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COMMENTARY

Edsa ’86: A military perspective

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(First of two parts)

(Editor’s Note: The author was an army major during the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution. A bemedalled officer, he retired in 2005 as a colonel.)

In the afternoon of Feb. 22, 1986, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, under threat of imminent arrest, sought refuge in their military headquarters. In the morning of Feb. 25 both were sworn into the government of Corazon Aquino. That same evening Ferdinand Marcos flew into exile.

In just about 80 hours, a military organization strong enough to prop Marcos up during 14 years of martial law simply abandoned him.

What happened?

Of utmost psychological significance, the top rebel, Fidel Ramos, was a bred-in-the-bone military leader. It was he who transferred to Camp Crame on Sunday, Feb. 23, to use its field communications system to order, plead, harangue and cajole front-line commanders to join him.

Against Marcos, a civilian who emitted the stench of corruption, sickness, weakness, repugnant favoritism and loss of legitimacy from having been in fact beaten in the snap presidential election by Cory Aquino, the military stood by one of its own in Ramos.

Gen. Fabian Ver, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, was the Himmler of Marcos. He was feared as one who would purge the officer corps mercilessly. He was also both envied and despised for his wide-ranging corruption.

Ramos, by contrast, was the true military leader, bred in the Philippine Military Academy, heroic in field combat, perceived as prudent, dignified and fair. Thus, to fire those mortars and to march those Marines against Ramos meant not only killing people, but also killing their true leader.

Brig. Gen. Artemio Tadiar and his Marines just could not do it. Col. Braulio Balbas and his mortars could not do it. Col. Antonio Sotelo and his helicopter gunships saw Ramos and could not kill him. Such is the human being, capable of cold-blooded murder one moment, and mawkish the next.

Marcos had always based his power on military might. There is no other alternative for anyone who desires power on a national scale because the military has a monopoly of the greatest single concentration of brute force in any society. Marcos the sophisticate, who plundered his people even as he tried to mesmerize them with his tales of a New Society, carefully developed an obedient military machine.

Marcos began by insinuating himself into the professional mind-set of the officer corps who, since their academy training, had been indoctrinated into a reflex loyalty to “duly constituted authority.” Marcos, as the elected President in 1965 and 1969, was that authority. The “New Society” constituted the “talking point,” the psychological measure to ennoble his moves.

Fragile element

Moreover, by abolishing the representative structures under martial law, Marcos turned the military into his power base. The military became involved in nonmilitary functions.

But loyalty is a fragile element, and Marcos tried other ways of ensuring loyalty: power sharing (allowing provincial commanders to rule their areas); financial franchises (allowing smuggling and carnapping and other ways of becoming wealthy); and prolonged tenure.

Alas, Marcos was in a losing game. He simply did not have enough power to share, unless he gave up his own and provoked the anarchy of warlordism. He did not have enough financial franchises to bestow, unless he destroyed his own financial empire and all civilized government by encouraging nationally rampant gangsterism. The prolonging of tenure of favored military officers in time created envy and anger.

But while the military budget markedly increased, the basic salaries of Armed Forces of the Philippines personnel did not rise to any significant degree.

Marcos had come sharply against a constant in human nature: You cannot please everybody all the time. The historical solution to the dangers posed by scarce economic resources and restlessness is for autocrats to create a smaller group with greater ferocity to awe and to terrorize both the body politic and the military itself. Adolf Hitler had his SS, and Joseph Stalin his KGB. Marcos had his Ver-PSC-MISG (Presidential Security Command-Military Intelligence and Security Group), but before this could develop into a heavily armed and well-staffed killing machine, Edsa happened.

Only the military could have dispersed the crowd. But the Marines stopped at Edsa and Ortigas. Only the military could have pulverized Enrile and Ramos. But the commander of the armor refused repeated orders to fire on targets. His reason was that “too many innocent people would be killed.” An interesting answer worthy of a treatise in itself.

Ruptures in public order

The crowds on Edsa were mobilized by other factors. One factor was the shattered economy. Unemployment and inflation had impoverished millions. Despair and seething rage had become corrosive in the body politic.

Poverty is painful enough, and it becomes even worse when combined with the perception that it has been caused by the thievery of others. To the people, the ‘others’ were Marcos, his kin and his associates.

The growth of the communist insurgency and the secessionism movements in the Cordilleras and Mindanao were therefore traced to Marcos. The “best recruiter” for the New People’s Army was Marcos.

These insurgencies raised serious worries in Washington. Marcos had become unreliable. US military facilities and investments were imperiled by his misdeeds and his failures, which included his appropriation of the sustenance America had tried to infuse into both the economy and the military. The restiveness of the body politic also troubled America with the added worry that it could be alienated from any succeeding government.

The herd instinct toward either flight or anger needed a focus. Cory Aquino, by the alchemy of circumstances, became that focus. At last, the opposing masses had grown a head. The fractious political parties were organized into a functioning coalition.

To Marcos, this was a shock. One of the gambits in his snap election decision was that he could abort a dangerous coalition of his opponents since every party would field its own candidates. Instead, Marcos was confronted by a united phalanx.

Loss of US support

It also helps, of course, that America is on one’s side. For unknowingly among Edsa partisans, American technicians kept a 24-hour vigil on Ver’s communications, which they easily tapped. The CIA maintains in the Philippines an intelligence base capable of monitoring radio and microwave phone transmissions all over Asia. The CIA learned that Ver had arrested and interrogated the bodyguards of Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin provided by Enrile and stumbled on the coup plot of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).

American intelligence forthwith warned Enrile that the PSC was on red alert, that Ver had repositioned his forces around Metro Manila, and that Enrile, Ramos and Ongpin had been ordered arrested. Enrile found the time to flee to Camp Aguinaldo and enlist the support of Ramos, Jaime Cardinal Sin, US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth and “people power.”

In Washington that Sunday, Feb. 23, US President Ronald Reagan met for 85 minutes with national security advisers to discuss the US-Philippine options.

(Next: US abandons Marcos)


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Tags: anniversaries , Edsa revolt , History , Martial law , Military , people power revolt , Philippines , Reynaldo V. Silvestre




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