Rafael Salas, Alejandro Melchor, Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.
Planning Palace assault
We vied for the honor of leading the attack on the Palace and on its Presidential Guards. At last, it was decided that the task would go to Honasan. On that occasion, I gave him as a keepsake a Russian AK-47 assault rifle I had used during my sojourn among the Vietcong, and which, in happier times, I had intended to present to Marcos.
Kapunan would lead the attack on the Presidential Guards on the south bank of Pasig. Batac and I would man the RAM command post at Nichols Field, where a battalion from Trece Martires, Cavite, would join us.
Maj. Avelino Razon, General Ramos’ aide, was with us. As soon as the action began, he would pick up General Ramos and escort him to Nichols, where Ramos would take over overall command of the rebel forces.
Civilian opposition links
While the young leaders of RAM completed the deadly business of organizing a coup, we all read up on Edward Luttwak (“Coup d’etat, A Practical Handbook,” London: 1968) and I passed around a copy of Anwar el-Sadat’s account of how the young Egyptian officers overthrew the dissolute King Farouk in 1952. I volunteered to get in touch with the civilian opposition.
All of us realized how the military’s collaboration with the regime had alienated it from the people. Yet we also knew that if our effort was to succeed, we would need the wholehearted support of ordinary Filipinos.
Early on, we had agreed that if we could get people out on the streets, we could deter the movement of the loyalist forces. In the early 1980s, we got in touch with Jose “Peping” Cojuangco and his wife, Tingting. When the action finally took place in February 1986, they blocked the roads from Tarlac to Manila, to stop loyalist troops from Marcos’ “Solid North” from reinforcing him. Tingting began organizing “flower brigades” similar to those the American youth movement of 1968 had used to disarm troops breaking up their demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
Plotting in Cory’s kitchen
In early February 1986, Peping set up an appointment for us with the opposition’s moral leader, Cory Aquino. She received Batac, Kapunan, Boy Turingan and myself, together with her brother Peping, in the kitchen of her house on Times Street, Quezon City. We told her we were going to bring down Marcos by force—and that we looked to her as our leader. We could not tell her the day and the time, but it was going to be very soon. And we needed her because, once the action began, she alone could rally the people to come down on our side.
Even at that late date, Mrs. Aquino was reluctant to take on the burden of the presidency. She did not think that the ruling generals—who all owed personal loyalty to Marcos—would obey her commands. Almost the first words she uttered were: “I do not want to be President because I am not capable of being President.”
As RAM’s spokesperson for that occasion, I pointed out that, in the life of a people, every historical period requires leadership of a certain character. And, at that period in our nation’s life—in the wake of the moral excesses of the Marcoses and their cronies—we needed more leadership of the kind she possessed.
‘My first general’
I told her that I had stood on the overpass connecting Nichols and Fort Bonifacio to see Ninoy Aquino’s funeral cortege pass underneath, and had heard her being interviewed on radio. Asked what she would do to seek justice for her murdered husband, the grieving widow had called not for revenge, not for revolution. She had not called on the millions of Filipinos accompanying Ninoy to his grave to storm Malacañang. Yet all she needed to do then was to give the word—and surely a sufficient number of those who were grieving for Ninoy would have done so. Instead she had quietly answered: “I will leave it to the authorities to give justice to my husband.”
I told her that I thought a person who could have that kind of faith in people—even in officials of a government that might have killed her husband—must have a high moral character. I added that the military would respect someone with moral character; and, of course, as President, she would command the Armed Forces on behalf of all the people. She answered, “Colonel, I never thought of it that way.”
In her delight at having her misgivings and anxieties relieved, she burst out: “Colonel, if what you are telling me happens, you will be my first general!”
Embarrassed by her effusion, I replied that we had pledged neither to seek—nor to accept—any rewards, promotions or positions of power. All we hoped for was that the new government we would help install would seek to actualize the yearnings of our people.
In the archbishop’s garden
Jaime Cardinal Sin was the second personage whose blessings we sought. Coming alone—our appointment set up by Charito Melchor—to the Archbishop’s Palace in Mandaluyong, I was met at the door by a young priest, who did not ask me in. The cardinal himself came out the door alone. He invited me to walk in the garden with him—a precaution against eavesdroppers that I appreciated. I told him we were ready to bring down Marcos and asked for his support and his prayers.
Saying our goodbyes, we both felt the emotion of the moment. He embraced me tightly as I took my leave: “Colonel, you do your duty, and I’ll do mine,” he said.
If we needed Cory Aquino and Cardinal Sin to mobilize the people, we needed Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, vice chief of staff and director general of the PC/INP, to help mobilize the Armed Forces and the national police.
I had known Ramos for a quarter-century. We had both been assigned to the Laguna-Quezon border during the dying years of the Huk rebellion. At the time, he led a company of infantry. I remember that, in our occasional conversations, we had both wondered why we were hunting down fellow Filipinos. I called on him at his headquarters at Camp Crame a few days before our planned action.
One last cigar with Ramos
Cool, discreet, deliberate, Ramos was the thinking soldier’s soldier. After finishing at West Point in 1950, he had fought at the 38th Parallel in Korea, served in the Huk campaign, and then in Vietnam. Throughout the years of martial law, he had stood for professionalism and dedication to duty. No desk-bound commander, he was often in the field, living with the soldiers where they were. He knew all the field commanders intimately. Only he could call them down on our side.
We talked for several hours. I tried to sketch for him the crisis the nation was in, and what we had decided we must do, even at the cost of our lives. At first he didn’t say much, though I felt he himself had gone through the same examination of conscience. I didn’t need to tell him the tactical details. How we were to act—where we were to strike—were clear to him. I told him we were counting on him to lead us. As soon as the action began, Razon would come for him.
When it came time for him to reply, he first pointed out that Marcos was his blood relation. For Ilocanos, betrayal of a blood relation was the greatest transgression: if he were to take up arms against Marcos, how could he ever face his people again?
By nature a moderate, fearful of the anarchy a revolution might set off, Ramos was also keenly aware of the consequences that his decision could set off. All that those of us in RAM would lose were our lives. We were responsible for no one else but our own selves. But once Ramos committed himself against Marcos—and his long-standing rival, General Ver—he would have also decided for the 90,000 Constabulary men under his command, as well as for many others in the Armed Forces, whom he knew would loyally join him in whatever he decided to do. Hence I understood why he could not pledge his support for our cause as blithely as we ourselves had done.
For the moment, we left it at that. But I was sure that, when the time came, we could count on him.
As I stood up to go, he grabbed a handful of his favorite cigars from his desk drawer. He lit one for himself, and gave the rest to me.
“Joe,” he said, as he let me out the door. “Whatever you’re planning, just don’t make it too bloody.”
(This article is excerpted from the author’s book, “My Part in the 1986 People Power Revoluton.”)