Ramos Pivots Towards EDSA
Bolting the Marcos Regime
Lieutenant General Fidel V. Ramos was appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in 1982. He achieved the rank of three-star general upon a concurrent appointment to take charge of the PC-INP, where he continued his project to thoroughly professionalize and modernize the uniformed service. His persistence also showed in a military career that had the linear, straightforward progression befitting a West Point alumnus. His bolting from his Commander-in-Chief in 1986 was therefore a radical deviation from his career track. To observers, it was not entirely surprising because General Ramos was, since 1983, slowly being alienated from the center of power. In August 1983, President Ferdinand E. Marcos assumed the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, replacing the ally he originally installed in this post, General Fabian C. Ver. He simultaneously removed Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile from the military chain of command. Operational control of the INP was transferred from the PC to General Ver.
This signal of no-confidence from a president who curtailed Ramos’ authority over the INP to simple administration was, for political watchers, prediction enough of impending power shifts. General Ramos responded with the typical calmness that many have come to expect from him by continuing the internal programs he had set in place within the police infrastructure. Marcos’ moves were evidently a pursuit of absolute power concentrated around his person. This was clear to General Ramos, who had witnessed Marcos’ rise to autocracy throughout their parallel careers. Indeed, President Marcos ruled arbitrarily by decree until 1986, well beyond 17 January 1981 when he formally lifted Martial Law. General Ramos was aware of the decline in popular trust in the armed services in the years immediately before and during martial rule.
The military establishment was also reacting to a palpable experience of neglect and abuse by the top brass. Respect and obedience had eroded; junior officers possessed a greater awareness of the corrupting influence of the Marcos regime on generals and flag officers. The disaffection within a politicized military built up during the Martial Law years, and after a decade, pent up discontent broke out into rebellion, albeit covertly at the start. The military leadership failed to respond to this morale—and moral—crisis. An anti-military establishment formation emerged consisting mainly of junior officers. The Reform the Armed Forces Movement30 (RAM) surreptitiously sought a respected and unblemished leader within the armed services who could mobilize the Armed Forces and the National Police when an opportunity for change and reform presented itself. They decided that General Ramos was that leader of probity.31
In the regard of all who met him during the Martial Law years, General Ramos was ramrod straight. He was one officer who clearly remained faithful to sworn duty. His approach to leadership contributed to this positive regard, particularly in that he cultivated genuine friendships with field commanders. Himself having been on many combat leadership tours of duty, General Ramos enjoyed a high level of confidence among the rank and file. He was constantly on field tours during most of his life and shared the lives of soldiers, staying in bunkers and keeping to rations. Together they experienced the physical hardships of troop life, often in conflict hotspots. Earning thus the loyalty, respect, and admiration of the military and police rank-and-file, General Ramos forged bonds of brotherhood that are considered inviolable within the armed services.
In 1985, RAM’s core group met with General Ramos seeking his support for their plan to mutiny from the highest levels of the chain of command. He initially gave a noncommittal response. Aware that the RAM move will impact the 90,000-strong PC under his command—as well as elements of the Armed Forces—the Vice Chief of Staff understood the implications of the loyalty he commanded. He was uniquely able to calculate the odds of rising against his Commander-in-Chief and General Ver. The complications included a break with kin, he being a second cousin of President Marcos. General Ramos, moderately inclined, understood and resisted the call for open revolt and its nearly inevitable consequences of chaos, loss of life, and an implosion within the uniformed service. He held faith in non-violent change and human rights under a democratic Constitution but understood the need for dramatic change. RAM kept its plans below the radar. President Marcos continued to consolidate power within a tight circle around him, viewing all else as suspect.
On 21 August 1983, opposition Senator Benigno S. Aquino was assassinated32 on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport upon his arrival from political exile. The shock waves from the event fomented large protest demonstrations almost immediately. The revitalized opposition centered its demands on justice for the senator’s murder. Senator Aquino, a long-time critic of the regime, had led the political opposition together with Senators Jose W. Diokno, Jovito Salonga, and Gerardo Roxas. The youngest in the opposition leadership, he also cut the most charismatic figure. Media coverage during his political life maintained the public’s interest in his eloquence, wit, and passion. Senator Aquino represented a vivid alternative to an aging dictator who was, according to gossip mills (that happened to be correct), gravely ill. His murder produced a dramatic symbol of the impunity of Marcosian Martial Law. The RAM mutiny at this point paralleled the rebelliousness of the general population.
President Marcos called for a “snap” (that is, unscheduled) presidential election in November 1985 as a reaction to swelling public distrust in his leadership’s legitimacy. Corazon C. Aquino, widow of the assassinated Senator Aquino, challenged him for the position. Marcos, the incumbent president, was then proclaimed winner but this result was rejected wholesale amidst widespread violence, fraud, and irregularities in the electoral process. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a statement condemning the elections. The United States Senate passed a resolution echoing a similar sentiment, as US President Ronald Reagan characterized the fraud reports as “disturbing” (although he did say further that such fraud was committed “on both sides” of the Philippine elections). Corazon Aquino launched a civil disobedience campaign and issued an appeal to boycott the media and businesses owned by President Marcos and his cronies. The initiative successfully triggered nationwide protest rallies, revealing the Marcos administration’s fragility at this juncture, as power and control slipped from the president’s grasp.
It was during these tumultuous months of early 1986 that elements of the RAM decided to execute33 their previously planned attack on Malacañang, the presidential palace and seat of government. A group was to neutralize the Presidential Security Command and capture the Marcoses. Other RAM units would block major thoroughfares to prevent counter-offensive moves by troops loyal to Marcos; yet others would take command of key strategic facilities such as media stations, air and sea ports, and military bases including the headquarters Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame. But plans had to change quickly when President Marcos learned of the plot and ordered the arrest of the coup leaders.
Escaping arrest, General Ramos and Minister Enrile decamped to Camp Aguinaldo with RAM elements, called for a press conference, and announced their resignation from their positions in the Marcos cabinet. Withdrawing support from the Marcos government, they asserted their intent to return “power to the people” with Corazon Aquino as the duly elected President of the Philippines. “The Armed Forces of the Philippines has ceased to be the real Armed Forces of the Philippines which is supposed to be the defender of public safety and enforcer of the law,” General Ramos stated in this press conference. “I think the President of 1986 is not the same President that we used to know before to whom we pledged our loyalty and to whom we dedicated our service. But it is clear that he no longer is the able and capable Commander-in-Chief that we count upon because he has put his personal interest—his family interest—ahead of the national interest.”
General Ramos expressed his willingness “to dialogue with the President [Marcos]… to express the feelings of those in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. And in fact, that is my primary and only approach.” He issued an appeal to “the fair-minded, to the dedicated, and people-oriented members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Integrated National Police to join us in this crusade for better government… to our personnel in the thirteen regions of this country, however, to avoid any bloodshed; to maintain calm, and be able to influence the people’s power in our country to support this appeal….”
The four-day uprising tested the strategic and tactical prowess of General Ramos while Minister Enrile managed the political front. Political analysts have credited the military and police’s abiding by non-violence to the presence of Ramos the professional soldier.
A few phone calls from Lieutenant General Ramos to his network produced immediate and positive support.
Ramos family archives
Both men effectively staged a coup d’etat against the incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. who had, belatedly, discovered the plot.
Ramos family archives
“Steady Eddie” was fixed on suing for peace and rebuilding after winning necessary wars. He was deliberate, austere, and driven, qualities that were in constant view in his various roles in the public sphere, especially during the popular uprising on EDSA and throughout his presidency.
Ramos family archives
The actual chalkboard map sketched during the early hours of the 1986 EDSA Revolution outlined the tactical movements and assets of the rebels.
Ramos family archives
People Power Emerges
“What is happening is not a coup d’état,
but a revolution of the people.”
General Fidel V. Ramos
EDSA, 23 February 1986
Several months prior to what came to be known as the EDSA People Power Revolution, the RAM clandestinely reached out to the political opposition to reveal and explain their plans. It was a trust-building outreach when little trust had existed. Coup success depended on the deft consolidation of plans shared between a restive military and equally disaffected civilians. Its leaders had to account for civilian participation. In the buildup to a final rejection of the Marcos dictatorship, the idea was to thwart him from reclaiming the upper hand by gaining civilian support. And so the different actors’ objectives and goals were already aligned before the crucial four days in February. RAM had made their plans known to esteemed civilian leaders, the widow Cory Aquino and Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, and the plan of a peaceful restoration of democracy was set in place.
RAM’s plan was compromised a day before its planned execution. Their plot exposed, the leaders quickly held fort at the very GHQ of the AFP, Camp Aguinaldo. There they publicly declared their withdrawal of support from President Marcos, mere moments after becoming targets of Marcos’ punitive manhunt. Quick calls and radio messages were made to Cardinal Sin, civilian opposition leaders, and military brass already known to be sympathetic. In a pivotal turn of events, Cardinal Sin went on radio and appealed to the faithful to head to EDSA and support the rebellion, which meant bodily protecting the rebels. Almost immediately, the stretch of EDSA between Camps Aguinaldo and Crame filled up with civilians. The phenomenal outpouring surprised even those who came to participate. Their numbers kept increasing dramatically, to the astonishment of the world. All unarmed, the crowd on EDSA became a global sign for non-violent defiance of autocracy.
However, while it was happening, there were no guarantees for anyone involved that violence would not erupt. When fighter planes flew over EDSA, people on the ground braced for the worst possible outcome. This imminent danger was also on the minds of those who linked arms to face down tanks. “EDSA People Power” transpired peacefully, which surprised many because of the decades of violence inflicted on the anti-Marcos resistance, which analysts have understood to be the long-term lead-up to the end of the dictatorship. The Official Gazette of the Philippine government summarized that prologue to the end of the dictatorship thus34:
With civilians defending EDSA and other key media facilities, military and police commands with their tanks, helicopters, and fighter planes were sent to attack the rebel positions. But the leaders of these commands defected, and with their rank-and-file joined the crowds. These defections definitively shifted the balance of power towards success for the popular uprising. The anti-Marcos resistance gained the pivotal momentum, prevailed, and succeeded. The non-violent character of this uprising was, globally, the most often repeated description of the event.
Real time and retroactive observers of these events noted the consistency of General Ramos’ messages of non-violence through the four days. His voice was heard on radio repeatedly appealing for a bloodless regime change, even as the change was in fact happening precipitously. Participants on EDSA and those who followed the events remotely recalled the effect on the volatile situation of the top rebel soldier’s repeatedly expressing love of country and commitment to democracy. General Ramos made his intentions clear to the EDSA crowd and to those who tracked the developments, minute by minute, on radio. While rebel defense chief Ponce Enrile remained taciturn during the uprising, General Ramos took up the work of deft communication through decisions made and conveyed deliberately. He became, to the crowd, the image of the resolute and sincere actor during an unusually dramatic historical moment. Pledges of support were overwhelming, and in the view of all kinds of participants and observers, they were in large measure encouraged by the image of Ramos the believer in a strong state built on the intricate relationships that make up people power.
The image of the Virgin Mary was also ubiquitous in EDSA which toppled the 20-year Marcos regime.
Ramos family archives
This moment embodied the exuberance of an authentically popular and successful rebellion.
Ramos family archives
General Ramos was a steady presence through the four-day uprising and constantly communicated on site and on radio the unfolding developments of the military coup turned people power revolt.
Ramos family archives
The Corazon C. Aquino - Fidel V. Ramos Alliance
Two presidents of the Philippines were nearly simultaneously sworn into office on the morning of 25 February 1986, on what was to be the last day of the EDSA People Power event. Corazon Cojuangco Aquino took her oath as incoming president at the Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan, a municipality of Metropolitan Manila near Camps Aguinaldo and Crame. Ferdinand Marcos was sworn in at the Ceremonial Hall of the presidential residence and seat of power, Malacañang, in the city of Manila. President Aquino’s assumption of office affirmed the de facto state of affairs: the military coup turned popular uprising that ended up being called a revolution had prompted defections from almost all of the military services, and had pro-Marcos political forces scrambling. General Ramos and former Defense Secretary Ponce Enrile, the leaders of the coup initiated by the RAM, had explicitly declared support for Aquino, and both were present at Mrs. Aquino’s oath-taking. Meanwhile, President Marcos and his family’s remaining allies still did not admit to the widespread accusation of voter fraud and an illegitimate electoral win. His swearing in was followed by what was to be his family’s last appearance on the balcony of the presidential residence, below which a group of Marcos loyalists gathered to witness the scene. The country had two presidents.
In the afternoon of the same day, US Senator Paul Laxalt, acting on behalf of President Ronald Reagan, fended off a number of Marcos appeals (for example, a form of power sharing with Aquino). Instead, Laxalt assisted Marcos in arriving at an appreciation of his political end. The Associated Press filed this report a day later,35 quoting Laxalt:
Then he asked me the gut question, “Senator what should I do?” Laxalt said.
I wasn’t bound by diplomatic niceties. I said, “Cut and cut cleanly. The time has come."
″There was the longest pause,″ said Laxalt, ″It seemed to go on for minutes. It lasted so long I asked him if he was still there. He said, ‘yes’ and then he said, ’I am so very, very disappointed.'
Marcos hung up, without revealing what he intended to do, Laxalt said.
President Marcos and his family were assured a welcome in Hawaii. They packed and vacated Malacañang with boxes of cash, jewelry, and valuables on board transport provided by the US government. Negotiations with the opposition to secure safe passage allowed the Marcoses to leave unharmed. At around 9 p.m. 25 February 1986, the first helicopter left the palace grounds. A volatile crowd in Mendiola, the street immediately fronting the palace—a symbolic venue of protest where anti-Marcos forces were violently confronted for decades—erupted in joy and indeed hysteria upon hearing reports that the Marcoses had fled.
President Aquino won the office by election, however contested it was by Marcos loyalists. Her installation as the 11th President of the Philippines was also precipitated by a military mutiny and an immensely popular uprising that overthrew a dictatorship after fourteen years.36 EDSA People Power erupted in Metropolitan Manila, but its political reverberations were echoed in several cities and provinces that had played host to rallies and other protest actions throughout the Martial Law years. General Ramos was a central actor only during the four days on EDSA and in the long aftermath, because prior to February 1986 he was a leading figure in the state’s security establishment. His credibility during the EDSA days he owed to clear messages asserting faithfulness to the Constitution, respect for human rights, and the desire for a peaceful return to democracy. These personal commitments were also ascribed to him prior to the EDSA pivot from autocracy.
When historical forces produced a situation in which a democracy icon and a soldier devoted to the Constitution could work together, the blending of their previously and individually articulated democratic agenda happened quickly. By the end of February 1986, the military and police forces returned to barracks and to their commands, bound to their sworn duties to defend the republic. However, the peaceful transition from autocracy to democracy would prove to be a challenging ambition in the following years of the Aquino presidency.
Following a successful and bloodless EDSA People Power Revolution, President Corazon C. Aquino shared center stage with her newly appointed AFP Chief of Staff, General Fidel V. Ramos.
Photo credit: Armed Forces of the Philippines
AFP Chief of Staff General Fidel V. Ramos flanked President Corazon C. Aquino during a Parade in Review of the Philippine Navy.
Ramos family archives
General Ramos’ messages of non-violence were clear and consistent through the four days of the EDSA Revolution where he appealed for a bloodless regime change, and repeatedly expressed love of country and commitment to democracy.
Ramos family archives
30 The Official Gazette of the Philippines documents that the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) staged the first coup d’etat in this country. https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1990/10/03/the-final-report-of-the-fact-finding-commission-i-coup-detat-an-overview/. Before RAM staged its 1986 coup, the Washington Post among other international publications regarded it as a reform movement with no radical agenda. See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1985/06/03/philippine-officers-pressing-for-reform/28957b0e-b630-4e81-8422-32b06696fb79/
31 Jose T. Almonte, Endless Journey: A Memoir (Quezon City: Cleverheads Publishing, 2015).
32 “Benigno Aquino, Jr.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benigno-Aquino-Jr.
33 See, among others, Alfred W. McCoy, Closer than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy (New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1991).; and Jose T. Almonte, Endless Journey: A Memoir (Quezon City: Cleverheads Publishing, 2015).
35 Tim Ahern, “‘Cut And Cut Cleanly,’ Laxalt Advises Marcos In Dramatic Call” AP News, February 26 1986, https://apnews.com/article/25ef78113ad707b046226114a25c037d.
36 President Ferdinand Marcos declared on 17 January 1981 through Proclamation No. 2045 the end of the Martial Law he imposed on the Philippines. However he continued to rule with dictatorial powers until his regime was ended in 1986.