July 26, 1986
Tolentino’s “Last Hurrah”
Tolentino’s counter-revolution was no spontaneous combustion; it had all the earmarks of a deliberate, pre-meditated and cold-blooded putsch.
By Edward R. Kiunisala
It really started last March 30, when the exiled tyrant, 33 days after he had been kicked out of the country by the bloodless People Power revolution, tried to resurrect himself politically by declaring war against the Cory Aguino govenment before foreign media and some 3,000 kababayans in Honolulu. On that day, Easter Sunday, while the whole of christendom commemorated the resurrection of Christ, the gospel from Hawaii was that the overthrown Ferdinand Marcos was coming back to the Philippines to reclaim Malacañang.
Having heard the “good news”, Marcos’s political disciples in Manila began preparing for his triumphal return as they converged at the historic Luneta Park every Sunday thereafter, chanting,”Marcos, Marcos pa rin” while flashing the V-fingers sign. The husband-and-wife musical tandem of Imelda Papin and Bong Carreon led a mostly group of showbiz people to entertain the Sunday Luneta crowd with songs and banter in praise of the deposed Marcos. Soon, other Marcos “loyalists” summoned enough gumption to join Marcos diehards at the Luneta every Sunday.
The free Sunday show at the park began to attract amusement-hungry Luneta promenaders and the crowd that gathered in succeeding weeks became big enough to attract the appearance of KBL bigwigs, including Batasan Speaker Nicanor Yñiguez and former Foreign Affairs Minister Arturo Tolentino, Marcos’s running-mate in the last presidential election. Marcos’s lawyer, former assemblyman Rafael Recto, joined the pro-Marcos rallies later. The entry of politicians in the regular “loyalists” get-together at the Luneta changed the temper of the pro-Marcos demonstrators to an adversarial, if not seditious one.
Police authorities now began having a difficult time controlling Marcos “loyalists” many of whom were generally believed to have been paid to join pro-Marcos demos. In one instance, Marcos loyalists marched toward Malacañang but were stopped at the Ayala Bridge, fouling up traffic in downtown Manila for about three hours. In another, they converged on the very site of the February Revolution on Edsa, it ended in a violent confrontation with the police and the military, resulting in the injury to many, including three newsmen, and the total paralization of the traffic for four solid hours on Metro Manila’s only circumferential highway.
Despite the increasing violence of the pro-Marcos demos, President Aquino stuck to her policy of “maximum tolerance,” hastening to add that such a policy does not condone any infraction of the law. Authorities, according to Aquino, have been instructed to disperse the rally whenever the law is violated. Expressing anguish over those who have been injured during violent demonstrations. Aquino blamed Marcos for fomenting trouble, saying “ill-gotten wealth buys demonstration.”
Even Washington is convinced that the pro-Marcos rallies in Manila count with not a few paid demonstrators. “The fact that they were paid a pretty evident,” according to a senior US government official. Asked whether the payments came from Marcos, he replied: “We simply don’t know. It certainly seemed as if they were paid by supporters of his in the Philippines, but whether that was in turn received from elsewhere. we don’t know.” The point is: money, not conviction, is the motive power behind the continuing demos of the so-called Marcos “loyalists”.
Violence and Farce
What started out as a weekend show of Marcos “loyalists” turned into a weekly politically rally, then into violent Sunday demos, that eventually culminated in an open rebellion on July 6, exactly the 14th Sunday from Easter on the seventh month of the year. On that day, Tolentino took his oath as Vice-President of the Philippines and, in the absence of Marcos, proclaimed himself “acting President” under the l973 Constitution. The moment of Tolentino’s “last hurrah” had finally come, testing the four-month old Aquino revolutionary government.
In a ceremony at the driveway of the luxurious Manila Hotel, covered by both local and foreign media, the former running-mate of Dictator Marcos, flanked and backdropped by former members of the discredited defunct Batasan, was sworn into office by former Supreme Court Justice Serafin Cuevas. After naming his new “cabinet members”, the 75-year old “acting President” promptly directed former Speaker Nicanor Yñiguez to convene the Batasan, whose first order of business was to pass a law that would call for national elections at the earliest opportunity.
Members of the “Tolentino cabinet” included Rafael Recto as Justice Minister, Manuel Collantes as Foreign Affairs Minister, Isidro Rodriguez as Local Governments Minister and Manuel Alba as Budget Minister. Tolentino also appointed Juan Ponce Enrile Jr., Defense Minister, for whom the position of Prime Minister was reserved in concurrent capacity. Without the benefit of appointment, former assemblyman Gerardo Espina of Manila served as Acting Information Minister. Except for Enrile, who was “in the suburbs attending to private business”, all members of the “Tolentino cabinet” were present.
Before the oath -taking, Tolentino lowered the boom on President Aquino, describing her government as “illegal”. He claimed that Marcos and he were the country’s legitimate leaders, having been proclaimed “winners” in the last presidential and vice-presidential election by the Batasan, Characterizing both Cory Aquino and “Doy” Laurel as power grabbers, Tolentino produced a letter from Marcos authorizing him to assume as “legitimate head of the country until such time that I return to the Philippines.”
While Tolentino ranted against the Aquino government, some 400 renegade soldiers from Olivas, Pampanga, armed with M-16 assault rifles, M-79 grenade launcers and light sub-machineguns, positioned themselves on the ready behind the Quirino Grandstand. In the corridors of the five-star Manila Hotel prowled military officers in battle fatigue uniform, including former Metrocom chief, Major General Properos Olivas, and former Philippine Navy Chief, Rear Admiral Brillante Ochoco; Brigadier Generals Jose Maria Zumel, Antonio Palafox and Jaime Echeverria; and Colonels Rolando Abadilla, Rodolfo Aguinaldo, Reynaldo Cabauatan and Jose Mendoza.
After taking his oath, Tolentino told media people that he had embarked on a “no surrender, no retreat” course of action and proceeded to his room on the fifth floor where he closeted himself with the “members of his cabinet”. Military officers also occupied vacant rooms on the same floor. About 3,000 civilian “loyalists” spread out all over the lobby and corridors of the hotel, some sitting down on the carpeted floor, others spilling over by the poolside.
Outside, Marcos “loyalists” commandeered trucks and buses and used them to barricade Taft Avenue and Dewey Boulevard. They also blocked all roads leading to the Manila Hotel, the seat of the “Tolentino government”, Renegade soldiers also manned all the gates and doorways of the hotel. Meanwhile, some “loyalists” called up radio stations, appealing for people power at the Manila Hotel and more food. Clearly, marcos “loyalists” were trying to duplicate the February Revolution.
Tolentino’s counter-revolution was no spontaneous combustion: it had all the earmarks of a deliberate, pre-meditated and cold-blooded putsch . Its top leaders had been reportedly meeting regularly at a four-star Quezon City hotel to map out a plan of action. A week before the zero hour, top bananas of the Marcos “loyalist” group, which included Ali Dimaporo of Lanao del Sur, Recto of Batangas, Salvador Britanico of Iloilo, Yñiguez of Leyte and of course Tolentino, began hitting the Cory Aquino government – a ploy to condition the minds of the people of what they called a righteous cause.
President Aquino learned of the Tolentino coup while she was in Cagayan de Oro, accompanied by General Fidel Ramos, in one of her direct consultative meetings with the people. While she expressed surprise over the Tolentino action, she remained calm and collected. Her initial statement revealed a steely resolve, befitting a chief of state. Said she: I have always been for maximum tolerance in dealing with Marcos “loyalists”, but now that they have exceeded, I have no other recourse but to order necessary action.”
President Aquino felt rather sad over the Tolentino affair which she believed was a clear case of “sedition”. Just the same, she immediately ordered Justice Minister Gonzales to look into the legal implications of the Tolentino action even as she directed the Capital Command of the Philippine Constabulary to arrest the renegade soldiers “once they start violence.” Aquino, however, saw no need to cut short her provincial trip, although she allowed General Ramos to fly to Manila ahead of her.
Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, who had been holding fort in Malacañang, informed President Aquino that the Tolentino “revolt” was a purry one. It was nothing to worry about. Said Arroyo, referring to Marcos “loyalists”: “Obviously, they are after the propaganda value. They don’t have the capacity to do anything beyond that.” While Joker’s information was reassuring, it was somehow maddening, considering that Tolentino served Marcos’s campaign to destabilize the Aquino government.
General Ramos refused to be complacent. Before leaving Cagayan de Oro, he called up TV and radio stations in Metro Manila to air his appeal for the people to keep calm and to ignore the Marcos “loyalist” stunt, adding that all major commands of the military are behind the Aquino government. He also laughed off the efforts of Tolentino to convince Enrile to join the rebel government, calling it “useless”, stressing that Tolentino’s self-proclamation as-“acting-President” was patently “illegal”. Ramos also told the public that he and Enrile “are fully behind the administration of President Aquino.”
Meanwhile in Manila, Major General Eduardo Ermita, Armed Forces vice chief-of-staff, had already taken full control of the situation. A “sizable” number of troops and tanks had already ringed the Manila Hotel and the Luneta Park. No one was allowed to get anywhere near Tolenrtino’s “seat of power”. He also went on the air to belie the Marcos “loyalists” campaign of disinformation such as that he and General Lim had defected to the Tolentino camp. He assured the people that Enrile had no intention whatsoever of joining the Tolentino illegal government.
Ermita succeeded in preempting appeals of Marcos “loyalists” seeking public support of the Tolentino move. One Marcos supporter repeatedly begged his audience to stand up and be counted in the cause of “democracy” . Said he: “We call on the Filipino nation to come to the park because the democracy we’ve been waiting for is coming soon.” Judging from the crowd that went to the Luneta, the great majority of the Filipino people ignored the Marcos “loyalists”. A film clip of Enrile, in a jovial mood, turning down a cabinet position in the Tolentino “government”, that was shown on TV late Sunday night, exposed the duplicity of the Tolentino strategy, so reminiscent of Marcos during his 13-plus years of one-man rule.
Meanwhile some 250 guests of the Manila Hotel were escorted out and billeted elsewhere: others, notably foreign media men, chose to remain. One guest made the mistake of flashing the Laban sign and was nearly mauled. Hotel employees were allowed to go home, excet engineers and security personnel. That Sunday night, Marcos “loyalists” scoured the five-star hotel for food and drinks. While air-conditioning went on the whole night, it no longer did so the following morning. Lights, water and telephone had already been cut off.
“Acting President” Tolentino must have tossed in bed the whole night, likewise his partisans, who lay down on the floor of the hotel lobby and corridors. But when he woke up the following day, he learned that 220 of his army of 400 renegades from the military and the police had already deserted him before dawn to rejoin the Cory government. His heart must have sunk when he looked out of the window to find no “people power” in the vicinity as he had expected, only tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops of the AFP surrounding the Manila Hotel. Tolentino must have felt so alone when he realized that his “last hurrah” was doomed to end soon.
When President Aquino arrived in Manila from Cagayan de Oro. Tolentino knew that his was a lost cause. The expected reinforcements of 500 soldiers from Central Luzon and another 700-strong troops from Bicol never came. The four radio stations in Metro Manila which had been sympathetic to the Marcos “loyalists” cause were now off the air, having been ordered to close temporarily by Enrile. Former San Juan Mayor Joseph Estrada who was to lead “people power” on the premises of Channel 4 had been arrested. The mass support that Tolentino had expected never materialized. His own supporters in the Manila Hotel had by now dwindled.
President Aquino, now in full control of the situation, gave Tolentino and company only 24 hours to return to the fold of the law. She let it be known that she would not allow anyone to flout the law with impunity. But Aquino promised to be magnanimous, if the rebels met the deadline – without revealing the specifics of her magnanimity. Enrile issued a similar ultimatum to the renegade military and police which cast their support behind Tolentino.
Retreat and Surrender
Sensing imminent defeat, Tolentino began to mellow, expressing willingness to negotiate with the Aquino government – in direct contrast with his original stand of “no surrender, no retreat”. In fact, he executed a complete sommersault, saying: “I had no role in planning this. There has been a lot of pressure on me to take my oath of office at these rallies, you know. They rally, they shout, “take your oath, obedience to the clamor of the people.” There has just been a lot of pressure, I don’t know if you are aware of that.”
Even Dictator Marcos in Hawaii, having learned that the American government, his host, frowned on his possible involvement in the Tolentino adventurism, promptly washed his hands of any complicity in the attempted coup in Manila. He even rebuffed Tolentino by asserting that his letter authorizing Tolentino to assume leadership of the Philippines was written “a long time ago”, soon after he fled the country. He countered by saying that the actions of Tolentino were the result of the actions of the Cory government. As usual, Marcos was telling lies again. See date of letter.
But Tolentino held on to the hope that “people power”might still come that day, indeed, at about one o’clock that Monday afternoon, a crowd of about 3,000 Marcos “loyalists” massed behind the soldiers and tanks that ringed Manila Hotel, chanting “Marcos pa rin” and “Tolentino! Tolentino!” But about two hours later, strong gusts of wind blew in, followed by lightning, thunder and heavy rains, dispersing the pro-Marcos crowd in seconds. The nasty weather continued even while Tolentino was meeting with government emissaries at the Army and Navy Club.
Emerging from the meeting, Tolentino looked like the beaten man that he was. He parried questions from media people, saying, “We talked about nothing.” But he admitted that he had agreed to vacate the Manila Hotel as a “preliminary measure” to defuse the situation. Having taken his oath as Vice-President, pursuant to the Constitution, Tolentino said he had already achieved his goal. But he still wanted to take up with the Cory government the issue on constitutionalism, democracy and the rule of law. The long and short of it was: Tolentino had given up.
From the Army and Navy Club, the septuagenarian “acting President” for 36 hours said he was going straight home. “Maybe I will return to the Manila Hotel tomorrow, but not tonight.” Other sources, however, claimed that Tolentino went back to the hotel that Monday night and conferred with his “cabinet” and “military advisers”, leaving at past midnight via the fire escape to the back gate where a car sped him to an undisclosed place in Metro Manila. Another report had it that Tolentino left the Manila Hotel at 5:45 Tuesday morning, escorted by a convoy of 10 cars.
Whatever it was, at six o’clock Tuesday morning, all Marcos loyalists had already left Manila Hotel. The Tolentino rebel government had collapsed. The Cory Aquino government remained in the political saddle, a bit shaken perhaps, but still in total control. A small band of Marcos “loyalists” went back to retake Manila Hotel, but a few warning shots sent them scampering away in panic.
Preliminary investigation showed that the luxuries Manila Hotel had been looted by the “occupying forces” of the bastard Tolentino government. Hotel linens, towels, ash trays, silverware China, imported liquors and food items were missing. Marcos loyalists apparently had a ball during their 36-hour occupancy of the Manila Hotel, one of the 20 best hotels in the world. “They wiped out the liquor and the cocktail peanuts in the Tap Room.” said Frans Schutzman, the hotel manager. At least, six thieves were caught by the police in the act of looting hotel property. The estimated loss: P10 million!
Who’s going to pay for that? Tolentino, or Marcos? Manila Hotel Chairman Feliciano Belmonte says he will bill Tolentino and his group for the damage wrought by the supporters of his rebel government. Adds Belmonte: “As soon as the inventory of the damage and losses is completed, we will sum it up and send Tolentino the bill.” If Tolentino has no money to pay, Belmonte should send the bill to Marcos in Hawaii. After all, it was really Marcos “loyalists” who were behind the Tolentino failed coup.
The biggest loser in the recent crisis is Tolentino himself – and without meaning to be uncharitable, it serves him right. Once considered the pillar of moderation, reason and intellectual independence, the former senator, by succumbing to the pressures of Marcos “loyalists” and possibly of Marcos himself to usurp the Cory government, succeeded only in digging his own political grave. His image will remain forever tainted from either side of the fence: by failing in his coup attempt, he appears weak and incompetent in the eyes of Marcos”loyalists”; by attempting to usurp a legitimate government, he will be looked down upon as a joker and a lunatic by Cory supporters.