A 25-year rebellion

“SHOULD I fail, then remember me with pride and understanding. Please do not disown me or my memory. I have lived a good and full life. I have seen the world and experienced its pains and pleasures. My only regret is that I have not served you as much as I should have.”

Those words were penned 25 years ago by a young idealistic officer who was going off to a different kind of battle. Then Army Capt. Ricardo C. Morales thought it best to write his parents a final note before he jumped into the void.

Morales was a member of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), a group of rebellious military officers that had hatched a plan to topple the Marcos government. The trusted aide de camp of First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos, he was the group’s ace in the hole. The plans had him as the rebel commandos’ guide into the Presidential Palace to capture the First Family.

“Since I knew the route inside the palace, my job was to lead the assaulting element,” Morales recalls. “I did not expect to survive so I wrote that letter to my parents.”

But something went terribly awry. RAM leader Gregorio Honasan had tried to recruit yet another Palace insider, Maj. Edgardo Doromal. Doromal, however, squealed, and Presidential guards moved swiftly to arrest Morales and two other military officers.

On the evening of February 22, 1986, just six hours before the planned commando assault, then strongman Ferdinand E. Marcos appeared on national television for an emergency broadcast. Marcos announced that he had foiled an assassination plot against his family, and presented the three captured military officers as evidence.

Ferdinand Marcos presents Ricardo Morales to media.

“They were part of an aborted coup d’etat, an assassination plot against the President and the First Lady,” Marcos declared on television. To Marcos’s left sat a glum and ashen-faced Capt. Morales, still dressed in the dark bush jacket favored by security aides at the time.

“Once I was caught, I thought, ‘I’m a dead man,’” Morales recalls. “I was thinking, whatever happens, I hope it’s going to be quick and painless.”

But the wheels of history have a way of turning things upside down. While Morales was thrown into prison in the Presidential Security Command (PSC) compound, then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Constabulary chief Fidel Ramos barricaded themselves inside Camp Crame. Millions of folk poured into the streets to protect the military rebels from Marcos’s might while military units began defecting to the Enrile-Ramos side.

Four days later, Ferdinand Marcos and his family landed at Hickam airfield in Hawaii, ousted after 21 years in power by the People Power Revolution.

But what Morales wrote to his parents 25 years ago remains fresh as ever. Indeed, they may as well have been written for the institution of which he was part for much of his life – and which he had tried to shake up with opinions that sometimes flew in the face of established traditions of the long grey line.

In 2003, then Colonel Morales wrote a controversial critique on the failure of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to crush the communist New People’s Army after more than 30 years of fighting. In less than diplomatic fashion, Morales pointed to deficiencies in leadership, training, and widespread corruption in the military.

Today, Morales sits as executive vice president and general manager of the Armed Forces-Police Mutual Benefit Association.

In 2004, Morales was in the news again when he wrote AFP chief of staff Gen. Narciso Abaya pointedly asking whether he had already initiated any probe into the activities of AFP comptroller Carlos Garcia. Months earlier, Garcia’s wife and sons had been arrested for smuggling $100,000 into the United States. Garcia’s wife told U.S. authorities that the money was from kickbacks from armed forces contractors.

Morales found it strange that while the United States had already begun its own investigation, the Philippine military was reluctant to lift a finger to probe into the matter. Abaya would even appoint Garcia deputy chief of staff for plans and operations.

When Morales was stripped of command of the 404th Army brigade in Davao del Norte in 2005, though, it was apparently because he had posted a message in a Philippine Military Academy alumni e-group that military officers found particularly disturbing.

In the message, Morales criticized the military leadership for building the P18-million, 60-room Sampaguita Family resort in Boracay, supposedly to boost troop morale.

“How can the 60-room resort in Boracay improve the (Armed Forces of the Philippines’) capability to fight?” asked Morales in his email. “Who determined this priority? We have hospitals without medicine and they spend money for this resort?”

These were reasonable questions. For years, soldiers in the field had complained of poor food, bad ammunition, and a pathetic combat pay of P8 per day. But Morales pushed the envelope by dancing dangerously near the ‘C’ word.

“The time has come for all good men to come to the aid of their society,” Morales wrote. “The time for talking is over; the time for action is now. The next ‘coup’ will be peaceful and open. Enough of leaders who talk about reforms but do not understand what they are saying. Enough of this organizational stupidity.”

Interestingly, Morales by then had already distanced himself from his more adventurous comrades. Even now, Morales says of his colleagues who had launched several coup attempts against the Cory Aquino government: “I don’t believe in military adventurism, it is just disruptive.”

Nevertheless, Morales’s superiors put him in the freezer for almost a year. After that, Morales felt his career going downhill. Long a field officer and a battle-tested soldier, his last posting, as Fort Bonifacio camp commander, was for him an insult. “I just hauled garbage there,” he would say of his last job before he retired from the service in 2009.

For all the faults perceived by his superiors, Morales possessed a startling innocence, even naiveté, which he kept as he went from the jungles of Jolo as a young 2nd lieutenant, to the halls of Malacañang, as aide of a dictator’s wife, to his postings as brigade and camp commander.

Ricardo Morales on a tour of duty in Jolo, Sulu

In Jolo in the late ’70s, he had railed against inefficiency as troops who got wounded after three in the afternoon faced no chance of medical evacuation. Soon after, he was plucked from Jolo to write a manual on lessons learned from the field. To his surprise, his commanders billeted him in a five-star Makati hotel while he worked on the manual.

This was when he had his epiphany of sorts, he recalls. “After three to five days, I thought, there’s something wrong here,” Morales says. “My soldiers are living on miswa (wheat noodles) and sardines. I don’t have to live in the Intercon.”

Later in Malacañang,, he walked the corridors of power with the high and mighty. The contrast between Manila and Mindanao was too great for the battle-hardened officer. He now says, “Something was not right. I could see things happening for myself. At this rate, this political system that we call an imperfect democracy will collapse and the communists will take over.”

The night People Power was born, however, the only warrior who was in the greatest danger at that time was not even part of it.

Morales, locked up inside the PSC compound, had no idea what was happening outside. He does recall the last night, when he heard the intense beating of helicopter rotor blades overhead, as if someone had come – or someone had gone. Then someone opened his cell door.

“I said, ‘Am I going to be shot now?’” Morales remembers. Instead, he was brought before an Army general, who surprised him by saying that Morales was now in charge of security in the area.

A giddy Morales then saw Marcos’s bulletproof car. He hopped in it and drove around the compound. He did the same thing with an abandoned tank. “It was,” he says, “like I was back from the grave.”

He retired as a general in 2009 and now works as executive vice president and general manager of the Armed Forces-Police Mutual Benefit Association, Inc. These days, Morales says he feels as free as he did then – certainly free to say whatever he wants about the institution he had tried to serve well all his life. – PCIJ, February 2011