The murder of Benigno Aquino was the beginning of the end for the Marcos dictatorship. The brazen assassination of the Philippine's foremost opposition leader was headline news around the world. It went almost unreported under the Marcos controlled media in the Philippines. The media silence was deafening and accusation enough by itself.
Despite the limited news coverage, two million mourners attended the funeral ceremonies in the largest political demonstration to that time in Philippine history. Something had snapped in the Filipinos' passive acceptance of the dictator's repression. Aquino's murder brought together the different elements of the opposition in a common cause to reclaim their political freedom and dignity.
The assassination precipitated a loss of confidence in the business community. Capital began to leave the country at the rate of US$12 million a day. By October 1983, the Central Bank of the Philippines was forced to notify its creditors that it could not meet its obligations on its debt of US$24.6 billion. The default called in the International Monetary Fund to disclose the true state of the nation's finances. The country was bankrupt. The Peso suffered a 21% devaluation. In 1984 the economy contracted by 6.8% and again by 3.8% in 1985.
At first, Marcos appointed Chief Justice Fernando to investigate the Aquino assassination. The Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin, was asked to sit on the Fernando Commission. He publicly expressed his doubts in the military's version of events and refused to join the Commission. The Commission collapsed.
Next, Marcos appointed an old friend and retired judge, Corazon Agrava, to head a five member Commission of investigation into the assassination. The Agrava Commission released majority and minority reports in October 1984. Both reports concurred that the assassination had been a military conspiracy but they did not agree on the actual persons and numbers involved. Judge Agrava's minority report absolved General Fabian Ver and named only seven conspirators. The majority report named 26 conspirators including General Ver.
The majority report resulted in indictments against the 26 named conspirators. The trial began February 22, 1985. It soon became clear that the prosecution had chosen to ignore the findings of the Agrava Commission and was proceeding according to the military's story. As the sham in the court unfolded there were growing protests and calls for Marcos to resign.
On November 3, 1985, with the economy imploding and his credibility at home and abroad in tatters, President Marcos made the surprising announcement of a snap election during a live interview on American television with David Brinkley. With his own formidable political machine firmly installed and his opposition unprepared and disorganized, Marcos was confident that a repeat of the 1981 election, in which he had taken 86% of the vote, could restore his legitimacy. At first, the snap election was called for January 17, 1986 then changed to February 7.
On December 2, 1985, General Ver and all 25 co-defendents were acquitted of complicity in the Aquino assassination. The next day, December 3, 1985, Aquino's widow, Corazon Aquino declared her candidacy for President with her running mate for Vice-President, Salvador Laurel. Although the Aquino and Laurel families had been long standing rivals in Philippine politics, behind the scenes, Cardinal Sin had arranged a political match of convenience to defeat Marcos. Since her husband's murder, Cory Aquino, the simple housewife, had become the unifying moral symbol of opposition to Marcos. Balancing Cory's lack of political experience, Salvador Laurel was an accomplished politician who led the United National Democratic Organization (UNIDO); a coalition of opposition groups in the National Assembly.
The election was officially organized and conducted by the government's Commission on Elections (COMELEC). The National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) was an organization of 300,000 volunteers determined to protect the electoral process from fraud and abuse. It had close connections to the Roman Catholic Church and its organization reached down to the local parishes where priests and nuns did much of NAMFREL's work.
The campaign was a travesty of vote buying, violence and intimidation. In many electoral districts between 10 and 40 percent of the voters' names were struck from the registration lists. On voting day, NAMFREL did its best to guard the polling stations and ballot boxes but still it had much evidence of widespread ballot stuffing and stolen ballot boxes to report. Most of all, NAMFREL pushed for quick tabulation and reporting of the vote to limit the chances for tampering with the results.
As the vote was counted, COMELEC's tabulations reported Marcos in the lead while NAMFREL's results reported an Aquino-Laurel majority. The day after the election, on February 8, the Roman Catholic Church declared the election a fraud. On Sunday, February 9, the computer workers at COMELEC headquarters noticed the discrepancies between the numbers they were processing and the numbers coming out in official announcements. In the first of many courageous acts of public defiance over the next two weeks, the workers stood up and bravely filed out of the COMELEC computer centre in protest.
The election count dragged on for several days with both candidates claiming victory. Marcos referred to the National Assembly, which he controlled, for a decision on the election result. The National Assembly declared the election in favour of Marcos on Saturday, February 15. Cory Aquino refused to concede defeat and called on her followers to rally the next day in Manila's Rizal Park. Close to a million supporters attended the rally on Sunday, February 16, to hear Cory outline a national campaign of civil disobedience. She called for a boycott of the businesses owned by Marcos' crony capitalists and for a general strike to begin on February 25; the day of Marcos' inauguration.
Tensions grew. Aquino's boycott was taking hold. Marcos intended to deal with Aquino's civil disobedience and general strike by reimposing martial law. Plans were underway for the arrest of Aquino and 10,000 members of the opposition. On Wednesday, February 19, the United States Senate passed a resolution condemning the election. New rumours began to circulate on Thursday that members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement within the military were plotting a coup to preempt a declaration of martial law.
On Saturday afternoon, February 22, Defence Secretary Enrile and the Vice-Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Fidel Ramos, made their way to the Ministry of Defense at Camp Aguinaldo in Metro Manila and sent out their appeal to the military to join them in revolt. With only a few hundred soldiers to defend them, they held a press conference at 7 PM calling on President Marcos to resign.
The main traffic artery in Metro Manila is a wide boulevard named Epifanio de los Santos Avenue; known locally as EDSA for short. In eastern Metro Manila, the two military camps, Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame, are located directly across from each other on either side of EDSA. EDSA is the main access to both camps.
At 11 PM that Saturday night, Agapito Aquino, brother of Benigno, went on the Church operated Radio Veritas and asked the people to protect the rebels. By midnight there were 10,000 people on EDSA chanting, "CORY! CORY! CORY!". A few hours later, Cardinal Sin went on Radio Veritas to repeat the call for support. Through the night, fifty thousand, a hundred thousand, a million people came out and, by morning, EDSA and access to the military camps was thoroughly jammed.
A column of tanks rolled along EDSA on Sunday morning to dislodge the rebels. The tanks stopped when they reached the crowds. The people stood their ground and would not let them through. The soldiers would have to kill large numbers of unarmed civilians to get at the rebels. This the soldiers had not expected and were not prepared to do.
Radio Veritas was the only radio station broadcasting news of the revolt to the opposition. At 6 PM Sunday evening the transmitters for Radio Veritas were blown up. Another radio station quickly joined the cause and at 11:45 PM Radio Bandido was on the air carrying news of the revolt. Nuns provided security blocking the entrance to the station.
Early Monday morning at 6 AM a formation of helicopter gunships approached Camp Crame. The huge crowds occupying EDSA below could do nothing to stop an airborne attack. After several tense minutes of thunderous hovering, the gunships landed in Camp Crame and their crews threw in their lot with the rebels.
Later that morning at 9 AM, rebels took over the government's main broadcasting complex in Quezon City. The tide had turned. Defections were now taking place throughout the armed forces. The air force refused an order from General Ver to bomb and strafe Camp Crame. A lone helicopter flew over the Presidential residence at 11 AM and fired six rockets into the Malacanang Palace. The naval base at Cavite reported to the rebels that warships were on station at the mouth of the Pasig River and standing by for orders to shell the Malacanang Palace.
On the evening of Sunday, February 23, American Secretary of State George Shultz advised the Philippine Ambassador in Washington that if Marcos did not step down, the Philippines was headed for civil war. In Manila, it was already Monday afternoon on February 24 when the American Ambassador delivered the same message at the same time to Marcos personally. (Manila is 17 hours ahead of Washington local time.) Marcos also received a message from President Reagan that he and his family and close associates would be welcome to live in the United States.
By the morning of Tuesday, February 25, almost the entire armed forces had peacefully deserted Marcos in support of Cory Aquino. In the suburban Manila nightclub, Club Filipino, Associate Justice Teehankee swore in President Corazon Aquino and her Vice-President Salvador Laurel at 10:30 AM, February 25, 1986. Two hours later, Marcos also took office in a separate ceremony at 12:30 PM in the Malacanang Palace. With the singular and ironic exception of the Ambassador from the Soviet Union, the diplomatic community did not attend the Marcos ceremony. The television broadcast of the ceremony was cut shortly after it began.
In the afternoon, angry crowds began to gather outside the Malacanang Palace. Marcos telephoned Enrile to ask if he could have American protection for his family and friends leaving the Palace. At 9:05 PM, American helicopters evacuated Marcos and 120 others to the safety of Clark Air Base. Marcos thought he would repair to Laoag; his political base in northern Luzon. At the insistence of President Aquino, Marcos and his party left the Philippines at dawn the next morning for Guam and then Hawaii.