Trouble in paradise? Disquieting news of restlessness in the Philippine military sector blew over the Pacific Ocean to Mexico City where I lived. It was February 1986, I was the asistente principal of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). According to the Philippine Embassy grapevine, a somewhat covert group of idealistic military officers, the Reform Armed Forces Movement–Young Officers Union (RAM-YOU) were restless. “You know what can happen when those Young Turks are restive,” the ambassador said alluding to regime changes in other parts of the world.
As news from home became “curiouser and curiouser”, I was sent to Manila by a Mexican daily for which I wrote articles on political denouements in Southeast Asia. Most Mexicans learn about the galleon trade in school, so they feel a close affinity for the Philippines. Jose Rizal has a monument on the impressive Paseo de la Reforma sharing honors with other anti-colonial heroes of Latin America like Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin. Little did I know I would be covering the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
Upon arrival in Manila, a former schoolmate dragged me to Cardinal Jaime Sin’s press conference at the Archbishop’s Palace in Mandaluyong; we sat on the floor as the Cardinal had run out of furniture. She then told me to ask the Cardinal’s assistant to get me an appointment with the RAM. Apparently, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the military and an incipient civil society were tightly entwined In an explosive political bundle. Why not? Fr. Miguel Hidalgo started the Mexican Revolution in the 19th century, and in the 20th “liberation theology” had its stalwarts in Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, Mexico’s Archbishop Sergio Mendez and El Salvador’s Bishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated as he celebrated Mass. Could the Marcos dictatorship survive God’s heavy artillery?
The day after Cardinal Sin’s press conference, I received a phone call at my mother’s home in San Juan and was instructed to immediately report to the Ministry of National Defense at Camp Aguinaldo where a certain Capt. Rex Robles would be waiting for me. That was mind-boggling, the anti-Marcos RAM was operating from the Defense Ministry? What was going on? At that time, I did not even suspect they had the blessings of then Defense Minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, a family friend who had earlier saved me from detention.
Captain Rex Robles turned out to be a tall, hefty moreno, mustachioed, long-haired youngish gentleman dressed in a flowered shirt and tan slacks of the finest twill. He was extremely relaxed, charming, and when I introduced myself he said, “ Who doesn’t know you, Madame ?” I could not resist commenting on his sartorial informality because I had expected a military rebel to be dressed in general issue fatigues, boots, with at least a light handgun discreetly tucked in his waistband. As soon as we were seated, an aide brought in two steaming hot, luscious, mouth-watering giant siopaos from Ma Mon Luk which I had not tasted since I fled to Mexico eleven years ago.
After the serious part of the interview, Rex regaled me with stories about how First Lady Imelda Marcos would invite the RAM to Malacanang for some cheering up. She was probably warned about demoralization in the ranks due to low wages with no hazard pay, squalid living conditions and the lack of equipment, uniforms, boots, etc. Rex said the First Lady showed motherly concern by giving them lessons on self-reliance. Like what? I asked, perplexed. She would tell them that whenever she traveled ( she was an ambassador-at-large) she always had a sewing kit in her luggage so she could repair her own clothes; you know, like sewing an unstitched hemline or darning a tear. I said that was hard to believe and that he was making up stories to amuse me. He said the message was loud and clear, take care of your needs and stop whining. Perhaps Capt. Robles was being facetious but it became obvious that the Marcos government was neglecting a vital sector of its support network. Then snap elections were called, Corazon Aquino was winning, a number of vote counters detected computer fraud, so they walked out en masse and sought refuge at the nearby Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Baclaran.
In retrospect, the demands of the RAM-YOU in 1986 were no different from those of the Oakwood group, the Bicutan stand-off and the Peninsula Hotel mutineers. In February 2008, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was president, the Armed Forces of the Philippines conducted a Unity Walk from the EDSA shrine to Camp Aguinaldo. Remarkably, there were no civilian nor church elements, in stark contrast to EDSA People Power I, 36 years ago.