Our main weapon: Shock action
(Second of three parts)
While the young leaders of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) completed the deadly business of organizing a coup, I volunteered to get in touch with the strongman’s civilian opposition. I cleared all my moves with the group.
My thinking was, by ourselves, no one would follow us in the Armed Forces. For who would believe a ragtag group like the RAM? The people who were alienated from the military would not believe that our action was for them, so we needed credible civilian leaders, to get their support. We needed Cory Aquino and Jaime Cardinal Sin, who had been campaigning against Marcos for some time. Popular support for Cory was overwhelming after the death of her husband and the voluble Cardinal Sin had become the voice of many Catholics.
I was very worried that if we did not involve these key people, let them know our plans beforehand, and ask their commitment, there might be space for Marcos to maneuver before they declare their support. That space was going to be very dangerous. We needed to ensure that Marcos had no such room to reorganize his troops and attack the RAM. It was crucial that he did not have the political oxygen for recovering from our action. It was thus ideal for Cardinal Sin to immediately tell the people to converge where we were to show support.
The fact is: We were very few, a major disadvantage. Our main weapon was surprise, a shock action. If that shock action was not followed by a force, the government troops may find a window and go on the offensive. Once we took action, the best scenario was for the Filipino people to immediately rally to our side. We had agreed that if we could get people out on the streets, we could deter the movement of the loyalist forces.
Some remarked that talking to Cardinal Sin and Mrs. Aquino might be superfluous because they had already been campaigning against Marcos. But they did not know who we were. Imagine if they did not have advanced information. What if they thought that the action taken by the RAM was not real, that the withdrawal of support by Ramos and Enrile was not genuine? If Cardinal Sin and Mrs. Aquino hesitated before committing their support, Marcos would be able to reorganize and maybe quell the whole action.
Peping and Ting-Ting
We got in touch with Peping Cojuangco and his wife, Ting-Ting. When the action finally took place, they blocked the roads from Tarlac to Manila, to stop loyalist troops from Marcos’s Solid North from reinforcing him. Ting-Ting 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.
In February 1986, as the demonstrations against Marcos intensified, Peping set up an appointment with his sister, Cory Aquino, on our behalf. She was the opposition’s moral leader and it was important for her to be on our side.
Before this, Peping and I had met several times, “feeling each other out,” as Peping described in his book, Laban. He wanted to be sure of the RAM’s sincerity and true intentions. The meetings, some of which took place in his home on Acacia Street in Dasmariñas Village, lasted long. “We spoke the same language and hit it off quite well,” Peping wrote.
Cory received Vic, Red, Navy Capt. Felix “Boy” Turingan, and me, together with Peping, in the kitchen of her house on Times Street in the suburb of Quezon City at the unholy hour of 2 a.m. She had just come from a rally. (Gringo had an emergency in Cagayan so he had to leave.) We told her we were going to bring Marcos down by force and that we looked to her as our leader. We could not tell her the details of our plan, not even the date and time, but we said it was going to be very soon. We needed her because once the action began, she alone could rally the people to come over to our side.
Cory’s moral leader
Even at that late date, Mrs. Aquino was reluctant to take on the burden of the presidency. Nor did she 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.”
I was the designated spokesman for the RAM for this meeting. I pointed out that in the life of a people, every historical period requires the leadership of a certain character. And at that period in our nation’s life, in the wake of the depravities of the Marcoses and their cronies, we needed moral leadership of the kind she possessed.
You’ll be my 1st 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 then needed to do was give the word—and surely a sufficient number of those who were grieving for Ninoy would have done so. Instead, she had answered in her soft and calm voice, “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 lofty moral character. I added that the military would respect someone with a strong moral fiber; 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. If this succeeds, our agreement was to transfer power to the duly constituted authority and we will return to the barracks. All we hoped for was that the new government we would help install will seek to fulfill the yearnings of our people.
Jaime Cardinal Sin was the second person whose blessing we sought. This time I was alone. Charito Melchor, a devout Catholic who knew the cardinal well, had set the appointment. At the Archbishop’s Palace in Mandaluyong, I was met at the door by a young priest who, strangely, did not ask me in. Soon enough, the cardinal came out alone. He invited me to walk in the garden. I introduced myself and told him that we were a group who called ourselves the Reform the Armed Forces Movement. I told him we were ready to bring down Marcos and asked for his support and prayers. As to when I cannot say but very soon. He did not ask me any questions.
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,” he said, “and I’ll do mine.”
I never had the occasion to meet with Cardinal Sin again, until one day, a decade later, in the midst of serious policy disagreements between him and the Ramos government (I was then national security adviser), he told me, “General, I just finished my autobiography. Our conversation in 1986 is included in the book. But I ordered its release after my death.”
“Your Eminence, it would be a pity if I died ahead because I would never really know how you regard me,” I replied.
I had inquired about the autobiography but, apparently, it had not yet been published.
We also needed a respected leader in the military, someone not associated with Marcos and who could mobilize the Armed Forces and the National Police. Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, vice chief of staff and director general of the Philippine Constabulary, was that person.
I had known him for a quarter of a century. Memories of our time together in the Sierra Madre came rushing back. During our conversations then, we had a clear idea of what the country needed and what we had to do. We discussed the questions of why we were killing our own people, why people were rebelling. I continued to look for answers and found that the upcoming revolution was part of it.
Unsure of Ramos
I didn’t know that, earlier, Gringo and the RAM core group went to Ramos at his residence in Ayala Alabang, explained the plan: and requested his support. Ramos was noncommittal, Gringo told me later. Instead, Ramos gave them insurance forms to fill up. They didn’t know what it meant or if it was a humorous gesture to lighten the air.
They came out of the meeting unsure of how Ramos would handle the situation. They feared that the RAM members may be arrested because they had disclosed their plan to Ramos. I told Gringo not to worry. “Banish that from your mind. Ramos will keep what you said to himself, I know Ramos and I’ll talk to him at the right time. Do not be afraid of anything. He loves our country. He loves the Armed Forces. You trust his judgment.”
I knew that it was still early to talk to Ramos because he could not make a decision during that time.
His sister, Leticia Ramos Shahani, quit her post in the UN (where she was seconded from the Philippine foreign affairs department) after she spoke up in support of Mrs. Aquino and was criticized by the government. She pressured Ramos to join the anti-Marcos movement. But Ramos had a different way of looking at things.
If reports reached Marcos and Ver that he was siding with rebel military officers, he would be jeopardized. So we had to preserve him. That was the reason I was so confident that talking to him at the right time would work. I was so sure of his personal view about the situation. And when I talked to him 48 hours before we took action, I knew that he agreed with us, even without saying yes.
Throughout the years of martial law, he had stood for professionalism and dedication to duty. No deskbound commander, he was often in the field, living with the soldiers where they were. He knew all the field commanders intimately. With Ramos, I was confident that the Armed Forces and the police were going to be with us.
Cold and discrete, Ramos was a deliberate man. He kept things close to his chest. By nature a moderate, fearful of the anarchy a revolution might spark, he was also keenly aware of the consequences his decision could set off.
All of us in the RAM could lose our lives. We were responsible for no one else but ourselves. But once Ramos committed himself against Marcos and his own long-standing rival, 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. I understood why he could not pledge his support for our cause as blithely as we ourselves had done.
We talked for several hours in his office. I tried to sketch for him the crisis the nation was in, and what we had decided to do, even at the cost of our lives. At first, he didn’t say a great deal, 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. I informed him that as soon as we moved, Sonny Razon would come for him.
With his inscrutable face, he told me that Marcos was his cousin. 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? Clearly, he was weighing the competing issues.
We discussed intensely. He told me that we would be violating our democracy by launching a coup. I argued that he had to hurdle first the problem of blood relations.
Marcos and his cronies
I explained my view of Marcos. In trying to achieve the New Society, Marcos got derailed by the political process that he himself had created to attain that national goal. It was difficult for him to continue his early reforms because his allies and cronies no longer allowed him to change what they had created together. And the nation was severely affected.
Here you are, you have maintained the right path, I said. To take an extraordinary action to correct the situation is not only a service to the nation. Marcos, given for all his genius, may also appreciate it later.
These were convoluted arguments but, at that time, with the convoluted conditions, these may have appeared rational. That was the kind of conversation we had.
As I stood up to leave, he grabbed a handful of his favorite cigars from a drawer of his desk. 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.”
The US Embassy was in touch with most of us in the RAM. Many US officials who visited the Philippines came to us, some of whom met me in my quarters in Fort Bonifacio. There came a time when President Ronald Reagan decided to cut links with Marcos. Before that, Reagan sent an emissary to Manila, Congressman Jack Kemp, in 1985. A Republican, he was often mentioned as a leading contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1988. He would later run for vice president but lose.
A group of ranking US officials had met with me and arranged an appointment for Kemp with the RAM. They specified the names: Gringo, Red, and Vic. I was asked to get in touch with them and ensure that the meeting with Kemp would take place. The venue was the Manila Hotel, where Kemp was going to be the guest speaker of the American Chamber of Commerce, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and other business groups.
Kemp was on an Asian swing and part of it was a three-day visit to Manila. He also met President Marcos.
The complication was: His security at the Manila Hotel was going to be provided by Ver. How could Kemp escape from them?
The agreement was for me to bring the three officers to Manila Hotel and then, upon signal, we would all move to the swimming pool where we would meet Kemp. After the speech, Kemp excused himself to go to the restroom. He left the ballroom which was near the swimming pool and went around it while we came from the other end of the pool. We met exactly at the middle of the poolside and talked while walking. Kemp and Gringo were beside each other. Some US Embassy officials accompanied Kemp.
We did not really know what the meeting was all about, what Kemp wanted from us, so we did not discuss any talking points.
The conversation began this way. Kemp told Gringo: “I’m the representative of President Reagan. He asked me to tell you that the US government is ready to help you, from bootstraps to combat planes.”
Gringo said, in his steadfast manner: “Sir, thank you very much. All the support we need is moral support.”
Kemp was shocked. Then he said, “You know, I’m the representative of President Reagan to the revolutionary groups in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere. But you are the only revolutionary group who asked for moral support.”
That struck me as a quiet reflection of Gringo’s character. Somehow, this has stayed with me through the years. Perhaps I cling to this sliver of memory so that I will remember Gringo in his best light.
After the meeting ended, Kemp continued to walk back to the ballroom.
(To be continued)
(Editor’s Note: The above is excerpted from the memoirs of General 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 focuses on the key personalities and events leading up to the unprecedented four-day Edsa People Power Revolt that toppled the Marcos dictatorship without a single shot fired, without one participant killed.
The book, “Endless Journey, a Memoir,” will be launched on Wednesday at Kalayaan Hall, Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan City, at 3 p.m.)
Transfer power to the people
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