(Editor’s Note: This story was first published in February 2008 by Newsbreak. Rappler is reposting it in light of the 28th anniversary this year of the EDSA People Power revolution. Irwin Ver was former chief of staff and head of the Presidential Guards. He is also the son of the late General Fabian Ver, who headed the Armed Forces of the Philippines under the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos. He wrote his first person account of the last days of EDSA.)
MANILA, Philippines – Leaving the country on Feb 26, 1986 was a crucial turning point in our lives, to put it mildly. As you may imagine, the physical dislocation is a mere bruise in the overall stigma to the Ver name.
Even after 22 years, I can still remember the quick succession of events prior to our departure: the discovery of the RAM (Reform the Armed Forces Movement) plan to attack the palace and subsequent arrest of several RAM officers at the initial phase of their operations—which we had mistakenly thought was sufficient to preempt their seditious plot; the unexpected holdout of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile at Camp Aguinaldo, which was a major surprise to President Marcos, unbelieving of the disloyalty of his once anointed successor.
And what rubbed salt to injury was the similar defection of his cousin, General Fidel Ramos, and finally, the unprecedented groundswell of support that grew into the people power at EDSA that made precarious President Marcos’s stay at the Palace.
From a military standpoint, there was the obvious fundamental operational mistake that led to this presidential withdrawal: the great multitude of people, particularly nuns holding rosaries, massing on EDSA. This certainly confounded the AFP Chief of Staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, my father.
Despite the urging of his Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was adverse to committing to a military and police solution, believing at the time that the show of force by the Philippine Marines at EDSA was enough to discourage the rebel forces. Hence, rather than being proactive in facing rebel initiatives, we resorted instead to strengthening the security of Malacanang, to allow elbow room and give time for President Marcos, whose vaunted political endgame savvy my father idolized, to resolve this crisis favorably.
Certainly the 22 battalions which converged around the perimeters of the Palace, including most of the AFP’s light armored units, gave us preponderance of forces against the rebels’ five battalions.
Even when the RAM forces attacked the government’s media station, my father’s reticence to send any sizeable force to defend this vital public psywar facility, was a huge source of frustration to his military staff. Only after the blitz bombing and strafing of the Palace grounds by Air Force helicopters did he approve of a counter strike plan, but that plan was readily countermanded by President Marcos. As we saw in that military conference on national TV, he ordered all our troops to shoot only when fired upon, and using only handguns.
Last hours in Malacañang
Our last hours at Malacañang is the memory I would keep vivid of the commander in chief I had served for 15 years. Saddled with the knowledge that we had lost our military advantage by choosing to merely defend ourselves, as commander of the guards, I kept busy with strengthening our inner perimeter defenses and prepared for a long siege.
At mid-afternoon of February 26, my father and I were summoned to the Palace and after we had clicked our heels and saluted in unison, the President who was seated on his bed acknowledged ours with a very slow and weak salute, but still summoned a booming voice to issue the order to the AFP chief of staff to initiate a “strategic withdrawal” to Ilocos. Having personally inspected our security posts, I felt compelled to apprise him of our ability to defend the palace for a long time.
President Marcos turned to me and directed his eyes into mine—an instant of history that still replays in my memory—and responded that should we stand our ground, a military confrontation against the rebels is inevitable. And in his baritone voice declared, “I don’t want us to be shooting at our own people. We must resolve this peacefully.”
Thereafter followed the dramatic unfolding of events, unexpected as they were: the frantic coordination for our movement to Ilocos, sending coded messages to the military units that would serve as blocking forces for our retrograde movement at vital points along the Northern corridor; the somber embarkation at the Heroes Hall boat landing, the President grabbing my arm as he stepped on the boat—one small step and he had forever left the Palace; the noisy USAF helicopters hovering three feet above the ground; the First Lady, the children, babies and nurses gingerly being lifted up into the helis, aides and security men jumping aboard; and as we arrived at Clark, the sharp exchanges between President Marcos and Gen. Teddy Allen debating on when to proceed to Laoag, the latter insisting we stopped overnight; and finally, the sudden departure at 3 am and, alas, landing at dawn not in Laoag but on a rainy Guam airport.
Shortly after, there we were, solemn and quiet, lined up for our refugee papers.
No, I cannot say I was bitter. Bitterness was not the reaction that immediately came to me after we had flown out of the country and found ourselves herded like refugees, with only the shirt on our backs, facing a completely blank future. It was more of an insecure anticipation not knowing what would come next, skeptical whether there would ever be a way back.
Surely there were lots of knee-jerk suggestions by some of us to launch a counter coup, but I knew President Marcos would never approve of it.
No, bitterness was not what I felt when I saw friends and sworn loyalists, readily joining the rebels, denying us their support or washing their hands. Perhaps, disappointment is the right term. And certainly pity for those whose souls were lost, who turned their coats in order to survive and claw their way up into another man’s back.
No I could not be bitter because I understood the full effect of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on the psyche of the nation, albeit wrongly blamed on President Marcos and my father. I accepted it as some sort of punishment, not that I felt my father was ever involved in the murder plot, but in a moral sense.
We must share the blame for our failure to prevent the assassination, initially shielding all uniformed men from the investigations, and allowing a socio-political environment for such violence to even occur.
I’ve returned home half a dozen times since 1998 when I came to bury my father, and I’ve seen the varied changes in Manila. The EDSA shrine happens to be on the way to my sister’s house and so I see it regularly. Although I see small dark figures in the sculpture, I always feel the large presence of those chaotic four days, changing the course of our nation’s history, but specifically changing the lives of our family members.
There exists still a great deal of family frustration at the misinformation that my father was charged with murder and that he escaped to the US. It is frustrating because there are a few persons, strangers who would walk up to me, and express their disgust about my father and walk away.
I wish they would stay for a while so that I could explain to them my father had no prior inkling of the assassination from the time he walked into my room that fateful Sunday afternoon in August 1983. He was wearing house clothes and slippers immediately after he got word of the shooting and I remember how he bawled out Gen. Luther Custodio hours after the incident.
My father was acquitted by the Sandiganbayan in 1985, and again at a retrial during the Aquino administration, despite being unable to personally defend himself in the courts. Unfortunately, he passed away while waiting for a third trial he had eagerly wanted to testify in.
I feel that existing printed history of President Marcos and Gen. Ver is grossly imbalanced, and my father unfairly demonized. Being his son, I would wish eagerly to clear his name.
Every time I come home (I am based in the US), I am always confronted by new constructions, new cultural icons, new words in our Taglish lingo, new practices at the work place. But as far as my AFP is concerned, I still see the continuing inability of the rank and file to reconcile the extreme disciplines of military professionalism and moral and social responsibility.
I also see the same political faces, similar political controversies, typical charges of corruption, improper use of government authority, and the same malignant ailments that continually waste into our democratic processes.
Watch Rappler’s interview with Irwin Ver.
See the full transcript of that interview here.
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