Edsa I in JoAl’s eyes

“Joal” is Jose T. Almonte, the soft-spoken, high-minded military man who likes grand ideas and once navigated the corridors of power as an adviser/guru to the powerful and the ambitious. He is sometimes referred to as the “thinking soldier,” a description that fits General Almonte precisely because it implies that such a phenomenon may be as uncommon as it is dangerous. JoAl does have that sinister reputation, and, I suspect, he revels in it.

JoAl tells his story to journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug in “Endless Journey: A Memoir,” a new book that will be launched on Feb. 25, the 29th anniversary of the Edsa People Power Uprising, at Club Filipino in Greenhills, San Juan. Many will remember that this is the same place where Cory Aquino took her oath as president of the country a few hours before Ferdinand Marcos and his family fled Malacañang on helicopters supplied by the US Embassy.

The book, written in the creative nonfiction style, does read like a fast-paced political thriller focusing on the underside of public events. JoAl narrates crucial moments in our nation’s history with a sharp eye for detail—and a penchant for sweeping gloss—that can leave a reader both awestruck and incredulous. He appears to be situated at the center of events at the right time, initiating and/or observing social action, as it becomes history. Yet, through all this, he remains largely invisible. I can’t recall a photograph of Edsa 1 with JoAl standing beside any of its principal characters. But no one will dispute he was there.

In his recounting of the events leading to Edsa 1, JoAl takes the reader to the basement of the defense department in Camp Aguinaldo, where Lt. Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan held office as chief of security of the then defense secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. Three members of the core group of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM)—Gringo, Vic Batac and Red Kapunan—often met there. This was where they explained to him their initial plan. “A coup was on their minds, but it was still hazy, because they didn’t know how things would unfold. That was where I came in.”

JoAl persuaded them that instead of sparking chaos in the military as a clumsy prelude to a coup, which was their original plan, they should “aim at Malacañang rather than fiddle with this chaotic situation.” This idea was intensely debated. JoAl’s input to the discussion proved to be the game-changer. “From then on, we planned to attack Malacañang…. We had to go to the details of what to attack and who the persons in charge would be.”

“The plan of Gringo was to kill Marcos and his family. He would lead the attacking force. Red would lead the attack outside the Palace, in the park, against the Presidential Security Group.” While reading this in the nonchalant tone it is narrated, I of course couldn’t help being intrigued if Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Gringo’s colleague at the Senate, had ever heard this story before. But perhaps more than that, I wondered how this plan, if it had materialized, would have altered the entire course of our nation’s history.

But, ever the prophetic voice of reason and compassion, JoAl at once objected to killing the Marcoses. “I insisted that we had no right to take the life of anybody. It is only the Filipino people who can decide to take their lives, not us. ‘Our revolution should preserve life. It is paramount,’ I explained. ‘We are fighting for political ideals and no political, social or economic ideals will justify the taking of life.’…. I said the Marcoses should be kept alive so they could face a people’s court.”

The coup plotters, as expected, hotly debated this particular intervention by RAM’s prophet. In the end, the decision that was taken was to capture the Marcoses rather than eliminate them. This change in the plan entailed a fundamental expansion of the forces needed to take Malacañang. It also raised the risk of exposing the plot and of multiplying the number of potential casualties. JoAl pondered the choices before them in his characteristic philosophical way: “I feared the fickle nature of history whose judgment of historical figures is never final.”

As we all know, the whole plot was discovered even before a single shot could be fired. Eventually, the leaders of this aborted putsch found themselves retreating to Camp Aguinaldo to announce their withdrawal of support from the Marcos regime before the predominantly foreign media, and asking for the Filipino people to support them. Marcos found out what they were up to, and he knew they had nowhere to go. In the beginning, he talked to them like a forgiving father to a bunch of helpless kids who had lost their way. Then he started berating them. This was where people power intervened. An awakened nation boldly stepped up to the plate following a failed coup attempt, and freed itself.

The military might be forgiven for thinking it was they who won. But had they listened to the voices of the people outside the camps, they would have realized it was neither Enrile’s nor Fidel Ramos’ nor Gringo’s whose name the people were shouting but Cory’s. Filipinos had no wish to be ruled by the military. They showed this in all the military-led coup attempts that followed Edsa 1.

In the book, JoAl says he tried to warn the RAM against attempting to unseat Cory. They instead asked him to lead. “I explained to them that in a revolution, the reliance on arms is wrong. Ideals should propel a revolution. And over and above all of this, I said they could not go beyond what the people would tolerate.”

His words fell on deaf ears. “Gringo no longer informed me of their succeeding plans. Seven coup attempts took place during the reign of Mrs. Aquino.”

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