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Factual Retelling of the 1985 Philippine People’s Power Revolution

Fabian Ver:  The ambush there is aiming to mount there in the top, very quickly, you must immediately leave to conquer them, immediately, Mr. President. 

Ferdinand Marcos:  Just wait, come here. 

Favian Ver:  Please your honor, so we can immediately strike them. We  have to immobilize the helicopters that they’ve got. We have two fighter planes flying now [ready] to strike at any time, sir.

Ferdinand Marcos: My order is not to attack. No, no, no! Hold on. My order is not to attack.

(Conversation held between Marcos and Ver on live TV, February 24, 1986.)

By Ferdinand Victoria

Two jet planes scream over the skies of Camps Aguinaldo and Crame. Rockets are fired. Helicopter gunships also appear and destroy a helicopter on the grounds of Camp Aguinaldo. The General Headquarters building is in flames. Three thousand Marines breach Camp Aguinaldo and an armored column of LVT-5 Tanks rumble along EDSA.

Mortars and troops are now positioned to launch a final assault on the small band of besieged defenders now holed up at Camp Crame led by General Fidel Ramos. It was presumed that his co-conspirator, Defense Minister Juan Ponce-Enrile had already perished in the Camp Aguinaldo firefight along with his intelligence officer Gregorio Honasan. A few curious bystanders watch as the final assault unfolded – they were all that remained of the 2,000 people who were violently dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets earlier. A few are wounded and killed during the strafing.  

President Marcos declares that a state of emergency esists and re-impose Martial Law. He also announces that the opposition leaders including Cardinal Sin were already arrest3ed and detained. It was 1972 redux, only this time it could have been how the 1986 EDSA Revolution tragically ended. 

Historical hindsight presents us with the opportunity to look back and ask ourselves what the Philippines and the world would have looked like had the 1986 People Power Revolution been crushed. Randy David points out that the miracle of this event hinged on a confluence of circumstances and decisions made by certain personalities. In fact, this “Hinge Factor” shaped a number of EDSA’s possible alternate endings that have unfolded in world history since 1986, if we are to go by parallels of what could have gone wrong or transpired had certain variables were configured differently. 

In coming up with a counterfactual narrative of the 1986 People Power Revolution, one is forced to ask how far back in history are we willing to go to identify which watershed events had a direct influence on the events. The non-assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino would not have led to EDSA 1986 because, as my historian-friend Michael “Xiao” Chua speculates, it was within the realm of historical possibility that Ninoy Aquino’s political pressure would have effected a peaceful transition of power that pre-empted South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

But then again, would there have been that final push to end the apartheid regime without the example set by EDSA? Or could the opposition have mustered and sustained sufficient political pressure to effect change had Marcos decided against holding a snap election in 1985? The complex permutations involved in pushing our counterfactual history further back would make for an interesting extended discussion, but that’s another story for another time.

 The question then becomes, could President Marcos have nipped People Power in the bud at all? If he was able to, what would have been the immediate and long-term consequence of that future where People Power was tragically aborted?  

My view is that the decisions and actions made from the afternoon to midnight of Day 1 (February 22, 1986) would have made a significant difference had Marcos moved immediately. A decision to swiftly end the incident that day would have preempted People Power in Manila. It would have, however, led to a People Power revolution or a civil war with the opposition based in Cebu. 

The Discovery of the Plot 

Like the Philippine Revolution that preceded it ninety years before, the People Power Revolution was prematurely discovered and pre-empted. It was supposed to be a coup d’etat to be launched at 2 AM of February 23. The coup would be carried out by Enrile and those of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). The goal was to capture President Marcos and for Enrile to head a junta. A small cadre of junior officers had already infiltrated Malacañang Palace ready to throw open the gates. Two groups would then assault Malacañang Palace while reinforcements would arrive from Cavite. At midnight of February 22, 1986 (Saturday), the plans were finalized at Enrile’s house in Makati. It was said that Cory Aquino and Cardinal Jaime Sin were already forewarned of the plot.  

Unbeknownst to the plotters, the then Chief of Staff Fabian Ver knew of the plan through a RAM spy that was turned. This led to the arrest of the Malacañang junior officers and later on fifteen (or nineteen) members of then Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin’s security detail, of whom three were loaned by Enrile and knew of the plot. Thus, within 24 hours before the scheduled coup, Palace security already anticipated the impending attack by reinforcements.

The leaders of RAM were already known to Marcos and Ver and threatened them with arrest if they continued to push for reforms long before. In fact, secret plans were drawn up to  ensure that Marcos’ impending victory and inauguration would proceed smoothly. Enrile would later claim that the plan that was to be set in motion from February 22nd called for the arrest of Cory Aquino, Cardinal Sin, civic and opposition leaders and RAM officials.

A total of 10,000 detainees would be herded to the Isla de Caballos (Horses’ Island) near Corregidor Island. All of the opposition newspapers were also to be shut down. It would appear, however, that General Ver did not seriously consider implementing the mass arrests. He, in fact, was surprised to learn at 5PM on the day the plan was to be enacted that Enrile decided to hole up in Camp Aguinaldo.  

As a friend of mine with a military background says:  “It is easier to conduct a coup in a dictatorship than a democracy. In a dictatorship, due to its highly centralized nature, you only need to take out the leader and his key officials. In a democracy, the presence of many influential political leaders, including the opposition, will make it difficult to exercise control of the government. RAM just needed to take out Marcos and his close generals and government would be paralyzed, consolidation is accomplished easily as fence-sitters would readily support the winning side.” 

With the planned coup now in shambles, Enrile had to choose between fleeing north to his stronghold in the Cagayan Valley as a renegade warlord or hope to drum up popular support. By 2PM, he made the fateful call to Vice Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos who agreed to join in. Camp Crame was now in. By 4:30 PM, Brig. Gen. Salvador Mison of the Regional Unified Command No. 8 based in the Visayas region had declared for the rebels. Still, with only an estimated 500 soldiers at both camps armed with small arms and with no artillery, armor, naval or air force, the situation was so desperate that Enrile telephoned Sin and predicted that he would be dead in an hour unless the situation changed. 

The Opposition Factor

Another major player in the equation was the strength of the political opposition led by Cory Aquino. The opposition had claimed victory in the February 7 presidential elections and with the appearance of around 1 million people at the Luneta announced the launch of a civil disobedience program on February 16 to pressure the Marcos regime. This involved the boycott of all crony-owned banks and media; delayed payment of utilities; a work stoppage scheduled on February 26 and a consumer boycott of all San Miguel corporation’s products. Although known for its flagship beer product, San Miguel sold other household products, such a drawn out boycott would have tested the population’s resolve for a long-term and sustained campaign.  

There were forces behind the scenes who were exploring the possibility of a political compromise.  One was the visit of US President Ronald Reagan’s envoy Philip Habib who met with Cory and her vice-president Salvador Laurel on February 17th to see whether a power-sharing agreement with Marcos with the latter’s resignation later on was acceptable. Cory could only have rejected the idea, since Marcos was known to be a shrewd and calculating politician who could not be trusted.  

Whether deliberately planned to avoid being implicated in the coup plot or not, Cory flew to Cebu on February 21st to promote the civil disobedience campaign and would later learn that the revolt was underway the following afternoon. Cory must have expressed disbelief upon learning that the plot were being led by Enrile and Ramos who 24 years ago planned and implemented Martial Law. She was advised to go in hiding at the Carmelite convent in Cebu and on the early morning of February 23rd decides to return to Manila, having turned down the proposal of Representative Ramon Mitra for Cory to move to Palawan province.  

Cardinal Jaime Sin must have felt the same way as Cory when learning of the unfolding events. An initial attempt to contact him by phone was unsuccessful. However, despite learning of Enrile’s plea of support as early as 5PM of February 22nd, it was only at 10:20 PM that he announced through Radio Veritas his call for popular support in support of the rebels. The radio station would provide the crucial link of providing real time communication for those already in EDSA, not only in mustering public support but also informing the rebel troops of the position of pro-government forces.  The rebels’ capture of the government station Channel 4 on February 24 would now provide live pictures of the Revolution as it unfolded. 

Agapito ‘Butz’ Aquino’s action at around 10:20 PM on February 22nd to proceed to march to EDSA area straddling both military camps provided one of the first large groups of civilians to protect the rebels. As Ninoy Aquino’s brother, he was one of the leaders of the August Twenty-One Movement (ATOM). Against the decision of his peers to wait, he called on volunteers to proceed to EDSA. Before midnight, around 2,000 to 10,000 people some from another organization- BANDILA- had already assembled before the gates to form a human barricade. However, as he would express later on, it was Cardinal Sin momentous call for support that swelled the crowd to 100,000 the following day that he gave credit to.  

The American Interest 

One must also consider that this drama was being played out in the midst of the greater context of the Cold War and the Philippines was considered an important anti-communistally by the United States. The presence of American naval and air bases in Subic and Clark respectively meant that American interests would be potentially affected whatever the outcome of the EDSA Revolution 

Marcos’ decision to allow foreign observers to the election that included the US Senator Richard Lugar was an opportunity to prove before the Americans that he was confident that he had the power to garner popular support. When the US government expressed concerns about the conduct of the election, President Reagan sent his envoy Philip Habib to figure out whether a political compromise was feasible.

He learned that a power-sharing agreement between Cory and Marcos was out of the question for Cory. On February 19th, the US Congress passed a resolution condemning the elections. On the morning of February 22nd, he had breakfast with Enrile and we could only wonder whether he already knew that the aborted coup was in the offing. By noon, he and US Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Bosworth were in Malacañang to meet with President Marcos. They suggested the removal of General Ver from office. As he left Manila at 2 o’clock that afternoon, he was said to have predicted that Marcos “was finished” and the president should be evacuated to the United States.  

The Philippine Military

 The Philippine military hung in the balance but on the afternoon of February 22nd, it was still heavily tipped in favor of Marcos and was capable of bringing a swift end to the rebellion. Marcos still possessed the land, air and sea assets with the exception of Mison’s command that was localized in the Visayas 

At the head of course was Chief of Staff Fabian Ver, whose removal from office was the crux of the American recommendation to defuse tensions. But would it have been possible for Marcos to do so given the precarious situation? Probably not. If his cousin, Vice Chief of Staff Ramos had been so bold to mount a rebellion, whom he could trust more than his province-mate to turn this situation around? One account tells that Ver actually resigned on February 17 and that Ramos was to replace him, but then extended Ver’s term until the end of February. If that actually happened, surely Marcos should have announced that before the public or offered that compromise to the rebels during the initial stage of the negotiations. In any case, Ver agreed to accommodate the rebels’ request for a ceasefire in the evening of February 22nd but also issued orders to cut the power and water lines to the camps towards midnight. 

 To be continued next issue

The author has degree in History from the University of the Philippines. He served at the Philippine Consulate General Sydney from 2003 to 2008 as Vice Consul. A Certified Paralegal since 2011, he is a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants (NALA), the umbrella organization of paralegals in the United States.