August 21 Stories

August 21, 1983 will be forever remembered as the day Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. was assassinated. But something else happened on August 21 twelve years prior to Ninoy's martyrdom -- the Plaza Miranda bombing in 1971. The tragedy was likewise a defining moment in Philippine history because it gave then-President Ferdinand Marcos reason to declare martial law.


The Ghosts of Plaza Miranda
Gregg Jones

There was another August 21 tragedy, the bombing of the Plaza Miranda political rally of the Liberal Party opposition to Ferdinand Marcos.
 

August 21, 1971: A Testament to My Immaturity
Mila D. Aguilar 

Young and restless in the days of revolution

 


The Ghosts of Plaza Miranda

Gregg Jones

The Liberal Party candidates at their miting de avance (Source: pcdspo.gov.ph)

The Liberal Party candidates at their miting de avance (Source: pcdspo.gov.ph)

It was the most shocking political crime the country had ever seen, an act that could be described as the Philippine equivalent of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “A day of shame,” one Manila newspaper described it in a front-page editorial, and “an infamy the Filipino people will find hard to live down, if ever.”

The scene of carnage remains etched in the memories of many Filipinos: Dying and wounded bodies litter a bloodstained stage and the asphalt below amid a tangle of overturned chairs and trampled campaign posters. On the platform, eight Liberal Party senatorial candidates, the leading critics of Ferdinand Marcos, lie wounded. A few feet away, an award-winning Filipino photographer clutches his disemboweled midsection and stares blankly into the camera of a colleague as he bleeds to death. The lifeless bodies of a 10-year-old cigarette vendor and another victim are sprawled nearby on the ground, unattended.

Ten thousand people had gathered that evening of August 21, 1971, in downtown Manila's Plaza Miranda for a Liberal Party rally to proclaim the candidates for November's congressional and local elections. At 9:10 PM, before a national television audience, at least three fragmentation grenades were tossed toward the speaker's platform, where the party's Senate candidates and other prominent Liberal leaders were seated. The first grenade clattered to the wooden stage and exploded, spraying the crowd with deadly shrapnel. Moments later, a second grenade arched through the air and exploded above the platform. At least one other grenade was thrown at the stage but failed to explode. Nine people were killed, and more than 100 were wounded.

The crowd erupts into a panic after the explosion at Plaza Miranda (Source: pcdspo.gov.ph)

The crowd erupts into a panic after the explosion at Plaza Miranda (Source: pcdspo.gov.ph)

“It is not the ordinary breed of criminal that the law is up against in this case,” the Philippines Herald editorialized the day following the Plaza Miranda attack, “but a madman with an addled mind, or, at the worst, cool, calculating and devilish killers conspiring with others to wreck the established order.” Marcos immediately blamed communist “subversives” for the savage crime, but his apparently unsubstantiated claim met immediate and widespread derision. The president's opponents widely believed he was the culprit, and this suspicion had hardened into the accepted version of the event nearly two decades later.

In 1988, several top Communist Party officials – some of whom continued to maintain close contacts with the underground – told me the actual story of the Plaza Miranda bombing, which proved that Marcos had not been lying when he accused the communists of the attack. In separate interviews, these men provided never-revealed details of a plot to bomb the Liberal Party rally conceived by the Communist Party leadership and carried out by Party operatives. Why had the information not come out earlier? Fear was the overwhelming reason.

For those former rebels who no longer enjoyed the protection and anonymity of the underground, fear of retribution from former colleagues in the revolutionary movement or the threat of retaliation by right-wing extremists had enforced a troubled silence for nearly two decades. “Disclosure of the Plaza Miranda plan would destroy the prestige of the Party. And if you destroy the prestige of the Party, you will be six feet under the ground,” one founding CPP Central Committee member explained. “When you seal a secret in the Party, you must not talk about it anymore.”


More than one CPP veteran remarked that Sison had used the attack to force Marcos’ hand.

Those who decided to challenge the code of silence have done so out of mixed motivations. Most have served time in military prisons and no longer viewed their former revolutionary activities as romantically as they did in their youth, and they appeared to have been genuinely troubled by their involvement in a bloody attack on innocent civilians. For some, long-simmering differences with Jose Maria Sison, described by several former senior CPP officials as the “mastermind” of the Plaza Miranda plot, led them to set aside their fears and talk about the bombing.

Nearly two decades later, the Plaza Miranda bombing stood as one of the pivotal points in the history of the Philippine revolutionary movement. More than one CPP veteran remarked that Sison had used the attack to force Marcos' hand, at a crucial moment for the communist movement. Marcos had played right into Sison's maneuver. The bombing considerably widened the gap separating Marcos from his moderate opponents, thus pushing the president further to the authoritarian Right and his opponents toward the Left. The suspension of the write of habeas corpus and the accompanying repression that followed the bombing also pushed may liberals into alliances with the communist underground and at the same time opened the door to systematic military abuses against the citizenry, particularly in the countryside. Martial law brought wholesale state repression and forced into the communist movement many young Filipinos who otherwise might never have joined.

Excerpted from Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement by Gregg R. Jones (Westview Press Inc., 1989). Reprint permission was granted by the author. 

A rare footage of the actual Plaza Miranda bombing and its aftermath.

Gregg Jones

Gregg Jones

In his thirty years as a journalist for The (London) Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News and other publications, Gregg Jones wrote about such diverse topics as war in Afghanistan, revolutionary upheaval in the Philippines, and steroid abuse among Texas high school athletes. He has won numerous honors and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. He is the author of three nonfiction books: Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam (Da Capo, 2014);  Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (NAL/Penguin, 2012); and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement (Westview, 1989).


August 21, 1971: A Testament to My Immaturity

Mila D. Aguilar 

U.P. students begin the Diliman Commune uprising and barricade University Avenue (Source: arkibongbayan.org)

U.P. students begin the Diliman Commune uprising and barricade University Avenue (Source: arkibongbayan.org)

When one is young, things go fast. Very fast.

On August 21, 1971, I was a very young and very slim 22. Not only that: I was, looking back on it after 43 years, very immature.

This despite the fact that I had perspicaciously foretold in Graphic Magazine the year before, when I was 21, that Marcos would impose martial law sooner or later, rallies against him rising to as many as 60,000 seething students, joined only months later by seething peasants and workers.

In those days, there seemed to be a disconnect between my frontal lobe and my hypothalamus, and certainly between my brain and my body.

Sometime after the school opening of 1970, I accused, via hearsay, an even younger man of misdemeanor in a national election of student councils. He promptly summoned me to court at Quezon City Hall. I appeared there, then without thinking twice, offered him a ride home. When his mother saw me, she was astounded. "I didn't know you were so young!" she exclaimed, as I smiled at her innocently. The charge against me was dropped as quickly as it had been raised. I did not even think of thanking Somebody for it, and went my merry way.

Just a few months later, in February of 1971, I was already heavily involved in the Diliman Commune, forgetting that I was both a college instructor at that revered University and a regular staffer at Graphic Magazine as well, covering the student beat. 

UP students bringing tree branches and desks to support the barricade blocking the road into the University (Source: arkibongbayan.org)

UP students bringing tree branches and desks to support the barricade blocking the road into the University (Source: arkibongbayan.org)

As I love to recall, I gayly played and replayed, on DZUP, the "Dovie Beams" tape of Marcos drunkenly singing “Pamulinawen” to his American mistress. Pete Daroy, my good friend and co-staffer at Graphic who was a tremendous dozen or so years older than I, had handed it over to me, telling me George Sison had obtained it from – guess who – Dovie Beams, the mistress herself, it seems.

But somehow or other, my almost 71-year-old father got wind of my naughtiness and fetched me from school, his driver parking the car right below the DZUP broadcasting station at the College of Arts and Sciences. So, like a wet puppy fished out by her nape from the murky waters, I was forced to go home, abandoning my nascent career as a notorious broadcaster.

A month later I would quarrel with my father over his fond thoughts of Magsaysay, who, I thought at the time, was "his guy." Only decades later, in my fifties, would I learn that it was Magsaysay who did in my father's pet project, the Philippine Community School, which welded together four powerful sectors of the barrio – teachers, parents and barrio and town officials – to advance education in the community.

With one stroke of the pen, Magsaysay had formed the Presidential Assistance for Community Development, and with it, the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, to counter the growing power of the decentralized Philippine Community School, which some paranoid spooks in government may have thought dangerous at the time of the still-ongoing Huk rebellion.

In any case, my dad, Jose V. Aguilar, was later compensated with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for his public service, and has since been recognized as the father of mother tongue-based multilingual education, or MTB-MLE. But I was too young and immature to appreciate those things then. All I knew was that my mother had hounded out of the house an activist friend whom I had allowed to stay in my room when I wasn't there, and my father stood by her, telling me I was sacrificing my career for a foolish cause.

Foolish? I shot back. What's more foolish than questioning Amado Guerrero's judgment of Magsaysay – and out I drew Philippine Society and Revolution, conveniently stacked in his bookshelves at my back, on the margins of which he had written his objections in Quink ink.

That quarrel spelled the rest of my life. I had to pack up and go, leave, jump ship. Soon I was at Raquel Edralin's two-story house on Craig St., Sampaloc, Manila. I stayed there only overnight, if my recollection serves me right.

The next day three men arranged an appointment with me at romantic Aristocrat Restaurant on Roxas Boulevard, where only a few months before my bourgeois ex-boyfriend would take me after one of our motel trysts. Those three men were Nick Atienza, Hermie Garcia and Magtangol Roque. Nick and Hermie I knew from U.P. Diliman. The third gentleman I could not recognize, but he was dark and swarthy, and did not at all attract me. 


I would be a driver for the underground, they said, together with the third man. In exchange, I would have a place to stay. I jumped at the opportunity, of course.

It was already well into April of 1971. Nick and Hermie offered me a job. An unpaid job. I would be a driver for the underground, they said, together with the third man. In exchange, I would have a place to stay. I jumped at the opportunity, of course. The prospect excited me no end! The prospect of driving for the underground, that is.

Soon the third man took me to an apartment, where I think, maybe, there was a married couple. I was so self-absorbed then I do not even remember them. All I remember was that this third man tried his best to be funny, regaling me with his guitar-playing and singing of popular ditties, which I tended to look down on with my classical college training. I was not impressed.

And then, once we started going the Manila-Isabela route, he started to court me. But I would not be moved. For ten days of rough roads and hundreds of miles between Manila, Tarlac, Isabela, Tuguegarao and Baguio, I would not be moved. Until, going endlessly round and round the now-defunct circle connecting East Avenue, Timog and Highway 54 (now EDSA), he popped out a magic pill. It was a typical underground letter, typed on half an onion-skin paper, then wound into a capsule so small and taped securely, it looked like a pill.

The letter said, addressed to him, You and _____ (yes, I've forgotten even my underground name) can go up to marry. Bring your sister with you. Tell everyone to bring sweaters and socks because it's cold here. It was signed, in all its splendor and flourish, Amado Guerrero. So how could I continue to say no? If I did, I thought, I may never see Amado Guerrero, ever!

So I began to take note of what this man told me as he went round and round the circle trying to convince me to marry him: I am seven years older than you, so I'm mature and can take care of you. I love you. I fell in love with you the moment I saw you at Vinzon's Hall last year (getting out of my car and carrying my camera and hefty tape recorder, I surmised, reading my class analysis into him). I saw you again at the KM HQ after that. You just never noticed me. But you can be rest assured that I have loved you ever since. It doesn't matter if you don't love me. It's better if the man loves the woman, because the woman will learn to love the man later in life. It would be different if it were the other way around.

I didn't buy that last one, of course, me and my feminism. But I did kind of agree that he was mature, and would take care of me.

So we were married in the mountains of Isabela on May 5, 1971, if I remember right – barely half a month after I ran away from home. When we descended from the mountains, he wasted no time pinning me down to a Pasay City court marriage.

And so I was hastily married, both legally and illegally, but not in mind or spirit. I barely slept in the new apartment he rented for us, but don't remember where I roamed. I must have continued going in and out of U.P., not having resigned my teaching position or my writing job at Graphic, because by the middle of August I was arranging a journalistic adventure to Isabela with two Collegian staffers: Willie Nepomuceno and Conrad Andres, who later became a top gun at the Development Bank of the Philippines. The big car we used may have been Conrad's, or it may have been Willie's.

So that was where August 21, 1971 caught me: with two boys in Isabela and nowhere to go. We had heard about the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus on the radio. Someone in town must have recognized and hidden me. I had to telegraph a hidden message to my – oh yes, I suddenly remembered I had a husband! He came as fast as he could to rescue me from myself.

Later, Ariel Almendral, related to me by marriage via one of my sisters, would tell me that our classmate, Eduardo Jonson, a handsome mestizo with big ears who had graduated from the Philippine Military Academy, had seen me and almost shot me, but stayed his hand. I did not know if I could believe Ariel. He was the same Ariel who convinced Sen. Jovito Salonga, via hearsay, to declare that the Plaza Miranda bombing was the doing of the Communist Party.

In my forties, I would hear of a testimony of a Peter something, who said that the Plaza Miranda bombing was hatched by the Communist Party of the Philippines Central Committee in a house in BF Homes Parañaque “rented by Magtangol Roque and Mila Aguilar.” I can confidently say that I rented no such house, saw no such meeting and heard of no such plan. And I can also even more confidently say that those were the days when I was young, slim, pretty and yes, in hindsight – very immature. 


Mila D. Aguilar

Mila D. Aguilar

Mila D. Aguilar is the author of seven books of poetry, the last two of which were Journey: An Autobiography in Verse, and Chronicle of a Life Foretold. In 2013, she published her autobiographical novel, The Nine Deaths of M, at amazon.com. The novel includes some of the episodes narrated here.