Part 1 by Raïssa Robles
President Corazon Aquino was an “ordinary housewife” who was constantly attacked – literally – by military rebels. She stood up to them and saw them off.
Would her critics have been as tough?
What would the country be like if President Cory had given up because of any of the coups that took place from 1986 to 1989?
To begin with there’s a strong likelihood Juan Ponce Enrile would have replaced her as leader of a military-civilian junta. The country would have hurtled toward a dark, uncertain future of intermittent coups and counter-coups.
Enrile himself indicated as much in the memoirs he published in 2012. But more on that later.
For now, let me answer the question – So what did President Cory – derided by her critics as “walang alam” or clueless actually accomplish?
Simple. She stood fast and allowed the Republic to take root and survive. If, like any of the trapos around her, she had given up, we would have been ruled by one or several juntas by now.
I must confess that for a long time, I was mad at President Cory.
Furious even, because she had THE POWER to reform the country, and yet she failed to do so. She could have been a benevolent dictator – the kind Filipinos had long dreamt about – and yet she never wielded the vast revolutionary powers that she had under the Freedom Constitution.
Once she stepped down from the presidency the scent of failure followed her into early political retirement. She was saintly, yes. She kept her integrity intact while occupying the highest office. But there were two perceptions of her that persisted – she was “walang alam at walang nagawa.”
After all, there was little to expect from a housewife whose main political duty was once to serve coffee to the politicians who would visit her senator-husband.
After she died in 2009, I asked Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who served as her controversial Interior and Local Governments Minister why she did not use the awesome powers of her office.
Pimentel told me, “Because she wanted to be the opposite of Marcos.”
I have thought about what Pimentel said since.
Now looking back through the prism of historical events, I realize that the only way President Cory could have succeeded was to be the exact opposite of Marcos. Because if she had started acting like Marcos, she would have lost the support of the masses who had put her in office. Without popular support for President Cory, the RAM boys led by Lt. Col. Gregorio Honasan would have been able to dislodge her from the presidency.
As the 1990 Final Report of the Fact-Finding Commission on the coups chaired by Hilario Davide concluded [my emphases added]:
“The gravest threat to the survival of the Aquino government has been the coup attempts. Almost from the start, the repeated attempts by military groups to wrest power from the Aquino government have diverted its attention, time, energy, and resources and sidelined efforts at a systematic resolution of the myriad problems of the nation.”
“All the coups failed because, among other reasons, they were lacking in political strategy and support. The plotters apparently expected a spontaneous display of ‘People Power’ against the Aquino government which never materialized.”
* * * *
“What could have emboldened this miscalculated adventurism are two beliefs shared by some segments in the Armed Forces, namely: that the Aquino administration is too soft on the communist insurgency, and that the military handed power to the Aquino administration in February 1986.”
* * * *
“The people did not lend support to the second belief, as they applauded the dismissal of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile in the wake of the ‘God Save the Queen’ coup attempt, who had been demanding a power-sharing arrangement on the basis of that belief.”
The Fact-Finding Commission was chaired by Davide and had four members: Ricardo Romulo, University of the Philippines political science professor Dr. Carolina Hernandez, Delfin Lazaro (later an energy secretary) and Christian Monsod (a framer of the 1987 Constitution who became Commission on Elections chairman). The Fact-Finding Commission was formed after the bloody 1989 coup. It interviewed 332 witnesses over 145 session days and its findings ran up to 509 pages.
The five-member Fact-Finding Commission narrated the events that led up to the ‘God Save the Queen’ plot in late 1986, which was an attempt to stop President Cory from cementing the legitimacy of her presidency through the ratification of a new Constitution in February 1987. The Commission said a Commanding General of a major service, whom the Commission referred to as “CG-witness”, revealed the following in an executive session:
“Around the middle of October 1986, Enrile, who had arrived from Cebu, told CG-witness that he wanted to see him. A week later, (Philippine Air Force Lt. Col. Oscar) Legaspi (Philippine Military Academy Class 1971) was sent to fetch CG-witness to bring him to the MND-reception hall (Ministry of National Defense), where he and Enrile met for around ten minutes. Enrile supposedly told CG-witness that his (Enrile’s) position was becoming more untenable in government. Enrile allegedly said that the government was in bad shape and ‘it’s about time that we take back the authority we gave them.’ CG-witness claims he informed (Constabulary and Police) Gen. (Fidel) Ramos about the visit on the following day, although he was sure Ramos had received intelligence reports about the coup by then.”
The coup was timed with President Cory’s visit to Japan. She refused to scuttle her trip even after learning of the plot. Ramos, accompanied by Deputy Defense Minister Rafael Ileto went to see Enrile, who refused to budge. Ileto even appealed to Enrile’s chief aide, Lt. Col. Gregorio Honasan because “Honasan’s father and Ileto were classmates, and their families have always been close,” the Commission revealed.
Finally, the Commission said that based on the separate testimony of Major General Rodolfo Canieso:
“As a last resort, Ramos and the four service commanders went to see Enrile at 4:30 pm and reviewed the situation with him. Enrile was supposed to have asked what he should do, and as everyone was silent, Ramos allegedly signaled Canieso, being the most senior of the CGs, to give the collective opinion. Canieso supposedly told Enrile that whatever happened, the whole AFP would take measures in favor of the government as this was their duty. After a brief silence, Enrile reportedly excused himself and went into the other room. Shortly after, he returned and allegedly capitulated, saying nothing will happen. The five generals then left and returned to the JOC (Joint Operation Command). They were said to have reviewed their plans and then went back to their respective headquarters.”
Contrast this to the way Enrile described the same events in his memoirs published in 2012 [again, my emphases added]:
President Cory Aquino went on a visit to Japan. During her absence, Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo went to my office and asked me about the coup rumor. I told him that there was no truth to it. After the return of President Cory Aquino from Japan, Ed Angara who had become close to Cory, arranged a meeting at his house in Dasmarinas Village between Cory and me. I told President Cory Aquino that I knew nothing about a ‘God Save the Queen Plot.’ I told her that I had nothing to do with it if, indeed, there was such a plot.
Finally, sometime in November 1986, I was asked to see President Cory Aquino at her office at the Premier Guest House in Malacanang. Ballsy, her oldest daughter and private secretary, was with her in the room. Cory said she was reorganizing her cabinet and she wanted my resignation. I told her she would have my resignation. Under the circumstances at that time, I was already prepared to leave President Cory Aquino’s cabinet. I felt it was time for me to go. It was clear to me that President Cory did not trust me at all.
However, I told her what I felt. I said to her,’I am not your problem, Ma’am. Your real problem,’ I said calmly, ‘are the young military officers. You better deal with them rightly.’
She said nothing. She was civil when I left her room. She replaced me with Rafael Ileto, a retired general whom Marcos had earlier made ambassador to Thailand. Ileto was a good choice. He was part of the five-member Revolutionary Council that RAM planned to install in place of Marcos before the plan was discarded after the 1986 Edsa Revolution. The other proposed members were Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Rafael Salas and I as designated chairman.”
Enrile made no mention at all of any meeting with the CG-witness, nor of his meeting with Ramos, Ileto, Canieso and the three other senior generals.
Enrile did not explain in his memoirs why he was designated the chairman of the Revolutionary Council and what he thought about it.
In the assessment of the Fact-Finding Commission, the ‘God Save the Queen’ plot was the most serious since it could have succeeded if the generals had turned, along with Ramos.
The Fact-Finding Commission counted eight failed, increasingly murderous coup attempts. The bloodiest was the 1989 coup which began on November 30 and lasted for 10 days until December 9.
The rebels timed their troop movements with an ongoing Balikatan exercises with US forces.
The Commission said that during the 1989 coup, Enrile and Vice-President Salvador Laurel took turns blaming the government for the coup attempt. While the coup was underway, Laurel was in Hong Kong.
My hubby Alan, who was working for The Manila Chronicle then, vaguely recalls that reporters covering Laurel in Hong Kong saw a sign taped on his hotel room door. It said something about a “provisional government” of the Philippine Republic.
The Commission made no mention of this sign. But it obtained the tape of a phone interview Vice President Laurel gave while in HK on December 3, 1989 with John Eidinow of the BBC. When Eidinow told Laurel about the coup in Manila and asked him “for his attitude to the attempted coup and to the rebels,”
“It’s something that should not have happened. It’s very painful to see the Filipinos fighting and killing brother Filiponos. And I think the situation was exacerbated by the intervention of the United States in this affair.”
“But I don’t hear you condemning the rebels,” Eidinow told Laurel.
And Laurel replied:
“Well I don’t want to pre-judge them. I condemn the method. But I cannot condemn the cause because they have been quoted as fighting for good government. How can you be against good government? But I do not believe in the use of force and violence. I believe in constitutional and democratic processes.”
Eidinow pressed on:
“So although you condemn the course taken by the rebels, you still think that Mrs Aquino should have negotiated with them, but negotiate about what?
And Laurel rattled off a laundry list that the Aquino government had failed to do in its nine months in office:
“Well, what are the gripes, what are the issues, what are the grievances that should be addressed. I see four immediate and major failures on the part of the Aquino government. The first is the failure to unite the nation, failure to adopt a policy of national reconciliation. Second is failure to enforce them. The President is the one principally tasked with the responsibility of enforcing and executing the laws, the laws primarily on graft and corruption have not been enforced. Third is the failure to deliver basic services to the people. And this is a big disappointment especially because of the promises that have been made and not fulfilled. Finally, the fourth and the last, is the failure to provide direction and leadership. I think there should be a reasonable dialogue before we resort to the last recourse.”
Eidinow then said: “And given the answers of the dialogue, do you think Mrs Aquino now should consider stepping down?
“Well if that is the only way to avert a bloodshed or to avert a civil war. I think she should consider that as a cheap price to pay. I would be willing to step down with her if that is the only way we can avert bloodshed and civil war.”
Eidinow then pointed out: But I mentioned you would also be willing to put yourself forward if called to take her place?
“Well, that is the constitutional requirement. As Vice-President I am required under the Constitution to succeed in specific instances.”
The Fact-Finding Commission was able to obtain a videotape of a press conference jointly conducted by Enrile and Blas Ople in Manila while the coup was going on. The Commission concluded, after watching the videotape:
“Insofar as the portions of the videotape with the Commission shows, not only did Enrile blame the government for the coup attempt, but like Laurel, he failed to condemn the coup participants or call upon them to lay down their arms.”
“Laurel and Ople even suggested that President Aquino consider stepping down. Rather than close ranks to defend the Constitution and the duly constituted authority, as required of public officers, both Laurel and Enrile took turns heckling the beleaguered govenrment and thus contributed to the instability of the situation. They sounded as if President Aquino, and not the rebels, was the lawbreaker.”
Laurel was a very familiar figure to me and my hubby Alan. We had interviewed him extensively in separate occasions for different newspapers. I recently dug up a photo of Alan interviewing Laurel:
The Fact-Finding Commission totaled the damage brought about by the 1989 coup:
Killed: 50 civilians, 31 government forces, 17 rebels forces or a total of 99
Wounded: 239 civilians, 252 govenrment forces, 79 rebel forces or a total of 570
Most of the fatalities (21) and the wounded (126) came from the army
General Renato de Villa told the Commission that the Armed Forces sustained total damage of P469 million.
Besides the human toll, the 1989 coup knocked down the economy. Global Source analysts Romeo L. Bernardo and Marie Christine Tang noted in a historical study of the GDP from 1981 to 2009 that the Philippines recorded its highest ever GDP of 12.4% in the 4th quarter of 1988 – a year before the December 1989 coup.
The 1990 Fact-Finding Commission detailed how the 1989 scared off foreign investors and traders:
Philippine Airlines reported a net revenue loss of P112 million, plus P9 million due to the rebel takeover of Mactan. PAL vice-president Levy Rabanal said that based on a projected growth rate of 10% to 12%, their potential revenue loss was P226 million.
Tourism Secretary Peter Garrucho said hotel occupancy in Metro Manila plunged to 40%.
Volume in the stock exchange dropped from 3.9 billion shares in November 29, 1989, the day before the coup, to 2.6 billion shares after the coup.
Initial paid-up capital, which amounted to P297.8 million from November 7 to December 1, 1989 declined by 83.7% to P48.4 million after December 1. For the month of December, these dropped by a third to P343.86 million, compared to the P963.77 million recorded for November.
What the Commission did not report but the newspapers did was that the rebel soldiers, who occupied several office buildings and hotels in Makati, looted the premises of valuables and Christmas giveaways. In some, the rebels left their excrement in the strangest of places, like they were marking out their territory.
The Fact-Finding Commission estimated that “combined financial losses due to the December 1989 failed coup attempt based on the figures above, would be in the order of P800 million to P1 billion.”
The economy never recovered during the rest of Pres. Cory’s term, as a portion of the graph provided by Dr. Jose Ramon Albert shows. Albert is the former secretary general of the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB).
Among the reasons the rebel soldiers cited, besides their accusation that the Cory government was soft on communists and she had several in her cabinet, was that the soldiers made to fight the rebels weren’t being supported enough by the government and the government was corrupt.
Enrile, by then the Senate Minority Floor Leader, devoted four pages of his memoir to this coup which led to his arrest and detention for seven days.
“I was marked as the nemesis of the Cory regime. Because I was the lone oppositionist (in the Senate) and the burden of fiscalizing the administration’s polices and actions bore heavily on my shoulders, I was unfailingly accused of plotting coups and implicated in every attempt, real or imagined, to overthrow the government.”
He said no less than “my wedding godson” the Secretary of Justice Franklin Drilon (now Senate President) ordered his arrest for “rebellion complexed with murder and other serious offenses” – a non-existent crime. The charges were later dropped.
The Fact-Finding Commission saw the coup differently. The Commission said, quoting military scholar Samuel Huntington that:
“…the most important causes of military intervention in politics are not military, but political and reflect not the social and organizational characteristics of the military establishment but the political and institutional structure of society. When political institutions are weak and fragmented that no group or political faction exercises clear control and leadership, the military usually intervenes. The military mind abhors a vacuum of leadership and feels impelled to fill it. where such a vacuum exists and there are no ‘legitimate and authoritative methods for reconciling conflicts, a praetorian society emerges. In such a polity, the coercive power of the military enables it to come out on top. Quoting Thomas Hobbes, one author points out that ‘when nothing else is turned up, clubs are trumps.”
The problem that the rightist rebels encountered was that they did not know how to figure out President Cory. As my hubby Alan pointed out, she just wouldn’t give up. She was too stubborn to admit defeat, which was what a trapo like Laurel might have done. Ironically, her stubbornness let her see off and defeat a roomful of over-macho grunting coup plotters and leaders who dismissed her as a faint-hearted housewife – their biggest mistake. She stubbornly held on because she believed she had a God-given mission to restore democracy. And when democracy had established a tenuous foothold and a Constitution had been ratified, she stepped down after her self-imposed term of six years. It’s hard to imagine someone like Enrile and other politicians doing the same.
I think that what she lacked in firepower then, she made up for with prayers that steeled her entire being to simply hold on the way some survivors clung to trees during Typhoon Haiyan.
And for that I am very thankful. I’m very thankful now that we have this democracy that we can shape together to remake a country. A democracy that allows the fiercest, most mentally unbalanced Cory haters to attack her without fear of being salvaged.
But I haven’t told you yet about the revolutionary side of Pres. Cory. I will tell you about that in my next piece :)