Remembering the Iglesia-led EDSA 3

(Editor's Note: This story on "EDSA 3" – the uprising that protested the arrest of ousted president Joseph Estrada in April 2001 and attempted to reinstall him – was first published by Newsbreak in May 2001. The mobilization involved members of the Iglesia ni Cristo.)

MANILA, Philippines – On Sunday morning of April 29, 2001, key leaders of the pro-Estrada movement met in the Estradas’ residence at Polk Street in Greenhills, San Juan, to finalize plans for a march to Malacañang in the coming days.

One suggestion was for the opposition female senatorial bets, led by Jamby Madrigal, who is campaigning on a youth platform, to lead the throng from Ortigas to Mendiola. The rest of the pro-Estrada women leaders, including Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, would carry a rosary and pray while marching. (The senatorial election was scheduled a month later, in May 2001, and the pro-Estrada senators were running under the banner of Puwersa ng Masa – Editors)

It was to have a sobering effect on the angry multitude, but a dramatic one at that, according to a senior police intelligence official whose mole attended that meeting.

But what if the mass turned into a mob? Where would that leave – what else? – Puwersa ng Masa?

No unified command

In the end, 6 dump trucks were rented to ferry the agitated Estrada loyalists from Ortigas to Sta Mesa, Manila, flanked by tens of thousands of urban poor residents who had been hardened by years of rough battles with demolition teams.

The rest of the agitators at EDSA stayed in their Expeditions or camped out in posh safehouses, as they monitored the street fight through their cell phones.

All the propaganda notwithstanding, it is difficult to determine coherence in the so-called power grab plan by the Estrada forces.

The Estrada bloc was as unwieldy at EDSA as it was in the first months upon Joseph Estrada’s assumption of the presidency. If there was a plot to use military force in the endgame, it could only have been known to a few.

The history of destabilization plots is a history of compartmentalization. And the uncanny pattern of all the plots staged in this country, post-Marcos, is a pattern of plotters abandoning their troops in the end.

There were 4 layers that dominated the EDSA protests:

• Senatorial candidates such as Juan Ponce Enrile, Gregorio Honasan, and Panfilo Lacson Jr, who had built-in connections with the police-military establishment and a track record of failed coup plots

• The Puwersa ng Masa, whose principal agenda is to win big in May

• The organized mass in the rally site, which had various command centers with diverse interests: the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) of Eraño Manalo, El Shaddai of Bro. Mike Velarde, Ang Dating Daan of Bro. Elly Santiago, Philippine Movement Against Poverty (PMAP), and local politicians led by General Santos City Mayor Adelbert Antonino, as well as the Estrada sons, JV and Jinggoy

• The unorganized Estrada supporters. On the third day of the protests, a soldier associated with Honasan approached an Army battalion commander who once joined one of the coups against the Aquino government. The offer was straightforward: P1 million for a battalion commander, P500,000 for company commander, and P50,000 for enlisted personnel. The battalion commander immediately reported this to the chief of staff, according to a colonel who personally knows the commander.

Honasan’s secretary, too, had called up unit commanders based in Metro Manila at the height of the protests, according to the same source. The commanders were asked to return the call of the senator, and these commanders reported the call to Camp Aguinaldo.

“What Greg and Ping committed was 100 officers,” says a former RAM leader who remained loyal to the government.

A police officer was monitored to have made various phone calls to Ronald Lumbao, PMAP president, prodding him to prepare for a march to Malacañang. Honasan, Lacson, and Enrile were also monitored in various meetings with some of the organizers of the Edsa rally, which included an INC leader.

Beyond all the calls, meetings, and mega-agitation at EDSA, what exactly was the plan?

Initial target: Crame

Four days before Estrada’s arrest, PMAP mapped out a two-fold protest action: first, to stop the police from picking up Estrada in Greenhills by mobilizing 10,000 people there; and second, to bring at least 20,000 people to Camp Crame and stage daily vigils in front of the camp.

The hope, of course, was for the group to swell and choke the gates of the National Police headquarters. Maybe then, events would take their natural course.

But police blockades were everywhere on the day Estrada was arrested. PMAP could not even muster 500 people to bring to Polk Street.

In an interview, 3 PMAP organizers say they were repulsed at all corners in Greenhills and Crame, thus the hurried decision to go to EDSA. Did they not plan to go to EDSA from Day One? “Why should we? That’s not our EDSA,” retorts one of the PMAP organizers, a former leftist.

The radio broadcast by the INC-controlled dzEC and Cable TV Net-25 came simultaneously, however, because INC had committed even before Estrada’s arrest to help dramatize the plight of the ex-president.

How to deal with INC?

Edicio de la Torre, a former Estrada government official, recalls that in various meetings at Polk Street after the filing of the plunder charges against Estrada, the INC and El Shaddai were mentioned as the backbone of any protest that could come out after the arrest.

It was expected that Mayor Antonino, the local politician closest to Estrada, coordinated the moves of pro-Estrada mayors and governors who brought their constituents to Edsa. It was Antonino who was in charge of the same task at the height of the impeachment trial against the ex-president.

In fact, Antonino was supposed to be part of the negotiating team with the Arroyo government had talks pushed through, according to De la Torre. But that’s going ahead of the story.

On the third day of the protest, the crowd reached a high of 100,000, and the following day, PNP Director General Leandro Mendoza reported to the President that 70% of that came from the INC.

How to deal with the INC? The President hedged. Some of her advisers were predisposed to dismiss any option of back-channeling with a religious bloc that had obviously conspired with sectors out to oust her.

Thus, Army tanks rolled over the streets housing the dzEC radio station. “We had to show them that government is still working,” quips a police officer.

On Saturday, April 28, Arroyo presided over 4 meetings in Malacañang. The last for the day ended at 1 am, and dispersal was discussed. While in principle she was completely against it, the reality was such that the option had to be tackled, says a military aide.

“One count lang yan, ma’am (That's only one count, ma'am)," one of those present at the meeting quotes Armed Forces of the Philippines boss General Diomedio Villanueva as telling Arroyo. Villanueva explained that if only the crowd at EDSA started moving to other areas, it would be easier to disperse them in transit.

In the meeting, Mendoza said that the police and military could deploy tanks as a show of force on EDSA. “Pang-harang lang (Just as a blockade),” Mendoza is quoted by the source as saying.

But when it was Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes’ turn to talk about his own proposed option, he asked that all the civilian and military staff in the meeting be ordered to leave the room.

Closed-door meetings

Earlier that day, Reyes had met with Honasan on neutral ground.

The senator said the meeting was just meant to “open the lines of communication” between the two sides. No agreement was reached, no demands were raised by either of them.

By that time, the leadership in the police and the military were convinced that Sunday night, April 29, would be D-Day.

In Malacañang that day, Arroyo and Reyes held a closed-door meeting with Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Benjamin Defensor, brother of Senator Santiago. Defensor had earlier been reported to have been recruited by the other side, although this must have been a psy-war move on Honasan’s side.

Taking no chance, Arroyo asked Defensor to stay in Malacañang the entire night.

There were efforts, too, to open lines with the alleged power-grabbers. Reyes, Interior Secretary Jose Lina, and Secretary Perez were to be the “unofficial” negotiators. In the Estrada camp, the negotiators were to be Antonino, former Senator Ernesto Maceda, and Enrile.

Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Vidal was to arrive also that day to broker a meeting between the President and Estrada.

A Palace official had asked the camp of Horacio “Boy” Morales, an Estrada ally, to broker talks with Enrile, according to De la Torre. But obviously the government abandoned the plan.

The power grab uncovered by government was sketchy: The crowd was to march to Malacañang and force their entry with the help of armed men composed mostly of civilians and members of the Guardian brotherhood loyal to Honasan.

The trigger that the Estrada force was waiting for was a gunshot from the other side during dispersal operations.

Even PMAP organizers admit they had expected massive resistance from Ortigas to Mendiola. Instead, they were met with weak barricades, they tell Newsbreak.

In so many words, they complain that government had allowed them, with least resistance, to reach Malacañang. Thus, their own conspiracy theory: That perhaps government had baited them into moving to Malacañang so they could be crushed right before the seat of power. 

But D-Day did not come on Sunday. The noise and the flurry of intelligence reports about a strike that day was vintage RAM: It was a trial balloon to see how well prepared government was for the situation.

Negotiations with Manalo

While preparing for the attack, government reached two major decisions: Disperse the rally the following day, Monday, and declare a state of emergency, according to two Palace insiders.

The state of emergency was the subject of intense debate among the President’s closest advisers, and was eventually shot down.

At the National Security Council meeting Monday, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr broached the idea of talking to INC leader Manalo, considering the PNP report that the bulk of the crowd at EDSA were INC members. Some Cabinet secretaries opposed the idea, Pimentel recalls.

“I told them that good governance is not only the observance of the law...that there were other factors that should be considered if one is to govern well,” Pimentel says.

Arroyo listened to the debate. A few hours later, she dispatched Pimentel, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr, and Justice Secretary Hernando Perez to meet with Manalo.

By 2 pm, even before the dialogue was to end, Net-25 had stopped its live coverage of the EDSA protest.

There are two versions of what was agreed upon during the meeting: Perez said Manalo had asked about the likelihood of a house arrest or even another jail for Estrada. The government panel explained that this was up to the court but that they would make sure Estrada is moved to a better cell.

The version of the Estrada camp is a bit fantastic. Both sides reportedly agreed on a house arrest, for the plunder case to be archived in the future, and for Arroyo to become acting president.

Still, it was evident that part of the compromise was Estrada’s transfer in the future to the Veterans Hospital, where yet another bungalow is being constructed for him and son Jinggoy.

A Camp Aguinaldo source confirms that the Army’s engineering brigade will build the bungalow. This time, Estrada can have a view of the hospital’s golf grounds.

What went wrong?

The INC pullout from EDSA Monday afternoon allowed the government to relax its guard.

Arroyo boasted to the media that a power grab had fizzled out; later in the night, she visited her leftist supporters camped out in Mendiola, as if to send them a message that the threat was over and that they could leave. And most of them did. 

At a command conference in Camp Aguinaldo that night, the assessment was that the threat had died down, and that the remaining possibilities were bombings and assassinations by the power-grabbers.

A few hours later, Malacañang came close to collapse. It was witness to the biggest anti-government rally around it in 3 decades.

Still, no soldier or cop defected to the other side. “Up to last Monday they were still recruiting; they had forgotten that soldiers do think,” says retired general and presidential adviser Eduardo Ermita. “They had no cause, and no soldier would sacrifice his career for something that’s doomed to fail,” he says.

Why did it come to this then?

De la Torre describes the sentiment that drove people to EDSA as “100 days of panggigigil (suppressed emotions).” It had been 100 days after all since Estrada’s ouster.

Political strategist Angelito Banayo says the government did not anticipate a backlash from the arrest because the surveys showed Arroyo with a high approval rating at the time. “She and her advisers are hardcore scientists....They look at figures and decide based on numbers,” Banayo adds.

With what happened, Arroyo’s security problems will continue until the end of her term, according to Banayo.

But even Puwersa thought that in the end, Estrada’s arrest would have a negative impact on its campaign. “It was only Butz Aquino who was so upbeat about the prospect of a pro-Puwersa vote in case of Erap’s arrest,” says an aide of Angara.

Banayo agrees. “My reading of the situation then was that Erap’s fortunes would diminish as soon as the cases are filed and that this would impact on the (Puwersa) candidates.”

Thus when the crowd swelled at EDSA, the politicians allied with Estrada smelled victory. – Rappler.com

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .

image