Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Fidel V. Ramos

'The people are tired of constant political bickering'

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Photos by Jay Directo of Agence France-Presse

FROM HIS 26th floor office in a Makati high-rise, former President Fidel Ramos can point to the reasons why there should not be another People Power.

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To the west, one can see modern structures rising from the land reclaimed from the Manila Bay. On the other side are shanties of the poor of Makati.

“We are not moving fast enough,” he says, obviously unimpressed with the 4.9-percent growth the Arroyo administration has been bandying about. “We need six to eight percent every year in GDP for the next 10 to 12 years if those poor people in those slums down there are to be uplifted and not just the rich people. That’s what it takes in the economy. The people are tired of constant political bickering and they want to carry on with their lives.”

“People Power in the present time is not relevant anymore,” says the man who 20 years ago led the bloodless revolution that inspired other people power revolts around the world.

And so at the height of the “Hello, Garci” scandal last year, when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seemed to be at her most vulnerable, Ramos rushed in, not as leader of hordes of protesters, but as the man with The Plan: charter change. Yet it was more his support of the president and not the plan that appeared to have helped salvage Arroyo’s then-sinking ship, which, though more stable now, still has to navigate rough political waters.

Since 1986, Ramos has become the person who tilted the balance in the constantly shaky world of Philippine politics. In fact, in the past two decades, the ship of state rocked the least during his administration. So far, Ramos has been the most capable of all the post-Edsa presidents, although he, too, was unable to dodge charges of corruption (think PEA-Amari and the Centennial Expo fiascos). Ramos may keep his cards close to his chest, but there is no doubt he plays them very well. A minority president, he managed to cobble together a coalition that helped him in his quest to even the economic playing field and liberalize the telecommunications, banking, and shipping industries. He may not have been able to reform the entire economy, but he certainly made it more efficient.

It is probably no surprise that he hasn’t been exactly twiddling his thumbs after his term in Malacañang ended in 1998. This is, after all, one soldier that will not just fade away. The golf course beckons from time to time, but for Ramos, there is life even in retirement, and it means helping to chart the course of the country, for better or for worse.

IT ISN’T clear yet to which direction his “rescue” of Arroyo has taken the nation. But for sure the current political unrest lacks many elements of Edsa 1. Still absent from the convergence of anti-government forces so far is the involvement of significant elements of the military and the Philippine National Police.

Those were the forces that Ramos had marshalled during the historic four days of February 1986. At that time, Ramos was chief of the Philippine Constabulary, director-general of its sister organization, the Integrated National Police, and Armed Forces vice chief of staff.

But Ramos was not really in the original group of then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile that had been mapping out a coup d’etat against Ferdinand Marcos as early as 1982. The general was in his home in upscale Ayala Alabang, talking to a group of Cory crusaders when he got the invitation to join the rebellion at about 2:30 in the afternoon of Feb. 22, a Saturday. Using a circuitous route to avoid detention, he got to Camp Aguinaldo at six p.m., just in time for a press conference announcing his and Enrile’s withdrawal of support from the Marcos government.

Ramos says when he bade his wife Amelita goodbye to join Enrile, “I was prepared to die.” He gave her instructions to escape with the whole family in case the revolt failed.

Ramos recounts that Enrile divided the chores. “He did the political work and the relations with the civilians including contacts with Malacañang,” he says. “I assumed responsibility for the military and the police operations.”

Like commanding troops in a battle, the West Point-trained general communicated with his men in the field while working on the hearts and minds of the civilian population and making moves to confuse the enemy. Throughout the night of Feb. 22, he would get out from his Camp Crame headquarters to appear at the gathering crowd at Edsa, updating them of the latest defection-some of them true, some deliberately false. “Sometimes,” he says, “we went jogging just to multiply our presence, to be in many places for a short span of time.”

His instructions to his 12 regional commanders were: “organize a reserve and assemble them in one place. I will call on you to move them when the time comes. But in the meantime, do your job as law enforcers. Preserve peace and order in your respective community. Protect the civilians and spread the word. Keep abreast of the situation. Coordinate with each other.”

Some strictly followed instructions, some got overexcited. Ramos relates the case of then Brig. Gen. Renato de Villa who was in charge of the Bicol region, who, per instructions, quietly moved a battalion-size reserve to Naga, near the airport. There it waited for deployment to Manila, just in case Ramos and Enrile needed reinforcement.

In contrast, Brig. Gen. Rodrigo Gutang, commander of Region 12 in Parang, Maguindanao, couldn’t wait to be called. In his eagerness, he hijacked a PAL plane at Awang, Cotabato. He pointed a gun at the pilots, loaded some 120 people on the aircraft, and had it flown to Manila. Gutang and his men found Philippine Air Force Chief Vicente Piccio waiting to arrest them as soon as the plane landed.

By mid-morning of Feb. 24, after the dramatic defection of the Col. Antonio Sotelo of the 15th Strike Wing, which many consider the turning point of the military revolt, Ramos got the unexpected news that Marcos had abandoned Malacañang. The cigar-chomping general immediately went to the crowd that had gathered in front of Camp Crame and announced the good news, jumping with joy to the jubilation of the public.

It turned out that that news was premature by at least a day. Nevertheless, that Edsa jump became a Ramos trademark and was used extensively during his presidential campaign in 1992.

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THE SEEDS of military discontent were sown during the martial-law years when Marcos, a second cousin of Ramos, gave some special favors to officers based on unquestioning loyalty to him. Marcos extended the services of retireable generals, stunting the rise of professional, competent, and ambitious younger officers.

The retirement of the overextended AFP chief of staff, Romeo Espino, in 1981 intensified the competition between Ramos and Gen. Fabian Ver, commander of the Presidential Security Command, as well as the head of the National Intelligence Service Agency. It was well known that Espino’s choice as his replacement was Ramos (who was by then already an extendee), but Marcos put premium on loyalty and chose Ver.

The 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno ‘Ninoy’ S. Aquino Jr. added to the simmering outrage. Ramos also says the spark that ignited the Edsa 1 explosion was the widespread irregularities of the Feb. 7, 1986 snap election highlighted by the walkout of canvassers of the Commission on Elections.

Days and weeks before Feb. 22, Ramos says, he was already discussing withdrawal of support from the Marcos government with family members and friends. His sister, Leticia Ramos-Shahani , who was assistant secretary general for Social and Human Development in the United Nations, had resigned two months earlier from the Philippine foreign service. Ramos says his case was more complicated because he was responsible to a 110,000-strong organization. He had to make sure that once he did turn around, they would be with him. Which was what happened.

But even then, he didn’t expect the massive crowd that protected them at Edsa in response to the radio appeal of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin. He also saw the Divine hand touching the conscience of loyalist commanders who refused to fire at the crowd. Even Marcos, he says, had some pangs of conscience because the beleaguered strongman refused to give the order to attack, despite the insistence of Ver, who was caught by television cameras telling his boss excitedly, “We will attack, sir! We will attack!”

Ramos says one of Edsa 1’s valuable relics is the blackboard on which Ver and the generals who remained loyal to him drew up their plan of attack against Camp Crame. The attack was to take place from four or five directions, recalls Ramos: “Bombardment by mortars that were brought closer to our neighborhood, infiltration by the rangers, attack by the marines, and also crowd dispersal units by some elements of the Metropolitan Police Command to get the civilians out of the way so that they could attack with full military force our station in Camp Crame.”

Ramos would later have to deal with nine coup attempts, but by then he would be on the “other side,” repelling the disillusioned soldiers, first as AFP chief of staff under the Aquino government and then as its defense secretary.

The transition from an authoritarian regime back to democracy was not an easy one. He says that toward the end of Corazon Aquino’s six-year presidency, the country was posting “zero economic growth,” and that credit ratings were down. The country was dealing as well with “low international credibility, increasing insurgency, and severe power shortage,” he says.

People who saw how it was with Edsa 1 urged him to grab power. But Ramos says he told them: “I am a military man with 42 years of service behind me, but I’ll enter into the presidential arena as a civilian and I will do it in the legal, constitutional way.”

The country experienced remarkable economic progress under Ramos, although that success was marred somewhat by the Asian economic crisis that began in 1997. Out of Malacañang for more than seven years now, the 77-year-old Ramos has not slowed down. He was back in Edsa in January 2001 to oust Joseph Estrada, an elected president, and install Arroyo in Malacañang. He is now asking Arroyo to cut short her term and push for a shift to parliamentary system to save the country.

In between his international speaking engagements, Ramos holds court in his book-lined office of the Ramos Peace and Development Foundation, Inc. (RPDEV), which he wants to be his legacy. “Even as ex-president, as long as you’re physically able, or even if you are physically handicapped as long as your mind is still working, your brain is still intact, continue to do your job as a responsible and concerned Filipino,” he says. “In the private sector, of course.”

He has written about management rules for the movers and shakers of the country. He says, “For those who cannot cope with the immediate and forthcoming challenges, let us bid them to learn the rules and to try again so that they can change themselves.”

“For those who cannot learn to change,” says Ramos, “Well, they should be changed.” — Ellen Tordesillas