IF HE were an ordinary ex-military man, Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan would be taking it easy, preparing for what aging soldiers are supposed to do next: fade away. After all, he is just three years short of officially turning senior citizen, his hair is a salt-and-pepper gray, and the trim physique women used to swoon over is now just a memory.
Listen to the interview with Gringo Honasan
But the once-dashing army colonel isn’t about to vanish from public view. By his own admission, he has been busy, silently carrying out an unspecified role in the political opposition. In fact, it is quite difficult getting hold of him these days. PCIJ had to wait more than a month to wangle an interview with Honasan, and when the day finally came, we waited a little bit more for our turn at a ground-floor table of a Quezon City restaurant, while upstairs, he received what seemed to be a steady stream of military-looking visitors.
Honasan is spending his pre-retirement years chairing the Philippine Guardians Brotherhood Inc., an organization composed of military and civilian members. In the 2004 elections, Guardians formed the human cordon that protected presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. during campaign sorties. They continue to serve as security detail for his widow Susan Roces whenever she appears in rallies and other protest actions.
Guardians tried penetrating Congress as a party-list group in the 2004 elections, but failed. Still, leading such a group gives Honasan tremendous clout over members and officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and also affords him leverage within the opposition. But it also makes him a usual suspect as far as government is concerned, the perennial plotter of coups and destabilization efforts.
Being a coup plotter is a label that also won’t go away. Honasan first earned it exactly two decades ago in February 1986, when he and other mid-level military officers were leaders of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM. Most of them belonged to the elite Philippine Military Academy’s Class of 1971, whose charismatic class captain was no other than Honasan himself.
When Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, members of PMA Class ’71 were among the AFP’s youngest lieutenants. They were trained in a military pampered by the dictator, who gave them free rein-including employing the most brutal methods of torture-to fight Muslim rebels and to break the communist insurgency. The author Alfred McCoy described PMA Class ’71 as “instruments of state terror” in his book Closer Than Brothers. Yet by 1986, Honasan and company were calling Marcos a despot and plotting to remove him from power.
“The original plan was to mount a military operation against the very seat of political power, Malacañang,” recalls Honasan, who was then chief security of one of the plan’s masterminds, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. The RAM wanted “to break away and withdraw our support to the administration of President Marcos whom we felt then did not have the mandate and the trust of the Filipino people anymore.”
But coup plans never stay secret for long in the Philippines. The plot was discovered as early as January 1986 when one of their recruits, Presidential Security Guard (PSG) Maj Edgardo Doromal, blabbed about it to his commander, Col. Irwin Ver, son of then AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver. And so the coup that was planned to take place at two in the morning of February 23, 1986 became common knowledge days before, at least in the upper political and military circles, giving Marcos and Ver time to beef up the palace defenses.
HONASAN WAS supposed to be ground commander of the assault on Malacañang. Had things turned out as planned, he would have led a band of 30 rebel soldiers whose task was to arrest or kill the Marcos family. But it would have been a suicide mission; the thousand-strong military force Ver had brought in from neighboring provinces would have pulverized them on sight. Honasan could have died then, but a snitch of a soldier forced RAM to shift to a hastily thought-up Plan B.
The rest of the story is chronicled in the images of the time. The plotters regrouped at the Ministry of National Defense offices in Camp Aguinaldo, challenging Marcos to step down. In response, Marcos demanded their surrender and in a nationwide broadcast presented the RAM members in the PSG who were arrested for complicity in the coup. To break the standoff, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin and Butz Aquino, the brother of the slain Ninoy, summoned the multitudes to gather outside the gates of Camp Aguinaldo to protect “the rebels.”
“People power was a miracle, a pleasant surprise,” says Honasan. But at first, they were unsure about the public’s reaction toward them. In one memorable photograph, a scowling Honasan clutched a firearm as he escorted Enrile across Edsa. He remembers the gun — a paratroop model of the M-14 762 semi-automatic rifle — as though it were still by his side. He apparently would have used it if provoked. “That was the longest crossing I had ever encountered in my life,” he says, “(going) from the gate of Camp Aguinaldo to the gate of Camp Crame where we practically waded through a sea of people. I did not know if they would criticize us or even hold us accountable for the sins of the military then that was seen to be lapdogs of President Marcos.”
Funny for this to have come from Honasan himself — holding the military accountable for its sins is something Filipinos did fail to do at Edsa. In four short days, Filipinos forgot that the AFP was the machinery that kept the dictator in power for most of his 20-year rule. The RAM boys were hailed as heroes, their human-rights violations forgotten, their word given much weight by politicians. And while the AFP did try to reinvent itself as the New AFP, it soon reverted to its old ways.
Yet even after RAM mounted more coups and caused more deaths in the 1980s, the worst punishment they got were push-ups or banishment to a floating prison in the middle of Manila Bay from which Honasan, who was captured after an extensive manhunt, escaped easily. Years later, many of the RAM boys were reinstated, some even rewarded with “stars on their shoulders,” which Honasan also dreamed of having, except that he found another calling as senator of the Republic.
Honasan does admit that the coup attempts he took part in (just three and not nine, he quickly clarifies) caused hundreds of civilian deaths. But he thinks civilian leaders must be punished for their misdeeds if members of the military are to account for theirs. “We accept,” he says. “Talagang unfortunate. We regret it. But who holds the wonderful Department of Environment and Natural Resources responsible for the 8,000 people dying in two hours in the Ormoc flash flood? Pinakalbo ‘yung bundok eh (They stripped the mountain of trees). We’ll never see any indictment even in media. So where is the uniform standard?”
THE UNIFORM standard Honasan seeks simply does not exist. Soldiers are held up to a different set of rules, sworn to abide by the chain of command, uphold civilian authority, and protect hapless civilians, not fire at them. But Edsa spawned a different kind of soldier in Honasan’s mold, a breed with imagined invincibility, staging rebellions with impunity. They even became media figures in a country fast running out of heroes.
And so aside from the hundreds of RAM members who took part in the 1987 and 1989 coups, the nation saw the likes of Col. Rodolfo Aguinaldo staging a rebellion against the Aquino government in Cagayan in 1990 and Col. Alexander Noble attempting a coup in Mindanao later that same year. There have also been the millennium-edition rebels LtSG Antonio Trillanes IV and his band of junior officers, who took over the Oakwood hotel in Makati in 2003.
The government accused Honasan of being the brains behind Oakwood but that would be giving him too much credit. He does agree with the issues the rebels brought to light, chiefly corruption in the military which causes unrest among young idealistic officers. “The military, once it intervenes, cannot return to barracks. Kinurakot na kasi ‘yung pambili ng barracks (The funds for the barracks have been stolen),” he rues.
Interestingly, though, it is another member of PMA Class ’71, former AFP comptroller Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, who has become the symbol of corruption in the military. Garcia was convicted in November 2005 after a trial that revealed him stashing away hundreds of millions of pesos and owning expensive pieces of real estate in the Philippines and the United States.
But again Honasan argues that civilian leaders should be thrown into the same jail cell as Garcia. “Retired General Garcia never signed contracts, whatever he amassed in the 20 or so bank accounts,” he says. “I’m not prejudging the case. I’m just saying that it stands to reason that there are others as culpable or more culpable who are getting away.”
On one thing Honasan is correct: the military reflects the civilian government and society in general. The military organization will only be as good, or as bad, as the civilian leadership that is supposed to lead it. “If the military has deteriorated and people are wary of the military,” laments Honasan, “it is because they are wary and disgustful of the government and society in general.”
The country’s top leaders have much to do with encouraging a professional AFP loyal to the people and respectful of civilian authority. But in the 20 years since Marcos was ousted, Filipinos have seen their leaders doing exactly what Marcos did to the armed forces: play favorites, let scalawags off the hook, overlook genuine professionalism and talent, and allow corruption to fester. Five years ago at Edsa 2, the military reprised its role in Edsa 1, sparking a regime change and installing Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as president. The soldier has been politicized, and more often than not beholden to political interests. In some cases (like Honasan’s), the soldier turns politician himself prescribing the solutions to the country’s ills.
Honasan says if there is something he could have changed about Edsa 1, it is that the country should have had a better post-Marcos alternative. “Had I known then what I know now,” he says, “I would have probably asked with a louder voice: what do we put in place? What are the systemic reengineering projects we must undertake so that fundamental reforms can take place?”
For now, he says he will continue doing what he has done in the past two decades. To some Filipinos, this is not exactly reassuring. “Some of us, as I am, have been adopting a low profile,” says Honasan. “But I assure you after going against Marcos, Aquino, Ramos, and accused of going after Gloria, after going against four presidents, ngayon pa ba kami magbabago (do you think we would change now)?” — Luz Rimban