After EDSA, Coups d'Etat

National Defense and Democracy

The euphoria generated during and in the aftermath of the military-civilian rebellion at EDSA—henceforth called the People Power Revolution in Philippine national discourse—was tempered by an undercurrent of distrust and fear of military groups still loyal to President Marcos. As Martial Law took its course, these elements were widely understood to have been divorced from the liberal democratic principles of civilian supremacy and military professionalism. Evidence were surfacing of mass atrocities, targeted disappearances and torture, and other human rights violations. Such accusations from myriad publics weakened a national defense establishment already regarded as incompetent and corrupt. General Fidel V. Ramos, appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) of President Corazon Aquino’s government, pursued sweeping reforms in the military establishment. He understood the need to reverse the damage wrought by the Marcos years. Organizing the rehabilitation of what had become a politicized AFP and a beleaguered PC, he addressed the points of institutionalized moral corruption.

Rethinking the command structures of these institutions, General Ramos conducted performance reviews and skills assessments, and employed the outcome as a basis for reassigning specific officers and staff. Policy and personnel reforms were institutionalized to prepare the way for cleansing the ranks. Significant results were felt immediately, particularly in the reversal of the decades-long swing away from discipline and professionalism. The reorganization efforts’ pace was observed to be deliberate but measured. Change was extensive and, in the view of even those most affected, decisively implemented. Determined leadership was necessary under the those circumstances, because change was frequently met with resistance and reservation from within the ranks. During his tenure as AFP Chief of Staff, General Ramos oversaw a deeply divided and disgruntled military force navigating its way through the country’s tumultuous transition from autocracy to democracy.

The success of General Ramos’ reform agenda, by his own account, he owed in large measure to his personal trajectory, from the period immediately after the Second World War, when he served in combat duties in Luzon’s Sierra Madre range against the Marxist-Leninist Huk bands (Hukbong Magpapalaya sa Bayan or the People’s Liberation Army); to the Korean and Vietnam Wars of the mid-20th century. His well-known empathy with soldiers in these battlefields proved crucial to his strategy design during the post-Martial Law period. He knew that the mismanagement of field resources and the neglect of soldiers’ welfare aggravated their already difficult living conditions. As a field commander in most of the tours of duty he served, the realities he experienced informed his understanding of the military as a troubled institution. His response then relied on consensus-building within and across the four branches of the military: the Constabulary, the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy with its Marine Corps. Insights gleaned from these commands formed Ramos’ results-oriented paradigm shift towards strategic and long-term solutions.

The essence of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement’s (RAM) agenda, which motivated them to mount the coup against President Marcos, was met with agreement from the top. During the term of General Ramos as Chief of Staff, the institutionalized system built within the military submitted to a rigorous moral and honor code. Meritocracy was idealized and effected; the chain of command had to be non-negotiable. In an interview post-presidency, President Ramos said, “there must be a continuous process of weeding out the misfits, and the so-called rogues in uniform, or, as we say in the military and the police, the scalawags. That should be a continuous process, no matter who gets hit.”

Appointed by President Aquino in 1988 to head the Department of National Defense, Secretary Ramos continued his advocacy for reforms, this time engaging the civilian contingent of the department. He took up the additional agenda of ensuring the emergence of an exemplary organization that fulfilled its mission and mandate. Secretary Ramos focused on the Defense Department’s human resource development capacity. The outcomes included an enhanced civilian-military-police teamwork and increased abilities in disaster response and mitigation. As Defense Secretary, he was concurrently Chairman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council and Vice Chairman of the National Peace and Order Council.

The AFP experienced increased momentum towards a self-reliant defense posture, in large part because its work was reinforced by multi-sectoral consultations with civil society leaders at the grassroots, with the commands, and within the department. Through these exercises, the AFP identified areas that required attention and resources. Secretary Ramos’ holistic approach to military capacity building also included rationalizing the department’s financial and personnel requirements, research and development, advanced skills training programs, bilateral and multi-lateral engagements for technical assistance, and the development of the reserve force. A rekindled esprit de corps was palpable as reforms gained traction. The balance of power between civilian authority and the military was recuperated, renewing public trust and confidence.

AFP Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos issues a statement upon his appointment as Secretary of the Department of National Defense.
National Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos was recognized for his loyalty to the Philippine Constitution and his defense of democracy.

Ramos family archives
AFP Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos issues a statement upon his appointment as Secretary of the Department of National Defense.
National Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos was recognized for his loyalty to the Philippine Constitution and his defense of democracy.

Ramos family archive

Defense of the Republic

Ratified on 11 February 1987, the 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, which came into popular discourse as the “Cory Constitution,“37 expanded the role of the AFP as protector of the people and the State. It clarified and reinforced the AFP’s goal to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory. It reasserted the primacy of civilian authority at all times, specifically over the military. Elective and appointed officials from all branches of government, including the majority of the AFP, swore allegiance to this new Charter.

However, internal peace was to prove elusive during the Aquino Administration. President Aquino faced a series of nine coup d’etat attempts engineered by two opposing factions within the military. One faction was composed of the military elements that remained loyal to the ousted dictator. The other, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), was driven by deep and divergent, but intersecting, grievances against the Aquino government. The coups d’etat cost the lives of many soldiers and resulted in substantial collateral damage.

The nine putsches involved elite military units, notably the Scout Rangers and the Marines, together with 3,000 renegade soldiers, in a coordinated series of attacks on major military camps nationwide, television stations, airports, and Malacañang Palace itself. The threat of each attempt was serious, and involved the possibility of bodily harm to President Aquino. The attacks also damaged the reputation of  the Philippines as a country given to peaceful, bloodless protest and rebellion. Significantly, the events undermined the progress thus far made by the Aquino administration to restore democratic institutions and reanimate the economy. The instability was viewed by global centers as an indication of Philippine democratic decline, so soon after the world’s first dramatic people-powered political change in the second half of the 20th century.

These coups occurred during the tenure of General Ramos as Secretary of National Defense. His loyalty to the Constitution and to his President put him contra the putschists, many of whom he knew personally. Their repeated routing at his command was understood then, at the end of the 1980s, to be largely the result of the Defense Secretary’s military acumen. He brought to his civilian role a lifetime of training and experience in all manner of combat. Secretary Ramos himself planned the counter-offensives. His tactical advantage as a past military intelligence operative served him well in preventing the Republic from descending once more into a military-backed centralized form of governance.

Nevertheless, he understood that the cost—the wounding and deaths of soldiers and unarmed civilians, and the displacement of families and communities—had significant repercussions. The coups as a manifestation of political and military instability disrupted the momentum of democratization and depleted the scarce resources of government. The international community expressed grave concern over the Aquino administration’s ability to contain and mitigate the damage wrought by the coups, while also offering assistance in post-coup libertarian scenarios.

Secretary Ramos’ resolve and focus, however severely tested they were during these power grabs, eventually resulted in missions accomplished: to reform and transform the Philippine military, and to commence peace initiatives with secessionists and insurgents. The uniqueness of the historical period was not lost on him. He understood the need for prudence as he arrived at decisions, mindful of potentially adverse repercussions from faulty judgement calls. He defended the administration against elements within a military establishment of which he was a part for decades. He was presented with moral dilemmas during significantly challenging passages, such as, in the face of eminent defeat, the men in uniform cautioned against taking lives while civilian officials pushed for the opposite. Always, Secretary Ramos stood by the constitutional guarantee of the right to life.

AFP Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos fields phone calls during an attempted coup.
The AquinoAdministration suffered a total of nine coup attempts, all unsuccessful under the watch of General Fidel V. Ramos who was later appointed Secretary of the Department of National Defense.

Ramos family archives

Territorial Integrity

Defense Secretary Ramos was the principal architect of the integrated initiatives supporting President Aquino’s National Reconciliation Program. His roadmap for peace and development was of deeply personal importance to him, and he drew insight from his military career that went all the way back to his deployment as a soldier to the Korean and Vietnam wars. The futility of war in settling ethic, religious, economic, and social differences had come to him early. He came instead to rest his faith in people empowerment that secured “bridges of peace” and in transformative countryside projects that strengthened “roads to development.” He institutionalized strategies that he refined through decades of experience with cultural diversity and war—a mastery of ways to neutralize enemies, at times winning them over, but always finding more effective means other than combat. Secretary Ramos founded his peace and developmental legacy on relationship- and community-building, believing that enduring peace can be shaped only on the principles of sustainable development.

On 13 March 1989, President Aquino promulgated Executive Order No. 350, an amnesty program for rebels and persons disenchanted with authoritarian rule. These were the individuals who signified their voluntary return to peaceful citizenship and the surrender of weapons and ammunition in their possession. The program also facilitated their rehabilitation and eventual reintegration into their communities, where their resumption of life was supported by dialogues on their transition. The Order served to demonstrate the Aquino administration’s sincerity as the peace talks proceeded under a democratic order that was then in the process of being restored. On the foundation put in place by EO 350, peace talks commenced with the main actors of the communist insurgency and Muslim separatism. The amnesty program absorbed 4,500 rebels: 2,100 from the CPP-NPA, and 2,400 from the MNLF. This institutionalized amnesty was at that time perceived by all concerned to be the initial step in a comprehensive peace and unification process. Related measures moved the initiative forward, notably including the release of political prisoners incarcerated by the previous regime. Process gaps kept progress slow, but a milestone was achieved on the road to a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace.

In 1990, Republic Act No. 6975 merged the Philippine Constabulary with the Integrated National Police, renaming it the Philippine National Police (PNP). National in scope and civilian in nature, the PNP’s mission was articulated as peace and order enforcement under the oversight of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. This streamlined the national security sector. RA 6975 also effectively reorganized the Philippine military, reducing the major services of the AFP from four to three—Army, Navy, and Air Force—all under the Department of National Defense. Internal reforms continued within the Defense Department and the AFP throughout the term of Secretary Ramos, who maintained his commitment to the values of duty, honor, and country; and the conduct and performance implied by this commitment. His frequent provincial sorties to military camps and troops deployed to the field became more frequent, each visit featuring the “FVR patented” communal feasting (“boodle fights”) and friendly card games. He visited more than fifty military camps and barracks, exchanging ideas with soldiers whose recollections and reflections on their experiences proved instrumental in improving efficiency in fulfilling targets, their aspirations for their families, communities, and their nation.

During these visits, Secretary Ramos was wont to share his own insights on defining new battlefields beyond trenches and foxholes; and molding “soldiers of peace” to fight wars against poverty, hunger, disease, calamities, and oppression. He defined a multi-dimensional role for himself and the Armed Forces—as keepers of the peace and catalysts of understanding and goodwill—and demanding the full use of their capabilities to accomplish missions. The troops eventually shared the understanding that soldiers are peace-builders who contribute significantly to nation building. Under its Secretary’s direction, the Defense Department pursued legislative programs and the budgetary support necessary to promote internal security and stability. Counter-insurgency measures were based on a “total approach” that included civil military operations focused on human and food security. The engineering infantry brigades built roads, bridges, and other infrastructure in conflict zones; secured areas where farmers and fisherfolk till their plots and haul the day’s catch; and, deployed medical and dental missions to hostile areas. These military initiatives supported local government in their locally initiated countryside development programs, promoting stable environments where lives and livelihoods can flourish.

Reforming the defense department from within the institution proved achievable but not without difficulty. These pioneering initiatives were met with significant challenges and resistance. Intermittent rebel attacks on villages continued wherever suspected military informants were thought to reside. Peace efforts were nearly scuttled with news of houses razed to the ground, murders committed with impunity, and means of livelihood ransacked and looted by military actors on the ground. Once thriving communities in hinterland areas were on occasion eroded, even as democratic revitalization continued on a national scale.

Nevertheless, the period still had high impact policy interventions, notably, the agreement signed between the University of the Philippines (UP) and the Department of National Defense to protect academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of UP. While it was not the first of its kind, the 1989 UP-DND Accord, signed by Defense Secretary Ramos and UP President Jose Abueva, actualized the commitments of Secretary Ramos to demobilize police detachments inside campuses and allow their entry only when requested by university officials or when a crime takes place inside the campus. The accord reflected the deep understanding between Abueva and Ramos of the inalienable rights to freedom, democracy, justice, and peace, and their value “for the good of UP” and the rights of the members of the community.38

Department of National Defense Secretary with one of the rebel returnees.
An amnesty program was promulgated for rebels and persons disenchanted with authoritarian rule who signified their voluntary return to peaceful citizenship and the surrender of weapons and ammunition in their possession.

Ramos family archives

Running for President

National and global awareness of AFP Vice Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos surged from the moment of his pivotal appearance, leading military forces withdrawing allegiance from President Marcos, during the 1986 People Power uprising. He was before this juncture a low-key general officer of the uniformed service. During the sequence of events on EDSA in February 1986, however, General Ramos showed up at the center of a maelstrom with a calmness that people on the streets found reassuring, and analysts considered well as the rebel head’s mastery of psychological warfare. There was however little conjecture about General Ramos’ composed conduct during the rebellion, that facilitated peaceful resolution during volatile circumstances. Filipinos took notice, and during the subsequent armed assaults against the presidency of Corazon C. Aquino, General Ramos was already well known for calibrated and swift response to anti-democratic gambits. He terminated all nine coups d’etat mounted by the “RAM-boys”—the original anti-Marcos military officers turned putschists against the duly elected President Aquino.

As the Aquino Administration Defense Secretary, General Ramos remained in the public eye for his evident allegiance to a code of honor as the coups were dealt with. It was during this time when he began to be seen as presidential timber in leadership circles. A diverse number of groups approached him, eager to organize for a presidential run. General Ramos’ response seemed lukewarm. However, he had himself been assessing his chances. He was later to describe his deliberate and methodical evaluation, which had to be unmoved by pressure nor swayed by accolades. He did not telegraph his moves. But neither were his would-be campaigners dissuaded. They laid the groundwork as early as 1990, organizing among private networks, notably including those who have publicly expressed satisfaction with the Secretary’s work and personal qualities. They mobilized across the country in “oil spots,” so-called, which enlarged quickly despite measurable skepticism in other networks. In Philippine leadership culture until that time, a professional soldier was implausible as presidential candidate, let alone president. General Ramos furthermore struck many as a maverick, unhitched to the trappings of politicians. The military was not regarded as a source organization for civilian leadership. In the case of Secretary Ramos in particular, this soldier had neither war chest nor political machinery for a presidential run. He decided to campaign, nevertheless, alert to the electoral possibilities from a long career as a soldier and officer, which afforded him innumerable opportunities to engage constituencies everywhere in the country. As Chief of the National Police, he had spent fourteen years driving the principle of people empowerment amongst grassroots communities. This was well before the People Power uprising in 1986, prior to which he was to mobilizing publics into collective action, and in the process building lasting relationships and alliances. General Ramos was by the 1980s an old hand at working with village heads (barangay captains), peace and order councils, civil society organizations, and the business and religious communities. The relationships lasted.

All the “oil spots” that initially seemed politically shapeless coalesced into informal groups, among which were the Friends of Ramos, Friends of Ramos Movement, Women Admirers of Ramos Movement, Friends and Admirers of Ramos Movement, Friends of Steady Eddie. The momentum picked up, the list grew, and the Fidel Ramos for President campaign gained the attention of mainstream media. The traction was convincing—even as traditional political groups thought that the slowly filtering news of a viable candidacy was leaked intentionally as a trial balloon, to measure the pulse of the electorate. But by the time the earliest groups had formed and united, the run for the presidency was de facto in place. The growing support gravitated towards the political center. Evolving into an organized movement, the United People Power Movement (UPPM) emerged as the body to introduce Ramos as candidate. It initiated a million-signature campaign around candidacy. All the elements of a campaign, including his platform of government, were pre-positioned, awaiting the signal to announce the decision, even absent a political party. In 1991, Defense Secretary Ramos threw his hat into a seven-way presidential race.

Candidate Ramos joined the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), the dominant political party of that period. This decision was itself a signal of the kind of politics the General was telegraphing to the electorate. With the move to LDP, he anchored his run to the party’s consensus building culture, as he intended to consolidate forces around further strengthening the party. Ramos joined the LDP primaries for its nomination as the presidential candidate, notwithstanding the popular understanding that his play was a long shot; and that he was likely to lose to the party’s central figure, Ramon Mitra, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the party’s Chairman. Prior negotiations with the LDP were held before Secretary Ramos declared his intention to seek the nomination. The parameters and conditions following the results of the primaries were a priori set in place. Secretary Ramos made clear—and Speaker Mitra agreed— that the former would still run for president even with a Mitra nomination. As expected, the November 1991 LDP primaries nominated Speaker Mitra. A few days following the convention, the UPPM presented Ramos with the one million signatures, exhorting him to persist with his candidacy. The groundswell, unambiguous at this point, had become a political force.

The UPPM became a political party, registered as the Partido Lakas ng Tao: the People Power Party. But without a track record, this Partido Lakas ng Tao failed to qualify as a party allowed to field candidates in the forthcoming election. Candidate Ramos at this point reached out to former Senator Raul S. Manglapus of the National Union of Christian Democrats (NUCD). Founded in 1968 by the Senator as the Christian Democratic Socialist Movement, the NUCD aligned with Ramos’ platform of government in its focus on national peace and development. A coalition was constructed, to be named the Lakas-NUCD. And at candidate Ramos’ initiative, the Lakas-NUCD extended an invitation to the another progressive party, United Muslim Democrats of the Philippines (UMDP), led by Ambassador Sanchez A. Ali, to form an alliance. Representing the Filipino Muslim community, the additional party came in to create the Lakas-NUCD-UMDP. It was duly accredited by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). The tripartite coalition was buttressed by Ramos’ personal ideals of inclusivity and people empowerment. It offered the electorate an ideological point of convergence.  It was furthermore a first-ever kind of coalition in Philippine political history. In due course, it was seen to have proven potent, driving the delivery of the required reforms and initiatives throughout the presidency Secretary Ramos won in the elections of 1992. During that election season, Candidate Ramos completed his official line up by inviting Cebu Governor Emilio Mario ‘Sonny’ Osmeña Jr. as his Vice Presidential running mate. The North-South partnership, and twenty-four candidates the coalition party nominates to run for Senate seats, appealed to an electorate in the mood for unifying strategies.

Prior to the elections, a presidential preference survey conducted by the polling organization Social Weather Stations (SWS) in 1991, showed candidate Ramos to be the leading popular choice. This was widely regarded by the punditry as a remarkable start for a fledgling presidential aspirant. The April 1992 survey taken by the same outfit tied Ramos with his closest rival, but he managed to recover the lead a week before the May elections. The Ramos campaign was boosted significantly by the endorsement of President Corazon C. Aquino who, at the end of her presidency, remained a highly admired icon of democracy. Her reform agenda was popular and assisted in mitigating against nine coup attempts that sought to unseat her. In surveys both formal and informal, Filipinos thought the “anointment” by President Aquino, implying her political support, would make for the difference in the contest for her successor. Mitra and Ramos were regarded as contenders. When President Aquino signaled her impending announcement, scheduled for her birthday on 25 January 1992, of her personal choice, the political temperature rose.

Political watchers knew that President Aquino’s decision would have been difficult to make. Both men were staunch allies and helped assure the continuity of her presidency to its conclusion. She decided on candidate Ramos. The endorsement assured him his win, albeit with a slim plurality garnering 23.6% of the total votes cast and leading his closest rival by 873,348 votes. The 1992 election was the first free and open presidential election since 1969 and the first synchronized election under the 1987 Constitution. The Lakas-NUCD-UMDP served as the foundation on which the Rainbow coalition was built. The continuity between the Aquino and Ramos Administrations was built on a similar political faith in people empowerment and the restoration—and reinforcement—of democratic institutions. The new President Ramos, like President Aquino — an unexpected political force emerging in the People Power uprising of 1986, was to prove that economic empowerment would support democratic restoration.

37 The present Constitution of the Philippines, which was promulgated and ratified in 1987, was the work of 48 national, regional, and sectoral representatives, which included lawyers, entrepreneurs, politicians, landlords, health professionals, religious leaders, labor and peasant leaders, university professors, and journalists. The esteemed Justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma presided over this body constituted into the 1986 Philippine Constitutional Commission by President Corazon C. Aquino. The resulting “Cory Constitution” inscribed pro-people, libertarian political ideas that evolved through the experience of a highly centralized government under President Marcos. These ideas included a bias for grassroots citizen participation in governance, decentralized line agencies, environmentalism, social justice, and a strong human rights emphasis.  
38 See, among others, UP Media and Public Relations Office, “Statement from Dr. Jose V. Abueva, former President of the University of the Philippines and founder and former President of Kalayaan College,” University of the Philippines,