“THEY WERE OUT TO KILL ME!”—Pres. Corazon C. Aquino
September 19, 1987–THE mutiny staged by the Reform Armed Forces Movement (RAM) headed by Lt. Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, former chief of the security group of about 600 men assigned to then Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile, was the fifth coup attempt in the 18 months that President Corazon C. Aquino has been in office. It was the same group behind the failed coup attempt against then President Marcos last year. Only Cory’s People Power Revolution saved the leaders of the “revolt” from the guns of the dictator. Anyway, Gen. Fidel Ramos cited Honasan as “hero” of the Revolution.
The first coup attempt was in July 1986, when Arturo M. Tolentino, who was Marcos’ s running mate in the February 7 snap election which they lost, declared the existence of a rebel government with himself as Acting President. About 400 Marcos loyalist troops, led by four generals, took over the Manila Hotel to serve as Tolentino’s “Malacañang”, only to be washed up within two days, along with Tolentino’s fantasy, after all its telephone lines and electric and water supply were cut off. As punishment for all the military personnel involved, Gen. Ramos ordered 30 pushups for the “rebels”.
The second attempt, set in November last year when President Aquino was visiting Japan, fizzled out after General Ramos called the plot leaders and engaged them in a bull session that lasted all night.
The third coup attempt took place in February this year, timed with the announced return of deposed President Marcos — which did not materialize. Rebel soldiers numbering about 300, most of them coming from military camps in Central Luzon and led by officers assigned to the area, took over GMA 7, the television station along EDSA in Diliman, Quezon City, and occupied it for two days.
The fourth coup attempt took place last April, when rebellious troops from a military camp in Central Luzon forced their way into Fort Bonifacio in the early hours of Easter Sunday and freed the soldiers involved in the GMA 7 takeover who were being detained in the stockade near the headquarters of the Philippine Army. Both rescuers and those whom they rescued from detention were rounded up.
Nothing serious. Petty misadventures and nothing more.
But this fifth coup attempt is something that cannot just be shrugged off. If it succeeded, a military junta was to be set up after killing Aquino and ousting General Ramos as Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff. The military junta would be headed by Honasan.
And for a time it did look like the RAM mutiny would succeed.
The surprising, nay, puzzling thing about this RAM mutiny was that it was known well in advance that a putsch was brewing but nothing effective was done to abort it.
Key officers in scattered military camps in various parts of Metro Manila, the regional command areas in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were in frequent radio contact with the key plotters. These communications were monitored. Except to hide their identities under flimsy guise of NPA commanders operating somewhere in Quezon, the plotters transmitted their messages seemingly without any care for secrecy on police frequency radios.
One such radio transmission was intercepted by the lady radio operator at the Pasig, Metro Manila headquarters of the Eastern Police District, Metropolitan Police Force. The radio message, intercepted at five o’clock in the morning of August 27, spelled out the grim terms of the plan and the timetable for its execution:
ASSASSINATION OF PRESIDENT AQUINO BEFORE THE END OF THE MONTH (AUGUST).
Informed of the interception of the radio message, the command duty officer of the Integrated National Police (INP) circulated the intelligence information among higher armed forces and police authorities. A Metro Manila-wide red alert was issued.
Malacañang and the commanders of the major armed services were alerted Thursday afternoon, August 27, to an impending mutiny from the direction of Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija. Why was no counter-effort made?
Between eleven o’clock and midnight of Thursday, August 27, the movement of troops from Nueva Ecija on board commandeered passenger buses as well as Army trucks bound for Metro Manila was already known to some civilian officials. They did try to alert GHQ, AFP to this grim development but there was no one around to receive their frantic calls although the electronic alert system was functioning.
Metro Manila Governor Jejomar Binay at midnight hied to the home of Executive Secretary Joker P. Arroyo in Dasmariñas Village in Makati to confer with the Malacañang official on the upsetting report of unauthorized troop movements he had received earlier in the night. There they were joined by the President’s only son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who had also received similar reports.
It was 1:30 a.m., Friday morning, August 28, when the report came in that shooting had begun at Malacañang. Noynoy, accompanied by his security escort of three soldiers belonging to the Presidential Security Group (PSG), all in a back-up car, and a civilian agent who sat beside him in his white Mercedez Benz car which he himself drove, rushed back to Malacañang to “link up” with his family. Driving down Nagtahan Bridge, they saw civilians milling about the rotunda and thought that the troops they saw there were friendly forces. Approaching Arlegui Street (where President Aquino stays in a government guest house) across Jose P. Laurel, Sr. Street from the Malacañang compound, they saw heavily armed soldiers in combat position, and Noynoy, still thinking that they were friendly forces, introduced himself. They fired at him and his companions, killing the three PSG men on the spot and seriously wounding the civilian agent who shielded Noynoy’s body with his own. Though also wounded, Noynoy managed to call for help on his car’s two-way radio.
At that very moment. Col. Voltaire Gazmin, commander of the PSG, was maneuvering the tanks to the Malacañang defense perimeter. He dispatched two armored vehicles to rescue Noynoy’s group. The attackers hurriedly left the area but not before collecting the firearms of the slain PSG men and that of the civilian agent and divesting Noynoy of his wallet which contained some P4,000.
The shooting at Malacañang, which started at about 1:30 that Friday morning, lasted up to three o’clock in the pre-dawn hours. Though greatly outnumbered by rebel troops at the start of the battle, Gazmin’s PSG force succeeded in repelling the attack. About one-fourth of the PSG force had left Manila the day before for four Central Luzon provinces (Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales and Bulacan) to secure President Aquino who was scheduled to go on a consultation tour of the four provinces and meet with local officials and development officers. The PSG men deployed in these four provinces were to serve as the President’s advance parties. They were immediately recalled to Malacañang.
Marines to the Rescue
It was the Marines who saved the morning for the PSG. They responded with lightning speed to the PSG’s SOS call and effectively helped in repelling the rebel troops’ attack on Malacañang. After a while, past three o’clock, when it was clear that the rebel troops were not mounting a counterattack, Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Biazon, commandant of the Marines, got the order from President Aquino to send his men after the rebel troops who had moved to Camp Aguinaldo.
“Hit them!” the President ordered General Biazon. “I don’t care how you do it, but do it!”
About that same time, quarter of an hour past three o’clock, the main body of rebel troops that came from Central Luzon divided into two groups — one converging at Camp Aguinaldo, and the other at the ABS-CBN compound at Bohol Avenue, both in Quezon City. The rebel troops converging at Camp Aguinaldo were directly led by Honasan, those converging at the ABS-CBN compound by Col. Eduardo Matellano, PC provincial commander of Nueva Ecija.
In the glowing skylight of the pre-dawn hours, the rebel troops displayed their mutinous sign of the RAM: the inverted Philippine flag with patch of red above the color blue. They flew this sign of the RAM on their armored vehicles or wore the miniature flag above the breast pockets of their combat uniform.
Earlier that morning, the inverted flag flew over Camp Olivas in San Fernando, Pampanga, where renegade Col. Reynaldo Berroya and renegade Maj. Manuel Divina, former PC provincial commander and assistant provincial commander, respectively, had taken Brig. Gen. Eduardo Taduran, chief of PC Regional Command (Recom) 3, along with his six senior staff officers, hostage. The takeover of Camp Olivas by the rebel troops was effected at one o’clock, Friday morning. Basa Air Base in nearby Floridablanca, home of the Philippine Air Force’s fighter planes, also fell under rebel control.
Held hostage by the rebel troops along with Gen. Taduran were Col. Miguel Fontanilla, deputy Recom 3 commander for operations; Col. Wilfred Nicolas, Recom 3 chief-of-staff; Police Lt. Col. Agusto Cuyugan, deputy Recom 3 commander for police matters; Major Enrique Galang, chief of the civil relations service; Maj. Abdul Rahaman Abdulla, commander, Headquarters Service Co.; Maj. Vidal Querol, Recom 3 assistant chief of staff for operations; and Lt. Rufino Mendoza, aide-de-camp.
They were held hostage while meeting in the office of General Taduran for an emergency staff conference on reports of unauthorized troop movements from Nueva Ecija to Metro Manila. The hour was 2:30 a.m. when the renegade officers confronted them. It was only then that they learned that Camp Olivas had been under rebel control as of 1:00 a.m. that morning. Colonel Berroya and Major Divina had been AWOL (absent without official leave) since their involvement in the February take-over by Marcos loyalist troops of GMA 7 in Quezon City.
At 1:30 a.m. that Friday morning, in Villamor Air Base, headquarters of the Philippine Air Force (PAF), negotiations started between Maj. Gen. Antonio E. Sotelo, PAF chief, and Brig. Gen. Federico Pasion, Jr., PAF vice commander and camp commander of the base, for General Sotelo to yield command to the other. Sotelo, a true soldier and authentic hero of the February 1986 EDSA Revolution, bluntly told Pasion that only President Aquino could relieve him of his post. The negotiations lasted for five hours.
Later in the day, taking the fire escape route after leaving his office on the third floor of the PAF headquarters building through a window, along with a group of officers loyal to the government, General Sotelo reached the office behind the headquarters building of Col. Leopoldo Acot, A-2 (Air Intelligence) chief. And whom would he find there but General Pasion, holding an Uzi machine pistol in one hand and a .45 caliber service pistol in the other? General Sotelo disarmed him easily.
It was 3:15 in the pre-dawn hours of that Friday morning when Honasan entered Camp Aguinaldo with some 800 heavily armed men, mostly from the Special Forces training camp, of which he was the commander, in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. He had wanted to enter Camp Aguinaldo through Gate I but was not allowed by Col. Emiliano Templo, commander of the National Capital Region Defense Command (NCRDC) which was tasked with the defense of the camp.
The two had a long argument at Gate I, which infuriated Honasan. He told Colonel Templo that he did not want any further argument. To avoid a bloody showdown, Colonel Templo relented but would allow Honasan and his men, along with their equipment, to enter the camp only through Gate 5.
The idea was to let them into Camp Aguinaldo but to isolate them at a certain section while a defense perimeter was established to prevent them from overrunning the whole camp. Col. Honesto Isleta, AFP spokesman, also explained over the radio later in the morning that the plan was to confine the mutiny inside the camp to avert or at least minimize civilian casualties in case a shooting war broke out between Honasan’s men and the pro-government troops.
Initially, Honasan chose a spot under the trees in a section of the Camp Aguinaldo golf course as a kind of command post where he was joined by his deputy, Col. Melchor Acosta, commander of the 14th Infantry Battalion; a Colonel Erfe and Commander Jimmy Lucas of the Philippine Navy who later led the rebel troops in the occupation of the General Headquarters building; and Lt. Gabby Dizon, aide of Defense Secretary Rafael Ileto and a son of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Dizon, commander of the Constabulary Highway Patrol Group (CHPG), among many others.
At 4:45 a.m. that Friday morning, roused from her sleep three hours earlier by the sounds of gunfire during the firefight at Malacañang, President Aquino went on the air to announce that the attack on Malacañang by mutinous soldiers had been repulsed and that she was safe and well. She urged the people to stay indoors until the rebellion was quelled. She announced the suspension of classes in all schools in Metro Manila and for her own scheduled trip to Central Luzon that morning. Hers was a reassuring voice, unhurried and unemotional.
In Legazpi City, it was not until six o’clock that Friday morning that the rebel troops made their move. Led by Capt. Ludovico Dioneda, commanding officer of the PC company in Albay’s first district, Lt. Diosdado Balleros, CO of the PC company in the second, and Capt. Reynaldo Rafal, CO of the PC company in the third, the rebel soldiers, numbering about 80, sought official permission from Brig. Gen. Luis San Andres, chief of PC Recom 5 based at Camp Bagong Ibalon, to secure the Legazpi airport, only to hoist the inverted Philippine flag upon their arrival there. It turned out that the troops were promised a transport plane that would arrive from Villamor Air Base to ferry them to Metro Manila to augment Honasan’s forces. Four truckloads of soldiers from Camp Bagong Ibalon left that same hour bound for Manila. Nothing was heard of them afterwards.
Gen. San Andres sometime later in the day sent emissaries to the mutineers at the Legazpi airport to urge them to return to camp. As the day wore on and the promised Air Force cargo plane did not arrive, the weary mutineers returned to camp only to find nobody to welcome them back. Captain Dioneda spoke over the radio owning full responsibility for their mutinous act.
At Broadcast City, which was occupied briefly by Honasan’s boys, Honasan’s message explaining the coup attempt was read at midmorning. The message said:
“We the young officers and enlisted men of the Armed Forces of the Philippines wish to inform our countrymen that this is not a loyalist, leftist, or rightist move. This is a move of young officers led by Col. Gregorio Honasan, Col. Red Kapunan, Col. Tito Legaspi, Navy Capt. Felix Turingan, Maj. Noe Wong, and majority of idealist young officers of the AFP.
“We have taken it upon ourselves to initiate the fight for justice, equality, and freedom which our senior officers failed to do or refused to undertake.
“We wish to inform our countrymen that we are now in control of Camp Aguinaldo, Villamor Air Base, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, the entire Regions 1, 2, 3, 4, and that the entire Philippine Military Academy cadet corps has already withdrawn their allegiance to the government. They are now on their way to Manila under Colonel Kapunan.
“We are also in control of the Broadcast City and we are committed to die for our country and fellowmen. We are inviting other professional and freedom-loving officers and enlisted men to join us and let us have a new direction.”
President Aquino would later mock Honasan for his unabashed reference to his group of mutineers as “idealist young officers fighting for justice, equality and freedom.” In a brief speech at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Fort Bonifacio on Sunday, August 30, during the observance of National Heroes Day, she said:
“Let not idealism be used to cover the darkest crimes and ambitions of men whose actions only showed their hatred of democracy and their contempt for the lives of the people. One cannot be idealistic and a liar. They dishonor that name. They dishonor the word.”
The capture of PTV-4 was a priority objective of the mutineers. This task fell on Col. Eduardo Matellano, PC provincial commander of Nueva Ecija, who had a glamorous record in soldiering. PTV-4 had earlier been placed under heavy security, following intelligence reports of the impending coup, and Col. Warlito Sayam, who the month before captured renegade Col. Rolando Abadilla, directed its defense. About 85 young regular soldiers took positions inside the ABS-CBN compound at Bohol Avenue in Quezon City, where the government tv station is housed.
The attack came at 1:45 that Friday morning. This followed closely the attack on Malacañang which was repulsed and involved the same rebel troops at Malacañang who had retreated to Quezon City. They came on two trucks led by a police jeep. The exchange of heavy gunfire lasted throughout the morning. The station went off the air.
President Aquino, roused from sleep by the sound of gunfire at about 1:30 that Friday morning, was determined to crush the mutiny at the earliest possible time. From the start she was resolved that there would be no negotiations, no prisoners. At 4:30 that morning she had gone on the air, yet at seven o’clock there was still that eerie absence of contact with Gen. Ramos, her Armed Forces’ chief-of-staff. She wanted an attack launched against the rebel forces immediately. She had even taken the risk of having an inadequate secrity force in Malacañang by releasing the Marines, telling General Biazon, the Marines commandant, to “hit them, no matter how you do it, but hit them!”
The Malacañang hot lines to the office of the Secretary of Defense and to the office of the chief of staff at the AFP general headquarters, both in Camp Aguinaldo, had been cut.
“What was going on?” the President asked impatiently. “When is the attack?”
Presidential Special Counsel Teddy Boy Locsin volunteered to go to Camp Crame to personally deliver to General Ramos or to his deputies, Gen. Renato de Villa, PC chief, or Gen. Eduardo Ermita, AFP vice chief of staff, the President’s order to attack. It was eight o’clock and the weather had turned balmy, but Locsin found it stifling hot inside General Ramos’s command post in Camp Crame. General Ramos was there all right. But at ten o’clock the attack ordered by the Commander-in-Chief had still not been launched.
President Aquino called Governor Binay and through him got Gen. Alfredo S. Lim, superintendent of the Metropolitan Police Force’s Western Police District General Lim’s mission:
“Retake Channel 4!”
General Lim’s original order was actually to “reinforce” the beleaguered defenders of Channel 4. Brig. Gen. Rene Cruz, deputy director of the Integrated National Police (INP), told General Lim to take his men to Camp Crame for their high-powered weapons and ammunition. General Lim had gathered about 70 uniformed cops and plainclothes men for the task assigned to him. When they were ready to move out, their number had been swelled to 139.
A block away from Channel 4, General Lim and his men saw a pathetic sight: the young regular soldiers who were defending Channel 4 were staggering out of the ABS-CBN compound, their guns left behind in abject surrender to Colonel Matellano’s forces entrenched at nearby Camelot Hotel which they had used as their fortress in attacking Channel 4. The defenders told General Lim that they had run out of ammunition and even when they had they could not match the superior fire-power of the rebel troops. They had been on the line for 10 hours and they had not received any reinforcement or resupply of ammunition.
As it turned out, according to General Lim later, this was a tactical advantage. He said: “Had the pro-government troops remained inside Channel 4, we would have been on the defensive side, and the rebel troops mostly encamped at the Camelot Hotel, would have been on the offensive. And we scored psychologically against the rebel soldiers. We retook Channel 4. This demoralized the rebel soldiers who had briefly occupied Channels 9 and 13 at the Broadcast City into surrendering.”
Turning the Tide
The tide turned against the rebel troops of Honasan as the afternoon of that Friday began. With the retaking of Channel 4, at no bloody cost to the government side except for one policeman killed and two wounded, a psychological momentum toward an early victory began to swing the tide of battle for the government side. Government troops arrived at the scene to mount an attack against the rebel troops that had taken positions inside the Camelot Hotel. It was now clear to the curious onlookers at the Channel 4 area, many of whom had earlier in the day flashed the Marcos loyalist V sign as they provided cover to retreating and wounded rebel troops, and to those following the situation reports on the radio, that the government was on top of the situation.
The decisive phase of the battle that bleak Friday, August 28, came around two o’clock in the afternoon when Colonel Templo, who was in command of the defending forces in Camp Aguinaldo, together with Colonel Sayam, made a final effort to convince Honasan’s men at the Department of National Defense building to surrender. But Honasan’s boys there, Colonel Erfe and Navy Commander Lucas, stood pat. They had already made known their position, they said, and that was that. Their position was for President Aquino to step down and for General Ramos to resign.
General Ermita and Gen. Ramon Montaño maintained their position on the third floor of the GHQ building where the offices of the AFP general staff were located, but now, as the afternoon dragged on, they wanted to get out. The first and second floors of the building, however, were in the hands of the rebel troops. Colonel Templo received a Capcom radio message that Capcom reinforcements would enter Camp Aguinaldo through Gate 2.
The final battle was about to begin. Honasan’s side refused to negotiate so cockeyed sure of victory were the mutineers. President Aquino had declared there would be “no terms”.
At 4:15 p.m. that Friday afternoon, as she spoke on a nationwide radio-tv hook-up, two Tora-Tora dive bombers of World War II vintage from the Sangley Point Air Station attacked me rebel troops’ positions inside Camp Aguinaldo. Tanks crashed through the walls of the camp to enable the Marines led by Col. Braullio Balbas, Jr. to link up with the NCRDC forces under Colonel Templo. A helicopter gunship strafed rebel troops’ positions in die Camelot Hotel area.
The left wing of the GHQ building billowed with heavy smoke after retreating rebel troops set it afire by pouring gasoline all around and firing smoke grenades at it. The day after, against the bright morning sun, die gutted ruins of die building’s left wing presented a stark reminder to all who viewed it of what the madness of Honasan and his group had done.
As for Honasan, reports said he was flown out of Camp Aguinaldo as the Friday afternoon battle raged on. The latest report was that he had formed a provisional government under a junta composed of himself and his fellow renegade officers who had founded RAM.
The shoot-to-kill order issued on him has been lifted “to allow Honasan to surrender peacefully.”
Does this mean that President Aquino had softened on the mutineers? Would that not invite another coup attempt?
At the solemn rites held last August 30 at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, during the observance of the National Heroes Day, President Aquino dared rebellious troops still in the armed services to attempt another coup:
“They should expect once again to be crushed!”
The Friday, August 28 uprising of Honasan’s RAM boys, she said, “taught them the most bitter lesson and we will teach them again if they want it.”