Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Juan Ponce Enrile

‘Our leaders are more preoccupied with appearing popular and democratic without doing the reforms’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

HE BEGAN the military undertaking that developed into the first Philippine People Power, but Juan Ponce Enrile has vowed never again to unseat a sitting president with the help of the military. This was what he told opponents of President Joseph Estrada when they asked him to join Edsa Dos in 2001.

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Enrile says he has long been disillusioned with what became of Edsa 1. “It has been converted into a cultist effort to mystify and sanctify certain persons,” he says.

He avoids naming former President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquno and declines to say whether or not he regrets turning over power to her in 1986. He does say, though, that if he were to do it all over again, there would be some “modifications.” For starters, Enrile says, “I’d probably not make people (who are unprepared) handle power.”

That would have saved his men, led by Lt. Col. Gregorio Honasan, the trouble of launching one coup attempt after another against the Aquino government. After the December 1989 coup try, Enrile himself was charged with rebellion complexed with murder and imprisoned without bail. But the Supreme Court threw the case out, saying no such charge or offense existed under Philippine laws.

Enrile was Aquino’s first defense minister. He had occupied the same position in the Marcos government. But by the time he and members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) holed up with several sympathizers first in Camp Aguinaldo, and then in Camp Crame, for four days in February 1986, he had already tendered his resignation from the Marcos cabinet.

That was probably because he was preparing for something bigger. According to Enrile, there was a point during Edsa 1 when he could have assumed power. One plan had him heading a revolutionary council upon Ferdinand Marcos’s ouster. Among those being considered as council members were Cory Aquino, widow of slain opposition leader Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr.; Gen. Fidel Ramos, then the vice chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines; Ambassador to Thailand Rafael Ileto; Rafael Salas, head of the United Nations Population Fund; plus two military officials and three civilians.

Enrile says a despondent Marcos had surrendered the government to him on the morning of Feb. 25, 1986. But Enrile took into consideration the snap election held just a couple of weeks before, in which Marcos had done battle with Cory Aquino. Marcos was proclaimed winner by the Commission on Elections, but now here he was, fleeing.

“It would have been awkward, in my judgment, for the military to assert itself and assume power when there was a group, a democratic group that contested the right of Marcos to govern,” says Enrile. “With that argument, the others agreed with me when I said, ‘Let’s attend the oath taking of Cory in Club Filipino.’”

ALTHOUGH IT was over in a matter of days, the first Edsa revolt actually took nearly four years in the making. Enrile and some of his staff and security officers hit the drawing boards in late 1982, even before they knew that Marcos had become very ill. They saw cracks in the Marcos government and since there was no constitutional provision for succession, they were worried that things would become messy once he was gone.

In most circles, it had been assumed that Enrile, one of Marcos’s most trusted associates, was the strongman’s heir apparent. But Enrile and his supporters had learned that Gen. Fabian Ver, then the armed forces chief, was planning to set up a post-Marcos military government.

“We were thinking of protecting ourselves because of the growing fissures in the Marcos government,” says Enrile. At the same, he adds, they felt that it was time to really dismantle the martial-law machinery. Martial law had been “lifted” in 1981, but Marcos retained his authoritarian powers. Interestingly, when Marcos declared martial law in 1972, he had cited a supposed ambush on Enrile’s car as proof that the move was necessary.

The Enrile blueprint for a post-Marcos scenario included a revolutionary transition government that would evolve into a democratic one. At least that’s what he says. Enrile also says there were target dates for a mutiny, but unforeseen events caused several postponements. One was the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino. Another came on Nov. 3, 1985, when Marcos suddenly announced on a U.S. TV news show that he would be calling for a snap election.

“Because of that election set for February,” says Enrile, ” I told my people, what’s the point in this military effort against the government when there’s going to be an election? If Marcos loses, that’s the end. (We achieve) our purpose of returning the country into a condition of democratic freedom. If Marcos (wins), then we will rethink our position.”

And so when Marcos was proclaimed winner of the Feb. 7, 1986 snap polls, Enrile and company brought out their plan. They decided to mount the mutiny on the dawn of Feb. 23, a Sunday. But of course they would never get a chance to carry that out.

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BY THE early morning of Feb. 22, the security group Enrile had assigned to then Trade Minister Roberto Ongpin was caught casing the house of Marine commander Brig. Gen. Admiral Artemio Tadiar in Fort Bonifacio. Enrile would later get a call from Honasan, who would say they had to make a decision: disperse or face Marcos in Manila. Enrile’s reply: “Let’s face him in Manila.”

Enrile then chose Camp Aguinaldo as their base because it happened to be his turf. He was simply unfamiliar with the terrain of the other military camps that his men were suggesting.

“That was how Edsa People Power came to be,” he says. “People went to Edsa because it was in Camp Aguinaldo that I decided to hold myself there to challenge Marcos.”

Later, he would make that famous crossover to Camp Crame, where AFP Vice Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos, who had also withdrawn his support from Marcos, was. The reason for the crossover was practical: the buildings at Crame were stronger.

Enrile says that from the start they were confident they would be supported by the public, which they felt had more than enough of Marcos at that point. But they didn’t anticipate the size of the crowd that eventually massed at Edsa.

Yet, Enrile says they would have succeeded even if the people had not come. “In the evening of Monday (Feb. 24),” he says, “we were already sure that we had the force to drive Marcos out. We had already the Air Force.”

Enrile ordered an aerial attack on Malacañang, but took care to say the palace should not be hit directly. He says, “Marcos was so scared when the helicopters flew over Malacañang.”

Enrile’s order may have been a tit-for-tat for his own scary moment. That came in the morning of Feb. 24, when rumors flew that Marcos had ordered an aerial attack on Camp Crame. He says, “Although I knew that if any helicopter would take off, those helicopters would join us, my misgiving arose because I heard that the commander was Col. Antonio Sotelo , who was unknown to me.” But Sotelo, an Ilocano, was known to many others to be very close to Ver, Marcos’s ever-loyal general.

There was a five a.m. mass at Crame that day, and Enrile’s seatmate turned out to be activist Bishop Francisco Claver. At the end of the mass, Philippine Military Academy alumni among those present sang their college song. It was a very emotional moment, and Enrile was moved to ask Bishop Claver to give him the rites of extreme unction. He was ready for Sotelo. The colonel did come later with his helicopters, but he and the seven other pilots with him would land at the Camp Crame grounds and join the rebels.

Enrile admits to also being afraid at the beginning of their revolt. “There was no question that there was some tingling in my stomach but finally I made the resolution that this is it, either I will make it or I die,” he says. “You become calm, you become serene.”

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SERENITY, HOWEVER, however, isn’t something people usually associate with Enrile. This was, after all, the man who was said to be the real mastermind of martial law. Acknowledged as a brilliant lawyer, Enrile was also considered as sharp and as cunning as Marcos.

Today at 82, he shows little sign of any wear and tear. During Estrada’s impeachment trial, he clearly outclassed the other senators, and probably had the private prosecutors wishing they had him on their side instead.

His savvy also extends to business, with interests that range from matchsticks manufacturing to real estate. Last November he incurred the ire of environmentalists when his timber company in Samar obtained a permit to resume logging in a national park. His business interests were already formidable before 1986. But since then, they have flourished and expanded, although they had been hit by bad times in recent years.

Enrile says he is disappointed the Philippines has missed out on the opportunities presented by People Power. He says it all boils down to leadership. “I realized that people are idealistic, they want to do good,” he says. “But then, when they hold power, they forget their promise to the people.”

He says people who participated in our political upheavals may want to appear revolutionary, but do not turn out to be so. Enrile says there has been no one “in the class of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk of Turkey, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, Vietnam’s Pham Van Dong and China’s Deng Xiaoping.” He notes, “Our leaders are more preoccupied with appearing popular and democratic without doing the reforms that are needed first in the economy and later on in the political life of the country.”

Still, Enrile has serious doubts that protests against President Gloria Arroyo would succeed. There is simply a lack of a military component, he points out. Not that the military is less political now, he adds, “but it’s an institution that believes in stability and the Constitution. You must give them a very big cause to break the chain of command.”

He also says, “Arroyo’s continued stay in power despite her unpopularity and protests led by no less than Cory Aquino disproves the myth created after EDSA Uno that the one that made Cory Aquino president was actually People Power.”

“Without that military group,” says Enrile, “Cory Aquino and her group would be marching all over the place for the next decade and they won’t accomplish anything.”

Enrile is writing his version of Edsa 1 for his grandchildren, some of whom are already grown up. “I want them to read it when I’m gone,” he says. In the meantime, Enrile says he and his RAM boys will be marking the upcoming Edsa 1 anniversary the same way they have done for the last 19 years: they will attend mass and say a prayer for the Philippines. — Ellen Tordesillas