Transfer power to the people
(First of three parts)
(Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the memoirs of Brig. Gen. Jose T. Almonte, widely considered the “Father of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement” (RAM), as told to award-winning and much-respected journalist Marites Dañguilan-Vitug.
The narrative below focuses on the key personalities and events leading up to the unprecedented four-day Edsa People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship without a single shot fired, without one participant killed.
The book, “Endless Journey, a Memoir,” will be launched on Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. in the Kalayaan Hall of Club Filipino, Greenhills, San Juan City.)
Many of the generals and flag officers had been corrupted by the regime and, in the eyes of their juniors, no longer deserved their loyalty and obedience.
I heard these when we engaged in conversations over coffee. I listened to them and asked a lot of questions. All this was very real to me because it was the same experience I had when I was a second lieutenant, when my platoon mutinied. More than two decades had passed and the same problems continued to bedevil the Armed Forces.
The officers and I used to meet in two places: the basement of the defense department building, where Lt. Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan worked as chief of security of Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, and the office of Lt. Col. Victor “Vic” Batac in Camp Crame. Vic was a key officer in the intelligence staff of the Philippine Constabulary. That room in Camp Crame became my office, practically, for five years.
That was how the Reform the Armed Forces Movement began, from the depths of the soldiers’ despair. “An entire generation above us,” the RAM mutineers would later proclaim memorably, has failed “to respond to a moral crisis.” The Armed Forces was perceived by the people as the tuta (lapdog) of Marcos.
Marcos reshaped the Armed Forces to fit his own ends. National security intelligence, and presidential security functions were placed essentially under one man who was also later appointed chief of staff of the AFP. This monolithic structure, oiled by personal loyalties, martial law sanctions and material rewards, led to unprecedented corruption and unchecked abuses. Promotions became a matter of outsmarting fellow officers and proving personal loyalty to Marcos. The distinction between national security and the personal interest of Marcos blurred. The military became Marcos’s political partner in maintaining power and accumulating ill-gotten wealth.
The established order no longer served the purpose of serving the common good. It was a cruel form of politics, dictatorial and oppressive. Marcos and his cronies commanded the economic lifeline of the nation. It became crystal clear that Marcos was not strong enough to resist the temptations of power.
Gringo, Red, Vic
When Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated in 1983, my decision to join the RAM became more urgent. The yellow demonstrations grew intense. I was spending a lot of my time with three people: Gringo, Lt. Col. Eduardo “Red” Kapunan, and Vic, all members of the PMA Class of 1971. We limited our contact with the rest of the men because we were careful about security, of being found out. When we got in touch with many of the young officers, it was not about the RAM but about their complaints, their heartaches about the profession they so loved.
I had graduated from the PMA 15 years before they did, so I was the eldest in the group. Knowing my history, some of them were initially suspicious. Not only was I an intelligence officer—a posting that had often attracted those who thrive on secrecy, intrigue and even betrayals. I was Marcos’s special man in Vietnam, where I did highly specialized covert operations. I had also spent many years in Malacañang, in the dictator’s executive office, working with Alex Melchor, whom many in the political and military elite regarded, unfairly, as a Trojan horse for the Americans. Furthermore, I worked in the think tank of Marcos in UP, churning out intellectual rationales for his policies.
I think the suspicion arose primarily from the notion of intelligence and how it is used. The CIA swashbuckling, double-crossing kind is the more popular one. For sure, it is a powerful tool in knowing an enemy and oneself, assuring one of victory. After all, military art teaches that half the battle is won if we know ourselves and the enemy, their capabilities and intentions. This is the conventional view of intelligence. But this was not how I applied intelligence operations in Vietnam, where we used it to build and not to destroy. The same principle eventually worked in People Power ‘86, where we used it to ensure that there would be no casualties.
But we all worked for Marcos, in a way. These young men in the RAM were new graduates when martial law was declared in 1972. They were the ones used to implement it, in the police force and military. The point was, we were in a new situation.
Beyond the sense of injustice we felt, we needed to find an anchor, an ideology. We wanted to make politics serve the nation rather than selfish vested interests. The RAM looked at the basic problems of Philippine society and the mother of it all was the linkage between our business elite and our political elite. The oligarchy, both the political and the economic oligarchy, had set us back and kept us in this highly inequitable society.
What was needed was to transfer, over time, to the people the power which the oligarchs controlled. In practical terms, to make the revolution succeed, our primary concern was to get the people’s support.
We also made a choice as to which had primacy: the state or the individual? The ideology of the RAM was based on the protection of the dignity of the human person over the state. That was where we were coming from. If we had to die at all, then it should be to protect the dignity of the human being.
The crucial moment in the RAM was when the three members of the core group—Vic, Gringo, and Red—had decided on a plan which they had been hatching for quite some time. Vic was the strategist, the planner-intellectual. Red was the organization man, with wide-ranging contacts among the field commands. Gringo, baron of his class, was the charismatic fighting man and leader of the RAM.
When Gen. Fabian Ver took a leave of absence in 1984 pending the outcome of the trial on his alleged involvement in the Ninoy Aquino assassination, two senior officers were vying to take his place: Maj. Gen. Josephus Ramas, who was head of the Army, and Brig. Gen. Roland Pattugalan, commander of the 2nd Infantry Division. Pattugalan was the candidate of Marcos. He spent most of his career with the presidential security force.
The idea of Gringo was to ambush Pattugalan in such a manner that the trail would lead to Ramas, that he masterminded the operation. Ramas was perceived as closer to Ver than the rest of the generals.
In this scenario, they expected chaos in the military. Gringo and company would then take advantage of the situation. But how? A coup was on their minds, but it was still hazy, because they didn’t know how things would unfold.
Aim at cobra’s head
That was where I came in. “Look, this thing will not work,” I said. “It is very uncertain. You do not play a game with a cobra. You hit the cobra anywhere outside the head, you will be bitten by it. We are fighting here a revolutionary war, so we have to aim at the head of the cobra. We have to aim at Malacañang rather than fiddle with this chaotic situation.”
They debated the whole idea and they came to the conclusion that my suggestion was correct. At that point, the plan transformed into a coup.
From then on, we planned to attack Malacañang. They were very professional so it was not difficult to organize. Besides, many officers disgusted with the regime joined us.
We had to go to the details of what to attack and who the persons in charge would be. The plan of Gringo was to kill Marcos and his family. He would lead the attacking force. Red would lead the attack outside the Palace, in the park, against the Presidential Security Group.
I insisted that we had no right to take the life of anybody. It is only the Filipino people who can decide to take their lives, not us. “Our revolution should preserve life. It is paramount,” I explained. “We are fighting for political ideals and no political, social or economic ideals will justify the taking of life.”
Revolt on behalf of Filipinos
I also argued that we were not launching the revolution on behalf of Cory Aquino or the politicians; it was on behalf of the Filipino people. And that was the reason why I wanted the Filipino people to decide on the fate of Marcos and his family. I said the Marcoses should be kept alive so they could face a people’s court. We debated this very intensely. A few entertained the wild idea that I was defending Marcos because I was an agent of Gen. Ver.
As to Ver and the others, I left it up to them because their case was different. They belonged to the military and we were both combatants. They were defending Marcos and we were attacking the government. It was not for me to say, “Preserve their lives.” This depended on whether we succeeded or failed.
In the end, Gringo, said that to attack and kill Marcos would require a smaller force than having to capture him and his family. “We do not have that big a force,” Gringo pointed out.
After an extended discussion, they finally agreed that we were going to capture the family. Gringo had to recruit more people. Not only would that risk the discovery of our plot. It would also raise the volume of casualties on both sides. 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.
We vied for the honor of leading the attack on the Palace and on its presidential guards. It was decided that the task would go to Gringo. I gave him a keepsake, a Russian AK-47 assault rifle I used during my sojourn among the Viet Cong and which, in happier times, I had intended to present to President Marcos.
Red would lead the attack on the presidential guards on the south bank of the Pasig. Meanwhile, Vic and I would man the RAM command post at Villamor Air Base, where a battalion from Trece Martires in Cavite would join us. Maj. Avelino “Sonny” Razon, Ramos’s aide, would pick up Gen. Ramos and escort him to the Air Base where he would take overall command of the rebel forces. We chose the Villamor Air Base because of its sophisticated communications equipment.
7-person transition gov’t
Meanwhile, we also made up a list of personalities who would compose our transition government. The seven-person junta—called the Movement of National Unity—was to be made up of Cory Aquino, Jaime Cardinal Sin, Jaime “Jimmy” Ongpin, Rafael Salas, Alejandro Melchor, Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos. This team was supposed to prepare the nation for a new constitution and an election. But this did not happen. The winner of the snap elections, President Cory Aquino, took over the new government.
Basic book guide
During the planning, I asked the RAM stalwarts to read a number of books on Anwar Sadat and Kemal Ataturk. These were success stories of special operations like the one we were engaged in.
In the case of Sadat, he was part of a nine-man group that launched a coup against the Egyptian monarchy. I passed around a copy of Sadat’s narration of how the young Egyptian officers overthrew the dissolute King Farouk in 1952. I wanted them to understand the intricacies of organizing a coup against an existing government. (Sadat later became president of Egypt.)
Kemal Ataturk, on the other hand, was a Turkish nationalist leader who led a revolution that succeeded in forming the Republic of Turkey, of which he was the first president. I wanted the RAM to understand how to organize a government after it succeeded in deposing Marcos.
Our basic guide was Edward Luttwak’s “Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook,” a highly readable manual that outlined the mechanism of a coup. It also analyzed the political, military and social conditions that gave rise to this form of power grab.
In terms of the organization and planning, we focused on two components. The soft component was political and strategic while the hard component was the military side that would physically wrench Marcos from power. I left the military and tactical operation as well as the actual organization and deployment to Gringo and the others. But I participated in the planning and discussions.
Sonny Razon would later recall how I came to the planning meetings with a thick yellow pad, complete with notes and a checklist for battle, like a teacher. I wanted to make sure that they weren’t haphazard, that all logistics were in place.
What I brought to the RAM was my own experience. I ensured that everybody understood that no revolution was undertaken for any other reason except for the people, to restore power to them because Marcos had taken it away. I was also one of those who ensured that no Filipinos were killed. That had always been my obsession. No matter our differences, politically or morally, we should not take the life of any of our countrymen. We must be willing and ready to die for our cause anytime, but to the best that we can, we must ensure that the lives of others are protected, preserved. In this manner, I helped provide perspective, navigating through the implications of all our actions.
We all were confronted with agonizing choices leading to those tumultuous days of the People Power revolution. But we were presented with an exceptional moral choice. Should we follow our conscience or obey our official duty? How would we know whether or not our actions were according to the will of the Filipino people? The truth was: nobody knew. We alone must be willing to suffer the consequences if we failed.
(To be continued)
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