Friday, February 24, 2006

Bluffing the Marcos General

This firsthand account is posted here in its entirety on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the EDSA People Power nonviolent revolt which ousted former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in February of 1986.

Bluffing the Marcos General

by Colonel Romeo Y. Lim, Philippine Army (Ret.)

ON 21 February 1986, I took the first flight of Philippine Airlines bound for Cebu to represent my then commander, Brigadier General Felix Brawner II (Philippine Military Academy Class of 1957) at the burial of one of our officers -- the late Captain Jess Ygot who was killed in an ambush in Davao a few days back.

Ygot was killed by a sniper after the V-150 armored tank they were riding was overturned by a landmine. He and his troops would have survived the landmine explosion but the NPA (New Peoples Army) started to burn the V-150 and they had to bail out because of the intense heat. As they got out of the armored tank, the NPA opened fire on them.

After the burial, I left the same day and was joined on the plane by then Captain Felix Calimag who was the escort officer of Ygot's remains. We both went straight to headquarters of the First Scout Ranger Regiment (FSRR) in Fort Bonifacio in Manila direct from the airport and were greeted by a surprise party. Apparently, the party was for me and Captain Calimag because we shared the same birth date. The party lasted until the early morning of 22 February 1986.

At the time, my regimental commander who graduated no. 1 in his class, held two concurrent positions. He was J-3 (Chief of Operations) of GHQ, Armed Forces of the Philippines and Commander of the FSRR. Because of his very hectic schedule, Brig. Gen. Brawner delegated the administrative duties of the FSRR to me. It was no easy task as I had to oversee the operations of five Scout Ranger battalions, 14 independent companies, one training center and three task groups deployed from Aparri to Cagayan de Sulu near North Borneo.

Although I was his Chief of Staff, I held a temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Not only was I the only Chief of Staff in the Philippine Army who held that rank temporarily, I was also the youngest lieutenant colonel at the time. Brig. Gen. Brawner's schedule made it possible for him to visit the FSRR headquarters only during Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday (athletic days) to sign documents and issue any important instructions. The rest of the week, he would communicate by telephone.

I was groggy from the previous night's celebration when Brig. Gen. Brawner called me on the phone that fateful day of February 22, 1986 to inform me that Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Armed Forces of the Philippines Vice Chief of Staff General Fidel Ramos had withdrawn their support from President Ferdinand Marcos.

Right away he asked me about the status of the troops inside the garrison and I told him that we had the newly organized 3rd Scout Ranger Battalion and two independent companies ready for deployment. I had initially put together the 3rd Battalion but I subsequently turned over the command to my kumpadre who was then Major Ricardo Brillantes of PMA Class of 72 (now Major General of the Army Support Command, Philippine Army) who was newly relieved from the Scout Ranger Training Center at Camp Capinpin in Tanay, Rizal.

I declared a red alert but some of the troops had already left for the weekend. My First Sergeant also informed me that the night before, an unidentified person delivered a counter-sign ribbon to the headquarters and he asked me what to do about it. That fed my suspicions that some members of my unit had already joined the military rebels.

On Sunday, February 23, the group of then Defense Minister Enrile and General Ramos transferred to Camp Crame from Camp Aguinaldo. Another kumpadre, Major Delfin Lorenzana (PMA Class of 73) called me from Crame and told me not to deploy any troops without informing him first. He also said that half of his class was already in Camp Crame.

I gave in to his request.

At the time, the group of Enrile and Ramos feared the Scout Rangers the most because it was an elite military unit under the command of Brig. General Brawner who was known to be very loyal to President Marcos and was a trusted ally of then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver.

That day, I was summoned to report to the Headquarters of the Philippine Army. I was very surprised when I entered the conference room because I was the only officer in uniform who was not a general. Among the 'star' personalities present were Rear Admiral Ochoco who was then Flag-Officer-in-Command of the Philippine Navy; Major General Josephus Ramas, Commanding General of the Philippine Army; Major General Piccio, Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force; Brigadier General Tadiar, Commandant of the Philippine Marines; Brig. General Antonio Zumel, Superintendent of the Philippine Military Academy; Brig. Gen. Cerilo Oropesa, Chief of Staff of the Philippine Army and five other generals whose names I cannot recall.

One prominent civilian personality who was at the conference was then Governor Dulay of Quirino Province who was a former Constabulary officer. He later died in prison after being implicated in the Suzuki Boys of Batanes scandal.

The group's consensus was for me to bring one company of Scout Rangers to EDSA and upon reaching the area, to open fire at the crowd so they would disperse. My conscience rebelled against these instructions and right then and there, I came up with an idea to stall them so they would not force me to immediately carry out the orders.

I told them that I would initially send my intelligence officer to assist the ground troops. Then I went back to the FSRR headquarters and told my staff that if anyone looked for me, I was off reporting to Brig. General Brawner. The fact was, I stayed inside our radio room in the basement listening to radio communications and making myself unavailable to the pro-Marcos forces.

On the evening of that Sunday, Colonel Irwin Ver (PMA Class of 70), son of Gen. Fabian Ver, presented the coup plotters to the Philippine Army troops at the Philippine Army Gym at Fort Bonifacio. Three of them were my friends and kumpadres: then Col. Jake Malajacan (PMA Class of 71), Major Ric Brillantes, and Captain Saulito Aromin (PMA Class of 74).

On February 23 of Monday morning I started calling up the family and relatives of Brig. Gen. Brawner to trace his whereabouts. I also called up Lt. Col. Dunda Matabalao, the commander of the Scout Ranger Training Center who was an outstanding and brilliant Muslim officer. He was one officer whom Brig. Gen. Brawner had a high regard for.

Philippine Army command continued to call my office but my staff denied that I was in the vicinity and gave the excuse that I was probably at EDSA. In the meantime, my junior officers from PMA Classes '82 and '84 were already very restless and itching to go to EDSA to join the anti-Marcos forces. I told them that we shared the same sentiments but I needed time to extract Brig. Gen. Brawner who was still in Malacanang. I wanted him out of harm's way but at the same time, I also did not want him to pressure the troops to follow unconscionable orders.

Over at Malacanang, President Marcos was being interviewed by a TV anchor who asked him about the continuous defection of his generals. Marcos confidently said that the cream of the crop among the generals were still loyal to him. My heart then sank when I saw Brigadier General Brawner standing behind the President.

I immediately called up Malacanang and asked to talk to General Ver. When he got hold of the phone, he immediately asked me what the problem was. I told him that I directed the Scout Rangers to go to EDSA to disperse the crowd but the soldiers were hesitant to follow my orders unless it was Brig. Gen. Brawner himself who told them. I begged, pleaded and cajoled General Ver to allow Brig. Gen. Brawner to proceed to Fort Bonifacio to join the troops, at the same time praying that my bluff would work. I also told him that this decision was the consensus of the officers after I had a dialogue with them.

Ver called my bluff. Thereafter, Brig. General Brawner himself rang me to say he was proceeding to the FSRR headquarters. Upon knowing this, i contacted Mrs. Brawner, some close relatives of his and Col. Matabalao and asked them to proceed to the headquarters. There, I instructed them on what to do.

When the general arrived, I took him aside. I suggested to him that in view of everything that was happening, it would be better if he instructed the troops to "freeze", that is, not to move in favor of any side. He looked at me and in an indignant tone told me that "freezing" the troops would be an act of cowardice. With that, I requested him to pass by his room where he saw his wife, relatives, and Col. Matabalao. Except for the colonel, everyone started crying. All of them asked him to defect. Meanwhile, I gathered all the officers and told them that if Brig. General Brawner asks who was still willing to fight for President Marcos then no one should raise their hand. Sure enough, the general called for a command conference and asked the question.

No one raised their hands.

Visibly surprised at the outcome of the conference, the general returned to his room. It was already late afternoon of Monday, the 24th of February. He then told his wife, children, close relatives and Col. Matabalao that he was no longer going back to Malacanang.

After this emotional meeting, I immediately ordered our demolition experts to start burying landmines on the road leading from the entrance to the regiment to the headquarters. I was apprehensive that our neighbors, the Philippine Marines, would try to attack us since they were still allied with Marcos at that time. By late afternoon, I gathered the junior officers led by then Lt. Noel Buan (now a Medal of Valor awardee after being held by the NPA) and told them to go to Channel 4 and announce that the Scout Rangers were now allied with the Enrile-Ramos group. I called up Major Delfin Lorenzana to tell him what transpired at the Scout Rangers headquarters when then Col. Gregorio Honasan grabbed the phone and congratulated me. The phone was then handed to General Ramos who likewise congratulated me.

But being the skeptic that he was especially because of the situation, General Ramos instructed me to ask Gen. Rodolfo Canieso (PMA Class of 56) to go to the FSRR headquarters and check the veracity of the rangers' defection. When I contacted Gen. Canieso, he jokingly questioned how I, as a lieutenant colonel, had the gall to direct a general.

When Canieso arrived at headquarters, he was visibly pleased to see the Scout Rangers intact and now allies of the anti-Marcos forces. If Brawner had any second thoughts about this decision to stand down, Canieso's presence dispeled any doubt. He had to act in deference to Canieso who was an upper classman.

On the morning of Tuesday, February 25, 1986, I instructed my soldiers to shoot anyone entering the FSRR headquarters who did not immediately identify themsleves as allies of the rebel forces since we were only a few hundred meters from the Army headquarters. I also told them not to answer any phone calls. Fearing the worst, I detailed a battle strategy where we would use the nearby Libingan ng mga Bayani (National Heroes Cemetery) as an exit point should we be overwhelmed.

No such confrontation happened. Later that day, Col. Honasan called me to ask if I can accommodate the Philippine Marines who were going to surrender. When I said yes, hordes of Marines came and laid down their arms at our headquarters. Promptly issuing them the required receipts for their respective arms, rebels and surrenderees all sat down to a table to partake of whatever food we had available.

That night, President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, the 10th President of the Republic of the Philippines, left Malacanang Palace to start his exile in Hawaii. He was destined to die in a foreign land several years later.

The rest, they say, is history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I used to work with Lt Noel Buan right after his release from being hostaged by the NPAs. He was then a Major. He was indeed a man of honor and a gentleman, true to their PMA upbringing. A big salute to all PMAers!