Sunday, February 20, 2011
EDSA25: REMEMBERING PEOPLE POWER FROM WASHINGTON D-C
“We were ready to die,” Brig. Gen. Cesar Yano, the new defense attaché told us at a welcome dinner tendered for him by Bill and Bing Branigin in their Virginia home last weekend.
He sat beside retired Maj. Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, the nation’s special envoy for veterans affairs.
Twenty-five years ago, they stood on opposing camps.
Yano was a 26-year-old lieutenant with the 1st Security Battalion of strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ Presidential Security Command.
Lorenzana was a major at the Philippine Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio.
When a group of disgruntled colonels led by then Defense Minister (now Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile launched a failed coup to oust President Marcos, both men braced for the worst.
The mutiny provided the spark for a bloodless People Power revolt, drawing millions of unarmed Filipinos on EDSA – Metro Manila’s main north-south road artery, and in the process offered a peaceful alternative for people struggling to restore democracy in their own lands, from Poland to Egypt.
Yano explained that their mission was to protect the President and they were ready to fulfill that task at all costs.
Lorenzana said there was no hesitation when he rushed to Camp Crame to join forces with then national police chief (later President) Fidel V. Ramos. He was simply fed up with the way Marcos prostituted the military to keep him in power.
Bill Branigin was Washington Post bureau chief for Southeast Asia at the time. He was dispatched to Manila to report on the Feb. 7, 1986 “snap elections” that pitted widowed housewife Corazon Aquino against Marcos.
“We got a call that Enrile and Ramos were at Camp Crame so we went there and there was a sort of marathon press conference. It became clear they were playing for time, trying to gather support from the rest of the military,” he recalled.
In Malacanang, Yano was summoned by his commander, Col. Arsenio Tecson who asked him if he was ready to do his duty. Without asking what that “duty” was, he replied yes.
He heaved a sigh of relief upon his mission was to secure Marcos until he left Malacanang.
"A time of confusion"
Yano said they never got an order to attack the mutineers or the crowd gathering outside the presidential palace.
“I remember going to a press conference in Malacanang where President Marcos was asked what he was doing about this and Gen. (Fabian) Ver interrupted him. He was asking for permission to fire on the mutineers. It was hard to tell whether that was all staged or what was going on,” Branigin averred.
“A confusing time,” he remembered.
Losing the support of the national police and with the faction of the army still loyal to Marcos moving excruciatingly slow, Marine commandant Brig. Gen. Artemio Tadiar was ordered to detach two battalions from the Malacanang perimeter and move the troops with their leviathan amphibious tanks to Camp Crame.
They were stopped by nuns holding rosaries at the intersection of EDSA and Ortigas Avenue (where the EDSA Shrine now stands).
Yano said they were surprised by how poorly Malacanang was defended.
On the 2nd day of the revolt, Marcos ordered Airforce Col. Antonio Sotelo, commander of the Cavite-based 15th Strike Wing, to attack the parked rebel helicopters at Camp Crame.
We remember the anxiety when news bulletins reported gunships had taken off from Sangley Base, intentions unknown, and finally hearing the drone of approaching aircraft. There was a thunderous cheer when the choppers touched down at Camp Crame.
A rebel gunship was soon firing a rocket salvo at Malacanang, Yano recalled, and met no resistance.
“We always thought there were some anti-aircraft guns or missiles hidden somewhere. It turned out there was none,” Yano now remembers amusedly.
The US government moved swiftly to grapple with the rapidly developing crisis. State Secretary George Shultz gathered his top Philippine experts including former Ambassador to Manila Michael Armacost.
Jon Melegrito said he started fighting the Marcos dictatorship after he imposed Martial Law in 1972.
"Cut and cut cleanly"
A small group of Filipino activists in Metro DC held regular pickets in front of the old Philippine Embassy building along Massachusetts Avenue NW (in front of where the current Embassy stands).
“We were monitoring what was happening in the Philippines,” Melegrito told us.
They learned that unprecedented crowds continued to surge on EDSA.
Early morning of Feb. 25, Marcos talked to US Senator Paul Laxalt, perhaps grabbing his last lifeline, and was told to “cut and cut cleanly”.
Hours later, four helicopters parked at the US Embassy, took off and headed for the Presidential Guards headquarters just across the Pasig River from the Palace and picked up Marcos, his family and close aides for the short hop to Clark Air Base and onto Hickam Air Base in Hawaii.
“Before the departure of the then president, I had mixed emotions because of what could happen to us after the new regime takes over,” Yano confessed.
But they were relieved when Marcos finally left and discovered their earlier fears were unfounded. They were ordered to assemble at the grandstand of the PSG headquarters.
“The new regime turned out to be very friendly. We were told to continue working so there will be a good transition,” he said.
“When we learned Marcos left Malacanang it was 3 o’clock in the morning here,” Melegrito recalled.
“We called everyone to go to the Embassy. We were exhilarated because we never thought Marcos would leave,” he said.
They already had an inkling the end was near because a day earlier, they spied Embassy staffers taking out boxes.
“The Embassy was deserted but the celebrations started and it would go on the whole morning and throughout the day, till the evening,” he added.
“What surprised us were the motorists and passers-by in front of the Philippine Embassy. They had heard that People Power won in the Philippines so they brought beer and champagne,” Melegrito chuckled, adding “there was really a big party.”
EDSA People Power was such a momentous event that every Filipino old enough has a tale to tell about what they were doing those four days in February 1986.
It preceded the age of SMS, Tweeter and Facebook.
“It did become a template,” said Branigin, “of a largely peaceful uprising. Some other countries did try to emulate, more recently Egypt although I don’t think it drew directly from the experience in the Philippines. Still, they try to pursue the same goal of having a peaceful revolution.”