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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Those four longest days into night of Feb. 22-25, 1986

   
The memory of those four days in Edsa burns in my mind as vividly today as it did 25 years ago.
     
Since the assasination of Ninoy Aquino in August of 1983, I had been a political reporter for the black and white Mr. & Ms. Magazine that the intrepid Eugenia Duran Apostol, who later rightly won the coveted Magsaysay Award for courageous journalism, quickly converted from a rather innocuous women’s magazine filled with parenting, advice on human sexuality and successful marriage, and kitchen recipes, into the vanguard of the Philippine “mosquito press,” together with the "We Forum" of Joe Burgos. 
     
In December 1985, when Ferdinand Marcos announced a snap election, Eggie spun off the magazine into first a weekly, then a daily that became the Philippine Daily Inquirer. I was a political reporter for the Inquirer, covering the political opposition, when the Edsa  Revolution broke out on Feb. 22, 1986. 
                                              
Events-choked February 1986


      
That week in February 1986 had been choked with events. On Feb. 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Western Visayas opposition leader and former Antique Gov. Evelio Javier was brutally murdered in the plaza of San Jose, Antique, by henchmen of his political opponent,  while guarding the ballots of Corazon Aquino in the snap election the week earlier. Clasped in his hand was a blood-soaked rosary.  
     
Evelio’s remains were flown to Manila and met by huge throngs, and at his wake at the Baclaran Church, so many ambassadors from European nations showed up in defiance of Marcos.  On the way to the Ateneo University where his remains would lie in state for one day, crowds stood weeping in the streets---a mini-reprise of Ninoy’s funeral 2 ½ years ago.
      
Earlier the canvassing of snap votes at the Batasan Pambansa was predictably skewered by Marcos leaders and opposition candidate Cory Aquino took to the streets, to launch the first of an intended series of boycott rallies against products of Marcos cronies at the Luneta. That Luneta rally remains unmatched in crowd attendance until now.
       
Through the succeeding days rumors swept the city of impending arrests of opposition political leaders, media, militant church and business leaders and the left. The term “Oplan Mad Dog” was whispered about, said to be launched by Marcos’ AFPChief, Fabian Ver---just like in the days before martial law was declared in 1972.  Rumors said the arrested personalities would all be dumped in Carballo Island off Corregidor.  
                                              
                                    
Cory asked Eggie to send me to Cebu


My particular narrative about Edsa 1 properly begins on the evening of Monday, Feb. 17, 1986 at the Loyola House of Studies chapel. It was the last day of the wake and Evelio was to be flown for burial in his beloved Antique the next morning.
      
That evening Cory came to the Loyola wake. Finding Eggie Apostol and myself there, she told Eggie that she should send me to Cebu City on Saturday, Feb. 22 as she would be bringing the boycott rally there. Eggie quickly agreed.
       
At 5 am. of Tuesday, Feb. 18, I was aboard a tiny single-engine plane bound for Antique, for Evelio’s funeral, piloted by the late famed Irish-American  humanities professor Fr. James Donelan, S.J., with Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., later to be the Ateneo University President, beside him;  I sat behind the two prominent Jesuits. Our plane flew very low, hugging the coastline of little islands along the way.  I was dreadfully afraid inside the plane, but my fear was subsumed totally to my desire to bid farewell to my dear friend Evelio.
     
Fr. Donelan, bless his Irish humor, sensed my great anxiety and he joked that should the plane go down, either he or Fr. Nebres should be able to give me a quick absolution.  It was small comfort on the return to Manila,  as dark was fast creeping at the horizon’s edge. 
      
Besides, what was initially just a nagging fear of tiny planes became a neurosis, after then opposition leader John Osmena, taxiing after us into the dirt-patch passing off as a  runway in San Jose’s little airport clearing, said I had to be crazy to ride Fr. Donelan's little “tutubi.”    (Osmena brought a twin-engine plane from Cebu).  
             
AP's Mike Suarez breaks news re mutiny in Aguinaldo
      
Saturday Feb. 22 seemed like another typical opposition day I would cover for Mr. & Ms. Arriving in Cebu early that afternoon I checked into Magellan Hotel near Fuente Osmena, the rally site. Then the phone rang and Mike Suarez of Associated Press, whom I had ran into at the lobby, said, “Bel, have you heard? Enrile and Ramos just broke away from Marcos and are holed up at Camp Aguinaldo.” They decided to break away after some of Enrile’s boys were arrested earlier that day.
      
My heart pounded as I wondered where my husband, who had served at the Defense Department under Enrile for more than a decade by then, was. I tried to reach him by phone at his Camp Aguinaldo office, but couldn’t.  
       
After a quick shower I ran to Fuente Osmena pondering how I could share this very sensitive information with Cory and the other leaders.  A huge crowd had already blocked the streets all around and the stage filled up fast. Cory and her running mate, Doy Laurel, arrived with the local big guns and took their seats at the foot of the stage.
         
When the rally began, I realized from the boycott speeches  that no one had any idea what was going on in Manila. I agonized about  how best to approach Cory amid the rally.  
                                               
Operation Mad Dog
      
I caught a glimpse of John Osmena in the back of the stage and informed him about the news from Manila. Quick as ever, he promptly tied it to the rumor of arrests and Carballo Island. “Eton na ang ‘Operation Mad Dog, eto na” he kept saying, adding, “Sabihin mo na ki Cory.”  But before I could do so, the rally ended and she was hustled off stage.
         
I verified that Cory would be staying at the residence of Norberto Quisumbing of Norkis, and after the rally I grabbed a cab and headed there.  I found her in the living room all by herself, looking relaxed and she smiled at me.  
      
But before I could report on the Manila happening, she queried me about  how the wedding reception for Judy Roxas’ daughter, Ria, held a few days earlier at the gardens of Bahay na Puti in Cubao, had gone. Cory was ninang at the wedding, but chose not to go to the reception.
         
I recounted how Ms. Gretchen Oppen Cojuangco, wife of Eduardo Cojuangco, had asked for a Coke at the reception, but since the Roxas household was on boycott of Marcos cronies’ products, in support of Cory’s boycott crusade, there was no Coke. Ms. Cojuangco asked an aide to buy a big bottle from the corner store and defiantly put it on top of the table.
   
                                         Cory more fascinated about Coke story
    
Since Cory got quite engrossed with that Coke story, I forgot all about the Manila happening--- until Assemblyman Ramon Mitra walked in. I rushed to him and related what was happening in Manila and his first query was, did you tell Cory. I said, not yet, and he barked, “Ano pa ang hiniintay mo.”  I told her about the breakaway in Manila, and she listened, saying, “A ganoon.” But the full import apparently did not sink in yet, as she asked me to return to the Coke episode and Gretchen. To her it was far more fascinating than “Mad Dog.”
        
Soon the other opposition leaders arrived and went into a caucus with Cory in the terrace. They included Cebu Assemblymen Antonio Cuenco and Raul del Mar, Cagayan de Oro Assemblyman Homobono Adaza, who had earlier fought the canvassing at the Batasan, Peping Cojuangco, Aquilino Pimentel and John Osmena.   At about 6 pm. Cory called up Enrile and she assured him and his group of her prayers.

                                      Opposition's assessment tentative that night
      
If the import of the news from Manila didn’t sink into Cory’s mind right away, the other leaders were equally tentative in their assessment at that stage. Nobody could tell how the Enrile-Ramos mutiny would play out.  Besides, most of them probably had zero trust in the enforcers of martial law. Cory’s Ninoy had been incarcerated by the military for over seven years, while Mitra, Pimentel, Adaza and others had their own bouts in prison. 
      
At that time opposition leaders in Davao like Chito Ayala and Lito Lorenzana were seriously studying the idea of setting up a revolutionary government there. That night in Cebu Mitra raised the possibility of the opposition’s staking it out with the Davaoenos.
       
I must confess that as a journalist with just over 2 ½ years of covering the opposition’s formation, I was intrigued---and frightened--- by the prospect of a revolutionary government. It sounded romantic, but it could also spell war and violence.
                                                    
Just like Sound of Music
   
As the night wore on there was need for more news about developments in Manila. I volunteered to go with Cebu educator Manny Go and Bono Adaza to the former’s residence, so we could link up with Aguinaldo.  That meant crossing Camp Lapu-Lapu, a prospect which got Adaza quite nervous about not making it back to the Quisumbing house. I suggested that he lie on the floor of the car as we crossed the camp.
     
From the Inquirer newsroom, I picked up news about tens of thousands of people massing in Edsa, but in that age of landlines and no cell phones as yet, Camp Aquinaldo was not accessible, or, I thought,  too busy seeking to defend itself.  
         
The immediate concern of the opposition leaders in Cebu that night was to secure Cory from Gen. Fabian Ver’s soldiers, in case they’d come for her. It was whispered around that a US warship had anchored in the bay, ready to spirit her out if trouble came. But ultimately It was decided that the safest place in the city to hide her was the Carmelite Convent downtown.  I was thrilled: it was just like in "Sound of Music."
                                
Cory leaves for convent under cover of darkness
        
Under cover of darkness at about ten o’clock, Cory rode out in a car with daughter Ballsy, her brother Peping, and Cuenco and his wife Nancy, to a warm welcome from the nuns.
        
Unknown to the Cebu nuns, Cardinal Sin had ordered their Manila sisters in the Gilmore monastery to pray before the exposed Blessed Sacrament all night on their knees, with their arms outstretched. Don’t get up until I tell you to stop, Sin barked at them.  To this day the aging nuns remember that episode so vividly.
         
To throw off any possibility of Ver’s soldiers trailing Cory’s group, the mestizo Miguel Perez Rubio (whom some journalists mistook for an American CIA agent), educator Manny Go and others, including myself, sat around the open terrace taking in wine and peanuts as though we were in a party and not in a swirling revolution! We enjoyed that part---playing decoy while getting drunk.
          
It was also decided that the major opposition leaders be secured, so that if Ver’s soldiers came hunting, they wouldn’t all be bagged together. It fell on John Osmena, as he’s  local (and later Cory's OIC appointee as Cebu City Mayor), to hide them one by one in different private homes, while we media trooped back to Magellan Hotel, where we gathered in the lobby to await developments. The sense of history hang pungently in the air.

                                         Foreign Media complain about no story
           
After some time, however, the hordes of foreign media began to complain that they had no stories, and no leaders to talk to.  You have to realize it’s morning where we come from, they argued irritably.
        
Thus, in the middle of the night I called up Osmena and suggested that he fetch Mitra and Pimentel from wherever he had hidden them, so they could brief the media. But perhaps the two leaders were already too tired or scared of giving Cory's whereabouts away, for they could only muster one lousy paragraph that said nothing much. Monching and Nene were not at their journalistic best that sleepless night.
         
For the media in Magellan it was a long night of vigil, full of tension and anxiety, but also a lot of humor and camaraderie. But all of us were fully aware that history was unfolding and it was a great time to be eyewitnesses to it.   


                                        Cory flies back to Manila amid great tension
                 
The next morning, Sunday, Feb. 23,  Cory, surrounded by the opposition leaders, held a brief press conference at Magellan, reiterating her support for the embattled group of Enrile and AFP Acting Chief Fidel Ramos in Camp Crame and urging the people to protect them.  
          
Then she boarded a small Ayala two-engine plane for Manila and as it disappeared into the clouds, there was a flurry of anxious questions on everyone’s mind and unspoken prayers in our hearts. Would her tiny plane be shot down in the skies by Marcos’ planes? Would Cory be able to land at the airport? Would she be arrested upon arrival?
          
Good luck, Cory, God bless you, was the prayer that sprang from my heart as I watched her plane engulfed by clouds.  I boarded a PAL plane later that day, together with Tony Cuenco, Bono Adaza and other opposition leaders. The following day, Feb. 24, at 4 pm. Cory, who had gone straight to her sister’s house in Wack Wack from the airport the day before, showed up at Edsa, near the POEA office, to manifest support for the mutineers at Crame.  Thus, it was not true, as the RamBoys were to assert falsely for years and years, that Cory was never at EDSA.  I was eyewitness to her presence there.
          
By next morning, Feb. 25, she was sworn in as President at Club Filipino, surrounded by her family and opposition leaders and the media.
        
Interestingly, two hours earlier, Ferdinand Marcos was also being sworn in as “reelectionist” President, only to be spirited to Hawaii by a US plane later that day. Thus, Philippine history turned a new chapter with the beginning of the reign of  the first EDSA President





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