Martial Law Stories: My Thriller in Manila

This actually happened to me. It was such a traumatic experience; so much so that for 37 years, I’ve shared this with only a select few. I finally had the courage to talk about it last August 2017 at the Assumption College Alumnae Triennial Reunion in New York where I was one of the guest speakers. I was asked to talk about my life, how I got to where I am today, and who were the “angels or wings” that helped me along the way, and how I managed to stay airborne.

This martial law story is an excerpt from that speech.

 Buendia, Makati

Buendia, Makati

In 1980, two years before we moved to America, I went through a very harrowing experience. I was then working at the bank.  One Monday morning in May, I returned to my office after an early meeting, and my phone was ringing. My secretary was not at her desk, so I answered it. “Hello, I want to talk to Mona Lisa Abaya,” the caller said. (Abaya was my married name then.) “This is she,” I replied. He continued, “I am Commander David. We belong to an underground movement to free political prisoners, and we are asking you to pay $1 million by Thursday. If not, we will bomb your bank. Don’t go to the authorities. We will know if you go to the police because we have people in your bank. To prove to you how serious we are, a bomb will go off around your vicinity on Thursday.” And he hung up the phone.

I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know if what I just heard was true. You see, at the time, I loved reading mysteries and spy thrillers. Robert Ludlum, author of the Bourne Identity series and other books, were my favorites. Part of me was scared because this was the time when bombs were exploding all over Manila. And yet, part of me was excited to be in a real thriller.  I didn’t believe that Commander David, or whatever his name was, or his followers, would push through with their threats.  But I had to report the incident.

My father who was chairman of the bank, and my uncle, who was its president, were both out of the country. So, I went to the executive vice president to report the call. He immediately said we should report it also to one of our Board Members, who had connections with the NBI.  I was referred to the National Bureau of Investigation (our local FBI) and I called my sister, Susanne, to accompany me. Upon meeting Jolly Bugarin, the NBI director then, he asked me if I got along with all my siblings. Susanne and I gave him a puzzled look, and he explained that a few weeks before, he had a similar case, and they discovered it was the work of a disgruntled sibling.  No, I said. As far as I knew, nobody in the family hated me that much!

The director then became serious. He said he would have a car of agents tail me everywhere I went, and post agents inside my car as bodyguards. He would also assign a lady agent to impersonate my secretary, in case another call came in, and to monitor movements of other people around me. I would also have a lady agent sleeping in the room next to me.  And finally, he planted some agents in the bank posing as new hires to find out if there was anybody who had a grudge against me or who had ties to the underground movement.

While waiting for Thursday to come (the time Commander David said they would explode a bomb in the area), the bomb disposal unit was called in to check the head office building and my own office. Nothing was found. Maybe it was a hoax, I thought, as there were so many extortion cases being perpetrated at that time. But we had to be careful and prepare in case it was not a hoax.

I also met with the military, asking for their help. Because it was martial law, only Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile could order my phones tapped. Otherwise, we would have to go to the courts and that would take months, time I didn’t have. Enrile introduced us to Colonel Abadilla, who took charge of the operation. Early the next morning, a lieutenant from the military showed up at the bank’s telephone center to monitor calls coming into my line.

Thursday came, and went, without any explosion. It’s a hoax, I prayed.  

Early Friday morning, my home phone rang, and I knew something was wrong. The executive vice president said, “They bombed our Buendia Branch early this morning.” Everyone was concentrated at the head office because that was where I was, and nobody thought they would hit one of our branches. The branch security guard was lucky because he was sleeping on the job -- sleeping on the couch -- so when the bomb was thrown into the branch, the back of the sofa got all the shrapnel. If he had been standing like he should have been, he would have died.

The scare level for the next few days quickly stepped up. Commander David wanted to talk to me, but the telephone operator didn’t know where I had transferred. I moved out of my office to the senior officer floor so I could be better protected and monitored.

I had to keep Commander on the phone for at least 20 minutes each time he called while the military tried to tap the phone and locate his whereabouts. Commander was now calling every day. Commander also informed me that I was chosen (and not any of my other siblings) because they knew I would be sympathetic to their cause. But the last straw was when Commander told me he knew where my children were. From being scared, I became very angry, and I didn’t care who was listening or who was watching me.

On the day of the bombing, Commander called and said, “We know your phones are tapped, but we need to talk to you. Be at Manila Garden Hotel by 2:00 p.m. Wait in the lobby. You will be paged, and go to the phone.” I saw the military in action and I must admit they were very professional and efficient. Since I was scared to go, my bodyguard and my secretary went to meet the military in the bathroom of Quad Theater where they were wired.  My secretary was going to impersonate me. 

 Manila Garden Hotel (right) back in 1980s (Source: flickr/potet_jp)

Manila Garden Hotel (right) back in 1980s (Source: flickr/potet_jp)

A little after 2:00 p.m., an announcement was made at the hotel lobby: “Paging Lisa Abaya.  You have a telephone call.”  The agent- cum-secretary stood up to take the call, but Commander was suspicious.  “Is this Lisa Abaya?”  “Yes,” the Lisa impersonator said. “Okay, if you are really Lisa Abaya, who was the previous credit officer?” Commander asked. The agent of course, didn’t know the answer. The bank’s credit officer had just resigned a few weeks ago.  They really have people in the bank like they said they did, I thought.  

That afternoon, and every day for a week, I had no choice but to take Commander’s calls, each time stalling to explain why we didn’t have the money he wanted.  Finally, I just ran out of excuses. They agreed to get the money in pesos rather than in dollars after I told them that Imelda Marcos took all the dollars from Central Bank for her shopping sprees!  

Commander wanted me to drive to Caloocan and wait to be flagged down so they could get the money. The military wanted me to go as well, as they said it was the only way to catch the culprits. No, I told them.  “If you want to do it, find somebody else to do the run.”  So they found a female soldier with the same build as mine. I went to the beauty parlor and asked my hairdresser a favor.  “Josie,” I told her, “tomorrow, my sister, Susanne, will bring a lady here and I want you to cut her hair exactly like mine, and apply makeup to her just like mine, so she will look like me.”  Susanne brought my dress, shoes and bag for this lady to wear.  

Also, the night before the drop, some officers of the bank tainted the money so it would be easier to trace.

What I didn’t tell everyone who was involved in the operation, was that I was leaving for Tokyo that morning to meet my father.  He had wanted me to leave from the first day, but the others prevailed upon him to keep me in Manila so they could at least hope to apprehend these terrorists.  While in Tokyo, we found out that the drop was attempted, but nobody flagged the car.  Since I was no longer around, an anonymous call was made to the union president that said the following:  “We saw Lisa Abaya trying to make the drop (they didn’t know it wasn’t me), but we also saw policemen so we didn’t stop her.  This makes us very angry.  Please ask all the union members to wear the letter U on their clothing as we will now start shooting non-union members.”  There was no way we could keep it a secret anymore.  All officers and non-union employees had to be told and warned to take extra precaution. Every branch, and there were hundreds of them at the time, was granted added security.  

And then, the whole thing stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and no one ever found out who was behind it.  It’s like a whole chapter from Robert Ludlum’s book was torn out, with me as the missing puzzle.


I am Commander David.  We belong to an underground movement to free political prisoners, and we are asking you to pay $1 million by Thursday.  If not, we will bomb your bank. 

The whole episode lasted only two weeks, but it might as well have been a lifetime of scars, nightmares, and anger.  I didn’t know who was watching me or who was tailing me.  Commander claimed that his men were tailing my bodyguards!  They had the advantage because we didn’t know who they were. 

We had Armalite rifles in the car and that’s why I had to keep my children away from me. I had to learn how to shoot a gun, a .45 caliber, for my protection.  The military issued me a permit to carry the gun and ordered me to shoot first and ask questions later. 

I couldn’t sleep.  I was angry at the injustice in this world.  I became more acute to suffering, oppression, pain, and poverty, and I promised myself that if I survived this, I would do something to correct the situation.  I didn’t know yet, at the time.  Suffice it to say, I was helped by so many angels/wingers – politicians, government officials, the military, cops, bank employees, and officers, beauticians, family members and so many more – without their help, I probably would not be around today (again)!

After this incident, the dream of emigrating became more ardent.  Choosing a place to go was not easy.  I went to Australia to check out the place, but I didn’t like its labor policies.  Canada denied my request to immigrate there because I already had relatives residing there.  As luck would have it, my father had a trading office in San Francisco, and I could get a working visa.  We have been living in the United States for 36 years now.

Sometimes when I am in Manila, I look around me to see if anybody is following me. I still can’t shake it off completely.