By Philip M. Lustre Jr.
February 22, 1986 is a special day in Philippine history. On this day, the four-day EDSA People Power Revolution officially started, triggering the downfall of the detested Marcos dictatorship and paving the way for the restoration of democracy.
I was working at the Manila bureau of the Japanese news agency Jiji Press when the cataclysmic event ignited the simmering political cauldron. As a journalist, I had a front seat to history; I had the privilege to chronicle the series of defining events that led to the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos’ regime.
During those heady days, most journalists felt that something big was about to happen as a result of the massive cheating in the Feb. 7, 1986 “snap” presidential elections, of which the official results showed dictator Ferdinand Marcos winning over opposition candidate Corazon Aquino.
Most Filipinos did not accept his victory since it lacked credibility because of its fraudulent conduct. The international community did not accept it, too, as major democracies declared they would boycott the presidential inauguration scheduled on Feb. 26.
Besides, Mrs. Aquino was perceived as the winner, as she led in the partial results of the parallel count of the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), a private watchdog. Namfrel stopped its parallel count three-fourths of the way when it could not retrieve results from its field workers.
The rubber stamp Batasang Pambansa had proclaimed Ferdinand Marcos and running mate Arturo Tolentino as winners, prompting the opposition, led by Mrs. Aquino, and civil society organizations to launch the unprecedented civil disobedience campaign to protest their victory. At that time, Manila was abuzz with coup rumors.
On the same day, Mrs. Aquino and her entourage left for Cebu City in the morning and held a mammoth rally there in the afternoon to urge the Cebuanos to support the civil disobedience campaign, which included boycott of crony banks, newspapers, and other establishments.
On this day, I reported for work at 2 p.m. My routine required me to gather the dispatches of the state-owned Philippine News Agency (PNA) to see government pronouncements. We had an arrangement with the Manila bureau of the Agence France Presse (AFP) to provide us PNA dispatches.
Out of the ordinary
The late AFP chief Teddy Benigno, who later became Mrs. Aquino’s spokesman, was surprised to see me at AFP’s office on the third floor of VIP Building in front of the US Embassy on Roxas Boulevard.
Teddy said: “Philip, bakit nandito ka pa? Hindi mo ba alam ang nangyari? Sina Enrile (then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile) huhulihin na. Nandoon na ang mga kasama mo sa Camp Aguinaldo. Si Cecil, (referring to his staff Cecil Morella) nandoon na rin (Philip, why are you still here? Don’t you know what just happened? Enrile is about to be arrested. Your coworkers are already in Camp Aginaldo. Cecil is already there).”
I was surprised by Benigno’s tip. After expressing my gratitude, I rushed back to our office on the second floor of the same building, and informed Jun Takahashi, the Japanese bureau chief, about the development and left for Camp Aquinaldo.
At the Ministry of National Defense building inside Camp Aguinaldo, I saw soldiers doing fortifications for defense, including sandbagging. I also saw them carrying high-powered firearms and ammunitions.
At around 4 p.m., I saw Col. Greg Honasan and other officers carrying weapons and boxes of ammunition. Since I came to know Honasan in earlier press conferences of the Reform the AFP Movement (RAM), of which he was among its leaders and founding members, I asked Honasan about details.
“Greg, anong nangyari? Anong balita? (Greg, what happened? What’s the news?),” I asked. “Huhulihin na daw kami (They would arrest us),” he shot back. “Nino? (By whom?)” I asked again. “Si Marcos at Ver,” he replied. “Kanino ninyo nalaman? (From whom did you learn about this?)” I asked again. “From the birds,” he tersely replied.
Then, Honasan, Enrile’s security chief at that time, asked to be excused, but not without saying that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and AFP Vice Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos would later hold a press conference.
By 6:45 p.m., Enrile and Ramos appeared with soldiers in full battle regalia. Photojournalists, TV cameramen, and other journalists jostled for space to get the best vantage point of the two main players, who entered the MND social hall to make announcements in the simmering political drama that would put the country in suspended animation.
The mood was tense. I could see the sweat coming out of the faces of my colleagues. I could sense the point of no return was breached and reached.
As if to portend events that would transpire in the next four days, photojournalists, who were taking shots of the two breakaway leaders, stepped on the glass center table, causing it to break into pieces. There couldn’t have been a more fitting symbolism than splintered glasses scattered on the floor.
Enrile and Ramos announced their decision to break away from Marcos, premising their breakaway on the dictator’s reported plan to arrest them. They also cited a litany of sins by the Marcos dictatorship.
In the press conference that was broadcast live by the Catholic Church-owned Radio Veritas, but snubbed by the mainstream crony media, Enrile said: “We are here to take a stand. We have no intention of harming anybody. If anyone of us will be killed … all of us must be killed. We’ll stay here until we’re all killed.”
As he announced the decision of the breakaway group to stage a holdout at Camp Aguinaldo, Enrile accused Marcos of massive electoral fraud in his home province of Cagayan, saying he was part of the cheating, where the Cory votes were counted for Marcos.
Enrile said before stunned journalists that he faked his own ambush in 1972 to pave the way for the declaration of martial law, which later ushered the Marcos dictatorship. It was a big surprise that Enrile, nearly 30 years later, denied those admissions in his book, leading to perception that he was revising history.
For his part, Ramos said Marcos was not the duly elected president and commander in chief of the Armed Forces, accusing him of putting his “family interest” above the national interest.
Ramos took a dig on Marcos by saying that the latter’s decision six days earlier to name him as AFP “acting chief of staff” replacing the unpopular Gen. Fabian Ver was not meant to boost the morale of the AFP. “He is just fooling us,” he said.
Leave while you can
At the end of the press conference, they urged journalists to leave Camp Aguinaldo because Marcos forces could attack or bomb it anytime. It did not happen. Instead, streams of journalists arrived the entire evening to chronicle the breakaway and its drama.
At the office, I stay glued to Radio Veritas, which replayed the Enrile-Ramos joint press conference, called various sources to give their views on the breakaway, and wrote follow up news reports based on my own phone interviews and Radio Veritas’ interviews of various political leaders.
By 10 p.m., Ronnie Nathanielz advised the public about the impending press conference of the dictator, refuted the severity of the Enrile-Ramos press conference, and said that the government was in control despite the announced breakaway.
By 10:30 p.m., Marcos held his press conference and mentioned the coup plot that included the assassination of his family and Ver. To bolster his claim, Marcos presented Captain Ricardo Morales, one of Imelda’s bodyguards, saying the Presidential Security Command under Ver arrested him after he attempted to steal firearms from the armory.
In front of the government TV cameras, Morales read a prepared statement confirming the planned coup and mentioning Honasan and other RAM leaders as among the conspirators. Morales discussed details about the planned attacks on Malacañang.
Marcos, for his part, ended the press conference by urging Enrile and Ramos to stop the rebellion and negotiate with him. I dutifully recorded his press conference and filed news reports about it.
Fifteen minutes later, Manila Prelate Cardinal Jaime Sin for the first time spoke over Radio Veritas, asking the Catholic faithful “to help” the rebel forces in Camp Aguinaldo. It was relatively tame appeal, lacking the fire to call on the people to go out to support the two leaders.
But it was different when he spoke for the second time just a few minutes before Sunday midnight. Sin said, “I am indeed concerned about the situation of Minister Enrile and General Ramos. I am calling our people to support our two good friends at the camp. If any of you could be around at Camp Aguinaldo to show your solidarity and your support in this very crucial period when our two good friends have shown their idealism, I would be very happy if you could support them now. I only wish that bloodshed and violence be avoided.”
At this particular juncture, “people power” was being born.
These developments showed the rebel forces had seized the initiative. From a media standpoint, Marcos’s inability to speak out publicly for three hours after the Enrile-Ramos press conference gave the rebel camp the edge in the propaganda war.
It has been asked why Marcos and wife Imelda, and Ver did not immediately learn the preparations the Enrile-Ramos faction did in Camp Aguinaldo and their joint press conference.
Later disclosures showed their henchmen knew the developments in Camp Aguinaldo but were scared to tell them. Fear and hesitation figured prominently in their indecision.
On the same day, Imelda Marcos and Ver attended and stood as sponsors of the wedding of Philip Piccio, son of Air Force chief Maj. Vicente Piccio, at Villamor Air Base. The wedding ceremony started at 5 p.m. but dragged on for two hours. Their aides did not tell them of the developments at Camp Aguinaldo.
It was only towards the end of the Enrile-Ramos press conference that Imelda and Ver knew the breakaway. Upon learning, Ver rushed back to Malacañang to gather his advisers and subordinates to devise attack plans that never materialized.
It has been asked countless times why Marcos did not make a move on the first day of the military insurrection. In crisis management, the first six hours of a crisis comprise the “golden hours” to which every crisis manager has to respond appropriately.
Many conjectures have come out. But it could now be said the US government, through its Ambassador here, Stephen Bosworth, and his chief political adviser, John Maisto, who is married to a Filipina, and the US State Department urged Marcos to stop annihilating the rebel forces at Camp Aguinaldo.
Should Marcos make a move, Washington had threatened him that the US and the international community would withdraw support to his government and withhold any recognition of its legitimacy.
It has been raised, too, that Marcos did not risk any move because he was hopeful for an amicable settlement with Enrile and Ramos. Moreover, it was also widely held that he wanted Enrile and Ramos to surrender and rejoin the government.
The political naivete of a ruthless Marcos at crunch time did not sound palatable to people who understand his dictatorial ways. Until now, his inaction on the first day remains a big puzzle.
At this juncture, there was no way to stop the EDSA People Power Revolution.
The author is a veteran journalist whose career spans almost four decades. He worked as a reporter for foreign news organizations and local newspapers. He also wrote opinion pieces for local publications. He was the editor-publisher of the defunct Manila News features and Commentaries, a features agency, and Pilosopong Tasyo, a newsmagazine that experimented with the use of the Filipino language on serious topics. He now does freelance writing, mostly book projects.