Shortly after the triumph of the People Power revolution in February 1986, I was asked to write a chapter in a book that would document the Marcos years. My assigned chapter was the period that began with the snap election and ended with EDSA I, a short but very dramatic period in our homeland’s history. That book was Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power.
For my chapter, I chased after military officers, officials of the Marcos and Cory Aquino administrations, activists, religious leaders, U.S. Embassy officials, media personalities and politicians. My intention was to piece together as complete a story as possible from various angles of the momentous time.
There was a glaring omission in my piece, however. I wasn’t able to get the real story of what actually happened inside Malacañang since that side’s major players were already in exile.
A few years ago, however, I gained unprecedented access to the stories of “the other side”–the Marcos people who left the country with the First Family, or who left the military shortly after EDSA. From them I was able to learn the details of a very human drama of cues and miscues, heroics and betrayals, brilliance and blunders.
Here is the inside story of those glorious days:
Marcos, confident that the U.S.—specifically his personal friend, President Ronald Reagan—would continue to support him, had himself proclaimed the winner by the Batasang Pambansa (the parliament which was dominated by his minions) on February 20, to render all protests academic. The move triggered a walkout by 57 oppositionists in the assembly.
That same day, Cory Aquino was proclaimed winner in a “people’s victory rally” at Rizal Park attended by an estimated two million, affirming “Cory [as] our only president.” There she announced a civil disobedience campaign involving a boycott of crony firms and their products, including San Miguel Beer and Coca Cola.
The effect was immediate: Crony banks suffered runs, the stock market slumped and restaurant orders of beer, Coke and even ice cream were cancelled. Despite such initial success, insiders in the Cory camp were worried, aware of the difficulty of sustaining the momentum of a prolonged boycott. Without a dramatic trigger, they knew time was on Marcos’ side, and the boycott would peter out.
Mercifully, their calculations proved wrong. What many failed to recognize in those days of great instability was that the clock had already started ticking toward the Marcos’ final hour from the time Ninoy Aquino was assassinated three years prior. There was no turning back.
Day One: The Element of Surprise
The penultimate blow came from the most unlikely sector–the military. In the early evening of Saturday, February 22, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Constabulary Chief Fidel V. Ramos declared their open break with Marcos at a press conference in Camp Aguinaldo attended by hundreds of foreign and local journalists. It was a totally unexpected move, and the nation held its breath.
Contrary to later claims by the leaders of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), who were in the forefront of the revolt, their radical step was not so much aimed at saving the nation as at saving their skins.
The original plan for their so-called “tactical defensive action” was a coup d’etat against the Marcos regime, an elaborate plot to force Marcos to step down. It would involve a small group of commandos sneaking into Malacañang Palace through the Pasig River. Some collaborating officers of the Presidential Security Command (PSC) would let them in. They didn’t intend to do harm to the president and his family, the plotters claimed, although by practical reckoning, if a firefight ensued, there was a “90 percent chance” that the Marcoses would be caught in the crossfire.
Once they were inside the inner sanctum of the Palace, the rebels would “convince” the civilian and military leadership to step down, after which a revolutionary government would be declared. Immediately, a military tribunal would be convened to try prominent military leaders for criminal acts against the people.
The attack on Malacañang would’ve taken place simultaneously with attacks on Fort Bonifacio (the Army headquarters) and Villamor Air Base (the Air Force headquarters)to neutralize the major services’ high command. Similar blitzkrieg actions would happen in various military camps nationwide. Crack troops from the northern provinces of Isabela, under Col. Tirso Gador, and Cagayan, under Col. Rudy Aguinaldo, were already positioned in parts of Manila as reinforcements. Other provincial troops would start moving in upon the assault’s start.
The RAM leaders had informed the Cory camp that something would happen that weekend. No details were given, but Cory’s brother, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, who went with Cory to Cebu, was told to “take her to a safe place” the moment he heard news from Manila.
The RAM operatives had also arranged with cause-oriented moderate groups to stage demonstrations in support of their coup—to show the nation and the world that the military action was a popular cause and that the RAM was not acting in isolation.
A committee or junta composed of civilian and former military leaders was to take over the reins of government for a year, while a constitutional convention was convened and presidential and local elections called. Junta members would have been: Enrile, Rafael Ileto, Cardinal Sin, Cory Aquino and United Nations Deputy Secretary General Rafael Salas.
Whether these people would’ve been agreeable to such arrangement is unclear. Another option was a council composed of sectoral leaders including some from Marcos’ political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement). (Much later, Enrile would confirm that the turnover of authority to Cory Aquino and Doy Laurel was only their third option.)
Various factors went into the decision to strike on February 23. As the RAM correctly assessed, the outraged population was raring for a fight and Aquino’s civil disobedience campaign had caught fire. The resignation of Enrile and other government officials would add drama to the RAM’s military action.
Also, a retired colonel in Enrile’s office who dabbled in astrology had determined that the alignment of the moon and the planets augured well for a decisive action on that date.
It was “all systems go.” The families of the lead players were taken to safe places and salary advances for the participating soldiers were arranged. Reformist supporters in the PSC provided daily reconnaissance reports of the palace grounds and Malacañang Park, where the guards were headquartered.
Unknown to the RAM plotters, the Marcoses already had a general idea of their plan. Col. Irwin Ver, the commander of the Presidential Guards (a unit of the PSC tasked with guarding the Palace) and PSC intelligence chief, had planted a mole in RAM meetings and forced some secretly conspiring PSC officers to confess. The RAM leadership, however, compartmentalized its planning, and only a very select few the knew the overall picture. The informants only knew their respective roles. It was up to the PSC operatives to put together the pieces of the puzzle.
What they knew then: Honasan and a few of his men would enter Malacañang at dawn, led to the presidential quarters by Capt. Ricardo Morales, aide to the First Lady. As a diversionary tactic, a PSC/RAM soldier would explode a bomb at the grandstand. When the commotion starts, the 2nd Infantry division at Camp Capinpin—PSC’s support force—would move in, ostensibly to provide reinforcements to the PSC. The battalion commander was Col. Jake Malajacan, a RAM insider, who would instead provide support to the rebels. The PSC also had information about the general plan to take the other military camps. What the palace defenders didn’t know for sure was when the RAM would strike.
General Fabian Ver, AFP chief, had already warned Marcos about the plot as early as a month before. The president, who was then in the thick of the campaign for the snap election and was visibly ailing, ordered that no arrests be made until the plotters actually broke the law—until they made their move.
Marcos made Irwin Ver report to him daily on the details of the Malacañang defenses, cover and concealment strategies, and even the names of the soldiers at the forefront. He was also up-to-date on intelligence reports about RAM. Ver recalls that for about 40 minutes each day, the president would talk to him about military history and tactics. “His mind was still very sharp,” he remembers, but after their meetings, the sick strongman would be taken back to his bedroom to spend the rest of the day asleep.
On Thursday, February 20, Honasan, Col. Red Kapunan and the other members of the RAM tactical group began to sense something was wrong. Tanks were moved from Malacañang Park across the Pasig River to the grounds of the presidential palace. One marine battalion from Fort Bonifacio was also transferred to the compound. (Ver says they had 16 battalions out of 21 in Metro Manila stationed in Malacañang then.) Reformist leaders were getting cryptic messages from their friends who had access to Malacañang.
At dawn on Saturday morning, a platoon of Marines was seen jogging around the periphery of the house of Gen. Artemio Tadiar, Marines commander, in Fort Bonifacio. It was highly suspicious behavior, so Tadiar called the camp’s military police and had them arrested. Five of the men belonged to the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and assigned as security to trade minister Bobby Ongpin.
With reports from RAM moles in Malacañang that booby traps were being laid on the palace grounds, the RAM tactical group was forced to freeze implementation of their plan. “We would have been sitting ducks out there,” a RAM trooper later commented.
Fearing they would be arrested that day, the RAM leadership ordered a dispersal of officers associated with the group. Honasan, Kapunan and Maj. Noe Wong (now ambassador to Cambodia), Enrile’s aide, went to see the defense minister at his home early that morning and suggested that he fly to Cagayan until things cooled down and they could regroup.
The “plotters” meanwhile, would go into hiding and wait for an opportune time to carry through the plan. It was then that Enrile made the momentous decision to hold out at MND as a “symbolic act,” if nothing else, before the fight to the death.
The RAM men knew it wasn’t a good idea. They did not control Camp Aguinaldo, and tanks could easily assault the area itself. They realized that the odds were against them; that they were outgunned and outnumbered. But were they to be annihilated, the whole world would witness their slaughter and direct its outrage at Marcos. It was a time for heroics, and they considered themselves the martyrs of the hour.
Despite reconciling with their fate, the RAM leaders took steps to improve their chances of survival. Kapunan, who was in charge of diversionary tactics, sent out small mobile troops with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in strategic places around Aguinaldo; 125 five men, including young RAM officers, were deployed to Fairview, near Montalban, to await instructions. This was the group that would later take Channels 4 and 9 off the air.
Enrile’s political savvy and the RAM leaders’ painstaking work of establishing solidarity with anti-Marcos groups were put to good use. Enrile knew he had to have the support of Gen. Ramos for military leadership and credibility; thus his crucial call to the Constabulary chief who was at that moment being picketed at his home by the Cory Crusaders.
With Ramos on his way to Aguinaldo, Enrile asked his friends and family to call Cardinal Sin to solicit his support, and Butz Aquino, for his group to surround the camp. He also reportedly called the ambassadors of Japan and the U.S., and his friend and mentor Rafael Salas in New York to inform them of his decision.
“We expected about a hundred thousand,” Red Kapunan later said. But the magnitude and enthusiasm of the crowds and the eventual reversal of roles– that of unarmed citizens protecting armed soldiers–exceeded their wildest expectations. This role reversal guaranteed the rebel soldiers’ and Philippine democracy’s survival.
Without millions of civilians providing nonviolent support and chanting “Cory, Cory,” Enrile and his men would have pushed through with their original plan for a junta, some of Marcos’ military men would have initiated retaliatory attacks, and the Reagan administration wouldn’t have been persuaded to push Marcos to leave.
As Enrile and Ramos prepared for their press conference, the Marcos generals were proceeding to the wedding of Air Force Gen. Vicente Piccio’s son. At the palace itself, Bobby Ongpin conferred with Marcos until five o’clock that Saturday afternoon and did not notice anything unusual in either the mood or the movements of the guards.
At that point, according to Irwin Ver, only very few people knew of the RAM plan. While they fortified the palace, they were sure that the stealth action had already been foiled. They had confronted and detained Morales, who was acting suspiciously, the day before thus confirming that February 23 was D-day. Gen. Roland Pattugalan. was also detained Malajacan, his subordinate.
What caught everyone by surprise was Enrile and Ramos’ declaration and the swift gathering of people around Camp Aguinaldo. After conferring with Marcos, Gen. Ver sent some troops to watch the periphery of the camp but with strict orders from the commander-in-chief not to take any aggressive action. Marcos was very confident that he could talk “Johnny and Eddie” out of this “madness” and that the U.S. was solidly behind him. Enrile, on the phone with Ver, had also assured the general that the first shot wouldn’t be theirs.
Day 2: February 23, 1986—People Power
The psychological warfare began as soon as Enrile and Ramos declared their defection. In reality, only about 200 fully armed soldiers were at the defense ministry, including Enrile’s noncombatant military staff and Gador’s battle-tested troops. At Crame, despite Ramos’ claim that it was solidly fortified with 2,000 men, the initial count was just 57.
During the first 12 hours, the combination of luck, people’s power and Marcos’ misreading of the realities in the streets reversed the odds in the rebels’ favor.
Yet, the potential for disaster still lurked. When Marcos presented Morales, Malajacan and Aromin on TV, RAM confirmed they had been found out. And because the president only talked about the Malacañang assault, the reformists could not determine the extent of the damage to their initial plan.
On Sunday, Day 2, Ramos had Enrile and his men move to his his headquarters in Camp Crame across the street from Camp Aguinaldo. Thus at around noon that day, the much photographed walk across EDSA, with the throngs forming a protective shield around Enrile and the RAM leaders, marked the beginning of the lovefest between civilians and soldiers.
Later that day, Malacañang got word that Enrile and Ramos would initiate military action (which was false) so the Marines, with their tanks and armored vehicles, were ordered move to the periphery of Camp Aguinaldo as a preventive measure.
That was when the famous Kodak moments of the “miracle of EDSA” happened, when soldiers atop military tanks were fed, prayed upon, hugged and wooed by the crowd to participate in the making of history.
While there was no denying the effect of such collective affection on the soldiers’ will to fight, their eventual withdrawal was actually ordered by Marcos when he woke up that day. The president thought any military action was unnecessary because he was confident he could talk “Johnny and Eddie” out of their “madness.”
That Sunday morning, Marcos was desperately trying to reach Enrile. He called up his Minister of Energy Geronimo Velasco, Enrile’s close friend, and gave him a private direct line for Enrile to call. Because it took Enrile a while to cross over to Crame, the president had to wait.
Velasco says he never found out what the two talked about, but his friend Johnny called him up around 2 p.m. and said, “I think we’re going to make it, but how soon can you fly out?” Enrile wanted Velasco to go to the U.S. and meet up with Salas so that both of them could go to Washington, D.C. should Marcos actively thwart the rebellion. (Velasco left on a private plane early the next morning, the first flight given clearance out of Manila then.)
In the Cory camp, everyone was just as shocked by the events, distrustful of the plotters and unsure of what to do next. Having stayed in the Carmelite monastery in Cebu that first night, Cory flew back to Manila the next day on a private plane and stayed at her sister’s house in Mandaluyong, which promptly became the headquarters of her people.
Plans were made to rush her oath-taking the next day for two reasons: first, to preempt Marcos’ own inauguration, thereby isolating his government with the formation of a revolutionary council and gaining international recognition; and second, to force the Enrile-Ramos forces to recognize the new civilian government under a popularly installed commander-in-chief.
It was on this day that Cory Aquino called Cardinal Sin to tell him, “We have a big problem, there is a third force.” The third force she was referring to was the Enrile-Ramos-RAM alliance whose initial motivation was to capture the reins of government.
Fearful of an Enrile-Marcos deal, some members of Aquino’s group suggested a wait-and-see attitude before throwing their lot solidly behind the rebels. It was only when Enrile himself suggested the setting up of a civilian government under Aquino and Laurel that they relented.
In Malacañang meanwhile, Ver had called a command conference attended by 20 generals and 40 senior colonels and Navy captains. He briefed the officers of the situation and conveyed the commander-in-chief’s instruction for “maximum tolerance.” There was no discussion on strategy and tactics; the conference dealt mainly with the status of troops and equipment in Metro Manila.
Ver, however, created a task force headed by Army Chief Gen. Josephus Ramas to monitor the events and plan their moves. For the military top brass, there was nothing else to do but watch TV and witness the crowd in EDSA grow bigger.
Day 3: Confusion and Consolidation
EDSA supporters burned the phone lines very early Monday morning as Gen. Ramos, speaking through Radyo Bandido (the hurriedly set-up broadcast station manned by June Keithley and friends in Sta. Mesa), urged people to take cover because there were reports that the 13 gunships of the 15th Fighter Wing under Col. Antonio Sotelo were about to fly to Crame.
Ramos, in top form as the psy-war expert he was, called on the embassies of the countries represented by the press people who were in Crame at that time. “You have some nationals here,” he announced, and suggested that they use their diplomatic clout to have Malacañang call off the impending attack.
On Santolan Road at the fringe of Camp Aguinaldo, there was a minor pandemonium as some soldiers lobbed tear gas at the people stationed but found themselves victims of their own aggression—the wind shifted direction and blew the fumes towards them.
Everyone in EDSA and those listening to radios held their breath and prayed hard as the roar of helicopters escalated. Crack fighters among the reformists fanned out to battle positions with the mission to fight back. Inside the constabulary HQ, press and military took cover as they awaited the first explosion. It never came.
Shortly before landing, the lead helicopter waved a white flag indicating that they were on the rebels’ side. Pandemonium broke out as the soldiers on the ground ran toward the helicopters and embraced the pilots–RAM members all—amid tears of joy. As Kapunan recalled later, “Until we actually saw them, we were not sure if Ver and Piccio had changed the pilots in command.”
Shortly after the wing fighters’ arrival, a radio broadcast announced that Marcos had left the Palace. There was jubilation all around as Ramos and Enrile emerged and addressed the crowds celebrating in EDSA. The news turned out to be false but, if it was a psy-war tactic, it was effective. Officers in civilian clothes started appearing in Crame to declare themselves on the rebels’ side.
The balance had already shifted: The rebels now had air power while Marcos had none. Within a few hours, they asserted that power by dropping rocket bombs in Malacañang Park, hitting the car of Mrs. Aida Ver and wounding a number of soldiers. The pilots were instructed not to hit the Palace itself so as not to harm the president.
The rocket attack further demoralized the PSC troops who felt like sitting ducks in their posts, unable to defend themselves.
In a press conference later that afternoon, when Marcos was reiterating his “no bloodshed” stance, Gen. Ver stood up and suggested emphatically that it was time to fight back, which Marcos dismissed outright. He instead announced that he was imposing martial law and a curfew.
Blas Ople, his labor minister who was conferring with Reagan officials in the U.S. at that time, later recalled: “From the tone of his [Marcos] voice then, he foisted his last sword of martial law. That was always his final fallback... But at that precise historical moment, it was the hollowest threat of all. How could he have imposed martial law when his ability to govern had shrunk to the four walls of his study room?”
Inside the presidential quarters, Marcos was trying to get Reagan to come out openly in his support. He still believed that a statement from the U.S. would effectively end the rebellion. Instead, on the evening of February 24, U.S. Ambassador Stephen W. Bosworth delivered the State Department’s transmittal from Reagan–it was time to go. The president defiantly ordered preparations for his inauguration the next day.
In the Cory camp, there was a frantic rush to iron out the details of taking over the reins of government, prompting the decision to postpone her oath-taking to the next morning. Enrile was strongly suggesting that the event take place in Crame, where it was most secure and politically symbolic.
Cory adamantly turned it down. She maintained that she was elected by the people and to hold her oath-taking in a military camp would transform her victory into a hostage presidency, installed by a military rebellion instead of by people’s power. She agreed to hold it in Club Filipino, and Enrile and Ramos were to go to her instead of she to them.
Day 4: The End Game
Corazon Cojuangco Aquino was sworn in as the eleventh President of the Republic of the Philippines at 9:55 a.m. of February 25, 1986, by virtue of the mandate given her by the people through the popular uprising.
Ferdinand Marcos was sworn in at Malacañang at noon of the same day. It was to be his last official appearance in Philippine media. Shortly after the ceremonies started, Channel 9, the only station that carried it, went off the air as reformist soldiers took over its facilities after a firefight with loyalist troops.
Later that afternoon, Gen. Ver was summoned to the Palace. When he returned to the camp, he told his son, Irwin, that Enrile asked Marcos to send Ver to meet with him. “It’s me they want,” he said. All he asked the president was for the meeting to take place on neutral ground, in Hong Kong. Appearing later in a civilian suit, the general shook the hands of his command staff and told them to “take care.” He then got in the car with Irwin, who had likewise changed into civilian clothes to accompany his father to the meeting.
As they were waiting for their ride to the airport, Marcos summoned them again to the Palace. “We are going to make a strategic withdrawal to Laoag,” he told them. As staff and family frantically packed their belongings, at around 9 in the evening, two giant U.S. helicopters came to transport Marcos, his family and trusted aides to Clark Air Base.
Upon reaching what was already American territory, Marcos wanted to proceed immediately to Ilocos, but Gen. Allen, the base commander, opposed the night flight, citing safety concerns. Whether he was deliberately stalling for time is not clear, but Allen agreed to a 6 a.m. lift-off the next day.
At 3 a.m., however, the Marcos party was roused. They had to leave, they were told, because of a report that operatives of the New People’s Army were poised to attack the camp and the U.S. did not want to get into an international skirmish. Two military jets were already waiting, a smaller one for Marcos and his immediate family, and a bigger one for the rest of his entourage of more than 70 people, which included the entire Ver and [Eduardo] Cojuangco families.
It isn’t clear if Marcos knew he was being flown out of the country or if he continued to believe that he was being flown to his home province. The former president was considerably weakened by the events of the four days and was strapped to a plane bed during the flight.
Later it became known that the abrupt departure had been ordered by the new president, Cory Aquino, who was adamant that the Marcos party leave the country immediately.
In Manila and elsewhere, church bells peeled, firecrackers exploded and millions of Filipinos jubilantly spilled out of their homes, crying, dancing, embracing one another in solidarity. It was just as Cory Aquino predicted: “When I become president there will be dancing in the streets.”
Some portions of this article are excerpts from the chapter "The Fall of the Regime" by Gemma Nemenzo, Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People's Power, Conspectus Foundation, Inc., Metro Manila, Philippines, 1988. Photos were reprinted from People Power: An Eyewitness History, The James B. Reuter, S.J. Foundation, Manila, Philippines, 1986; and Bayan Ko! Images of the Philippine Revolt, Project 28 Days Ltd., Hong Kong, 1986. Article originally published in Filipinas Magazine, February 2006.