Emergence from Martial Law

The Vice Chief of Staff

The early 1980s transpired to become the final years of the Marcos regime. By then, PC-INP Director General Ramos had already served fourteen years in this position and was generally thought to have been among the possible successors to General Romeo Espino, retiring Chief of Staff. It was, however, General Fabian Ver who took over the top military position. General Ramos was instead promoted to be second-in-command. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was now led by two very different personalities, even as President Marcos suffered ill health. Vice Chief of Staff Ramos signaled his independence of mind when he declined to sign a manifesto, published in a leading daily, with sixty-eight generals and officers absolving General Ver from complicity in the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. Going against hierarchy, Ramos invoked overriding principle.

The situation post-Aquino assassination obliged General Ramos to stand his ground and define red lines he will not cross. He remained constant to the Constitution, and any changes, to his mind, had to stay within the Constitutional straight and narrow. By 1983, he was already kept at a distance by the Marcos family and their intimate allies. The military and political establishments were watchful of the second highest military leader; the public was picking up hints. The Vice Chief of Staff incrementally showed his calibrated divergence, and it was not entirely surprising that General Ramos would soon defect from the Marcos establishment.

Before he bolted from President Marcos, General Ramos had served with distinction under five Philippine Presidents: during the full terms of Elpidio Quirino, Ramon Magsaysay, Carlos Garcia, and Diosdado Macapagal, and, for nearly two decades, Ferdinand Marcos. He was to serve with President Corazon Aquino and was adviser to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno S. Aquino III, and Rodrigo R. Duterte. His deliberate dissociation from the Marcos regime was not characteristic of the dutiful soldier that trained in West Point, but he projected clarity of intention through the turbulence of the period. It was a clarity defined by loyalty to Constitutional order that he showed during the Martial Law years. Even leaders on the Left, politicians under siege, and disenfranchised business leaders identified him among the “Twelve Apostles” to be trusted during the dictatorship. When Martial Law could no longer be rationalized as an anti-insurgency strategy (a privilege of the state) General Ramos completed his exit.

He annually tendered his resignation to President Marcos, who then repeatedly rejected it. General Ramos wanted to give his Commander-in-Chief the flexibility to reorganize the armed forces under what Ramos believed was a succession of equally responsible and idealistic officers. The action of the Vice Chief of Staff on 22 February 1986 was a break from his own desire to assist his superior. Defecting together with Juan Ponce Enrile, Secretary of Defense, followed a planned coup d’etat that was discovered shortly before its execution. At this juncture, global opinion already held that the regime had slid into despotism, was sustained by cronies, and marked by human rights abuses.28 As a skilled intelligence officer, General Ramos had a better grasp than most Filipinos of Martial Law’s subterranean detail. He would have known that:

[t]he government’s use of communist and secessionist threats as justification for Martial Law only contributed to the growth of the political opposition and the amassing of recruits to the New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in the provinces in the 1970s.31

Moreover, developments in ASEAN countries were also transparent to him through military networks across the region. Given his faith in democracy—General Ramos is not known to have wavered—he could only have seen his choice to have been between loyalty or disloyalty to the Constitution.

Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos taking his oath as Vice Chief of Staff of the
Armed Forces of the Philippines.
As Vice Chief of Staff, General Ramos concurrently served as Director General of the Philippine Constabulary-
Integrated National Police.
Ramos family archives
L-R: National Bureau of Investigation Director Jolly Bugarin, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Fabian C. Ver,
Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Chief of Staff
Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos.
General Ramos served as AFP Vice Chief of Staff and concurrent Director General of the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police.
Ramos family archives

Acting Chief of Staff

General Fabian Ver was indicted for suspected involvement in the Aquino assassination, and so the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines had to take leave of his position. General Ramos, who was next in line, assumed the top post in an acting capacity. In the three years between the Aquino assassination and the fall of the Marcos dictatorship (1983-1986), anti-Marcos vehemence built up and increasingly bold public displays of anger became commonplace in Metropolitan Manila and other capital cities. General Ramos remained publicly taciturn about his political opinions. As his rules-committed personality was widely known, his work was obviously at great variance from the impunity exercised by Marcos’ innermost circles. The dissimilarity between the Ramos and Ver exercise of military power was not lost on the initially clandestine Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), who had tried to recruit Ramos early in their planned mutiny.

In a 1980 transmittal to President Marcos, General Ramos articulated the balance he was trying to craft within the apparatus of government:

In order to counter the threat [of Communism], this Command has initiated the reevaluation and redefinition of our present efforts… in order to come out with a more responsive counter-insurgency campaign plan.

It should be noted, however, that… military counteractions tend to be short-term solutions to the problem at hand and that protracted military operations in a specific area most often become counter-productive for the government in the long-run.

This points to the need for the government to lay out and implement a more meaningful and fully–coordinated program of action designed to blunt or negate the insurgents’ appeal to the civilian populace in spite of current developments. This program of action should seriously consider to de-emphasize military solutions.

In the face of recent events, the most vital and urgent tasks that the AFP must now fulfill are to keep our people’s faith in its Armed Forces, enhance the morale of the men and women in uniform, and increase the AFP’s operational effectiveness as the defenders of national security and stability.

General Ramos sounded similar sentiments in an address to an assembly of over a thousand industrialists, private sector executives, and entrepreneurs at the 10th Philippine Business Conference. He reaffirmed the AFP’s duty to “protect the Constitutional process which is well-defined in the Constitution” in case the President is incapacitated, and assuring the anxious gathering that

“we are working very hard to ensure the Armed Forces is united, that the people continue to have faith in us, and that we shall be operationally effective for that challenge. I know I am in an uncomfortable position, but being uncomfortable does not mean that I am not secure…. The agenda of national stability behooves us to uphold the Constitution, civilian security, and the rule of law at all times, under all circumstances.”

Ramos ended with an assurance:

Under the Constitution, civilian supremacy and the rule of law are the highest symbols of Philippine national identity and their aspiration as a people…. All these are the overriding objectives of our efforts, not merely stability as an end but indeed the complete assertion and achievement of our sovereignty as a democratic and independent nation.

The audience gave him a standing ovation.

The Acting Chief of Staff allayed fears of a pivot to a military more repressive than that already experienced in the years of Martial Law under President Marcos. Even before the Aquino assassination and the People Power uprising on EDSA, General Ramos was telegraphing such assurances in many fora and private conversations. Emotions, already running high as the 1970s ended, were to intensify beyond Marcos’ control with the assassination of Senator Benigno S. Aquino.

Snappy salute by Armed Forces of the Philippines Acting Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos to the next generation of professional soldiers at the Philippine Military Academy.
The Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City is the premier training institution for a career in the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police.
Ramos family archives
Acting Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos presides over a military conference.
General Ramos traveled to military camps and outposts to touch base with the troops.
Ramos family archives
Acting Armed Forces of the Philippines Acting Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos
trooping the line at the Philippine Military Academy, Baguio City.
At this time, General Ramos consolidated forces to further professionalize the uniformed service.
Ramos family archives

Defender from Within

In 1984, economic problems became political tinder to popular restiveness. This year was also marked by public discontent, apart from rumors of the President’s declining health, which culminated in Marcos’ surgical procedure at the National Kidney Institute. Amidst this confluence of cracks in political stability, General Ramos, two years away from his own defection, uncovered a plot by General Ver and his associates to lead an extra-Constitutional effort to succeed Marcos in the waning days of his regime. The then Acting-Chief of Staff, through his intelligence network, gathered 12 loyal officers to foil the plan. Among these men were: Philippine Constabulary Brig. Gen. Renato de Villa, Metrocom Deputy Commander Col. Romeo Zulueta, Cols. Jacinto Galang, Levy Malto, Jesus Altuna, and Meliton Goyena, and Lt. Col. Vic Batac. This core group of independent officers, representing a minority faction of the military, clandestinely established communication facilities that would broadcast these takeover attempts. It was their way of defending the Constitution by engaging and securing the support of the citizenry and the Batasang Pambansa. It is this core group’s effort that presaged the breakaway group at the center of the civilian-backed revolution to restore Philippine democracy.

Other forces also coalesced within the regime and the military, mirroring the discontent across various sectors all over the country. In military camps, disillusioned young officers became more vocal while others began mobilizing through their secret organizations, most notably the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). This was more than matched by growing public demonstrations—varying in character from peaceful to militant—in the streets around the country. Even as Ramos kept his focus on the frontline efforts versus the growing Communist threat, he also prepared to embrace the growing tide of a revolutionary movement from within the ranks.

As RAM’s momentum grew, it began engaging the opposition to broaden its reach and cause. Approached by Col. Jose T. Almonte, one its leaders and an old colleague during the early anti-insurgency efforts, then-Acting Chief of Staff Ramos held his cards close to his chest and remained non-committal to their plans. He also preferred to bide his time when his sister, then a diplomat at the UN, resigned her post and declared support for the opposition under Corazon Aquino. In the hindsight view of analysts, Ramos’ balancing act was meant to keep cover and remain in a position of influence to eventually galvanize the growing movement within the Armed Forces once the match was struck. This happened when the credibility of the 1986 snap election was questioned, which gave them an opening to channel their coalesced action into the People Power Revolution.

Armed Forces of the Philippines Acting Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos in his periodic camp visits.
The frequent trips of General Fidel V. Ramos buoyed the morale of the troops and kept them well informed of current and future military operations.
Ramos family archives

28 “A host of forces, some violent, others in themselves trivial but in ensemble potentially disruptive, continued in 1980 to threaten the forces of Philippine martial law. The cracks in the fortress widened as urban terrorism struck Manila, opposition groups began to unite and enlarge their base, the economy deteriorated, and establishment institutions such as the World Bank reported that the authority of President Ferdinand Marcos had eroded and was increasingly precarious. Benigno Aquino, former senator and leading dissident-in-exile, warned President Marcos of ‘a terrible gathering storm that may well turn the Philippines into the next flash point in Southeast Asia.’“ Found in Clark D. Neher, “The Philippines in 1980: The Gathering Storm,” Asian Survey 21, no. 2, A Survey of Asia in 1980: Part II (February 1981), 261-273, https://doi.org/10.2307/2643771.
29 Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, 2005), 217.