BEFORE daybreak of Feb. 24, 1986, the rebels holding fort at Camp Crame were bracing for ground and air attacks from forces loyal to President Marcos. I was then with the defunct Veritas Newsmagazine and all media men there learned that the loyalist forces had dispersed using tear gas the crowd at Santolan near Camp Aguinaldo.
The crowd was meant to provide a buffer zone between the loyalists and the rebels and with the dispersal, an attack by loyalists was deemed imminent. Marines led by Col. Braulio Balbas were positioned along Camp Aguinaldo facing Camp Crame with their tanks. Then Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos was appealing thru radio to Marcos and Gen. Fabian Ver, the armed forces chief of staff, to call off the attack. Everybody in Crame was tense. The rebel forces’ armaments were no match to the tanks and numerical superiority of the loyalist forces.
The gods of fortune smiled at the rebel side at past 6 a.m. when the pilots of the 15th Strike Wing led by Col. Antonio Sotelo landed in Crame.
“We circled Camp Crame once and on the second turn, my pilot dropped the wheels, slowed down and proceeded to land. At 6:10 a.m. or whereabouts, all aircraft landed: 5 gunships, 2 rescue Sikorsky and one utility BC-105,” Sotelo recalled.
There was confusion when the gunships were first sighted at Crame but we realized they were friendly forces when we saw people jumping and hugging Sotelo and his men. Later that day, Sotelo and his men disabled the gunships in Villamor and mounted what he called a “measured attack” on Malacañang. The morale of the rebels suddenly went sky high. Before the sun set on Feb. 24, all military unit of consequence had defected to the rebel side. The following day, Marcos and his family had fled to Hawaii.
Sotelo was a graduate of the PAF Flying School, not of the Philippine Military Academy. Neither was he a member of the Reform the AFP Movement (RAM). He was a professional soldier trained to follow the chain of command but in February, he followed his conscience and sense of patriotism.
He rose to become commanding general of the Philippine Air Force and vice chief of staff of the AFP with a rank of lieutenant general. But in many celebrations of EDSA, his tremendous, heroic contribution to its success was virtually ignored; his name was rarely mentioned.
His son Nick said that during those years of being snubbed, General Sotelo would go to Camp Crame at about 6 a.m. every Feb. 24 to retrace history. It’s a credit to the man that General Sotelo had no tinge of bitterness about this in our subsequent interviews.
“Despite this snub, I’m consoled by the thought that I did the right thing when our country was in peril,” he said with a smile during our meeting at the clubhouse in Villamor Airbase.
This snub was corrected last Monday when he was named among the recipients of the Spirit of EDSA Freedom Award. Incidentally, one of the awardees is a public servant I have long admired and held in deep esteem – former Sen. Sonny Alvarez who continued the movement against martial law in the United States thru the Ninoy Aquino Movement.
The heroism and sense of sacrifice of a number of soldiers and individuals and the solidarity shown by the masses with the military brought about one of the brightest spots in Philippine history. And yet, while we marvel at the individual contributions of EDSA heroes, we note that the euphoria induced by that remarkable event is no longer there.
It’s tragic that while other countries commemorate the regaining of their freedom with a sense of national pride, the Philippines is indifferent to EDSA 1. It has come to a point where organizers of the 30th anniversary celebration of EDSA 1 had to ask Metro mayors to bus 200,000 each to give a semblance of mass support for the event.
Indeed, what can national leaders show as improvement 30 years after EDSA 1? Shouting “never again” and highlighting the failings of martial law won’t light up the fire of many of those who had participated in it. Diatribes against human rights violations during martial law won’t be effective if human rights violations, killings of Lumads and journalists, continue under democracy. Are human rights violations under a free society better than those under martial law?
Calling the martial law regime “corrupt” won’t strike a responsive chord in the hearts of the masses when corruption at the Bureau of Customs, the legislature, the Department of Agriculture and other government offices thrive while their officials are extolling “tuwid na daan.”
Never again? Live the ideals of EDSA 1 first.