It appeared to be business as usual for the Oakwood Hotel in Makati City, as well as the establishments surrounding it, when I passed by this commercial district a few days ago.
People, mostly foreigners, were continuously going in and out of the building. At the lobby were a number of smartly dressed young men and women who probably just got out of their offices after completing the workday and were waiting for their friends for dinner or a night-out.
There was no sign at all that Oakwood was once the scene of an event that took the people by surprise, leading them to monitor with bated breath what transpired for almost a whole day.
Three years ago on July 27, about 300 young soldiers from the Philippine Army and the Philippine Navy – among them 70 junior officers including two honor graduates of Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1995 – stormed Oakwood Premier Hotel armed with high-powered guns and explosives. The “rebel” soldiers, who came to be known as the Magdalo group, had with them food and medical supplies enough to last them for weeks – showing that they were prepared for a long fight.
All throughout the uprising, the Magdalo soldiers appeared to be led by five young officers: Navy Lt. Senior Grade Antonio Trillanes IV, magna cum laude of PMA Class 1995; Army Capt. Gerardo Gambala, valedictorian of PMA Class 1995; Army Capt. Milo Maestrecampo, Navy Lt. Senior Grade James Layug, and Marine Capt. Gary Alejano. Also among the officers involved in the uprising were Marine Capt. Nicanor Faeldon, Army 1Lt. Lawrence San Juan, and Army 1Lt. Patricio Bumindang. Trillanes appeared to be the group’s spokesperson.
They demanded the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, then Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and the rest of her Cabinet, and top officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on three grounds.
First, they asserted that the government has been selling arms to anti-government forces including the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and that higher officials of the military were enriching themselves by pocketing AFP funds while their men are dying in the fields. Second, they accused the government of responsibility, through Reyes and then military intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, of staging bombings in Mindanao to create a pretext for branding the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a “terrorist” group and justify its begging for additional military aid from the U.S.
And third, they accused Arroyo of planning to declare martial law by August that same year in order to extend her stay in office beyond 2004.
The uprising which started at around 3 a.m. would be over by 10 p.m. that same day. Pro-government troops and officials were able to talk them into standing down. Trillanes, Gambala, Maestrecampo, Layug, and Alejano were detained at the headquarters of the Intelligence Service of the AFP (ISAFP). The other soldiers including Faeldon, San Juan, and Bumindang went back to barracks and were restricted to quarters.
Where have they gone?
Lawyer Roel Pulido, who represented 290 of the 300 Magdalo soldiers – including Gambala and Maestrecampo – said that 198 of them have been released through plea bargaining. He still has some 60 clients, but he cannot give an exact count, he says, “as the numbers change daily.”
When Trillanes, Gambala, Maestrecampo, Layug, Alejano, and Faeldon appeared before the President in September 2004 to apologize for the uprising, many thought they had all abandoned what they stood for at Oakwood. It turns out this was not the case.
Trillanes was taking up graduate studies in public administration at the University of the Philippines (UP) when the uprising broke out. Before the uprising, he submitted to his professors two research papers tackling corruption in the Philippine Navy and in its procurement system. He earned his Master of Public Administration (MPA) last March, completing his thesis and other course requirements from his ISAFP cell.
His 37-page master’s thesis was titled “Preventing Military Interventions.” In it, he wrote that most of Arroyo’s policies were “unresponsive to the underlying causes of the Oakwood incident.” These, he further wrote, will not be able to prevent future uprisings.
The mention of his name during his batch’s graduation ceremonies last April was reported to have been received with cheers and loud applause by his classmates.
“He is very consistent (with what they went to Oakwood for),” Pulido said of Trillanes, who has as his legal counsel former student leader Argee Guevarra.
Shortly before that, Faeldon – who had been transferred to the ISAFP headquarters from the Marine headquarters – shocked the nation by escaping from his cell. While outside, he called for civil disobedience against the Arroyo administration. He even started a website containing his various statements on pressing issues of the day as well as pictures of himself visiting military and police establishments – as if to taunt the government.
“He was getting so frustrated with the government – not because of his detention – but because of the cheating, lying, and the lack of moral authority to govern,” Pulido said. “And he felt that inside prison, he couldn’t express his frustration, his dissatisfaction and his beliefs. He felt that while inside, everything he does will be taken against the group. So he decided to free himself and take responsibility for his succeeding actions.”
Faeldon was arrested last January, after 45 days as a fugitive, while in a car with Capt. Candelaria Rivas, who is assigned to the Judge Advocate General’s Office (JAGO).
Of the five original “leaders” of the incident at Oakwood, aside from Trillanes, Layug and Alejano also remain consistent with what they fought for, Pulido said.
However, Gambala and Maestrecampo were the ones who have abandoned their cause. They have twice released statements expressing support for the Arroyo administration.
Gambala even appeared in Sabwatan sa Kataksilan (Conspiring in Treason), a documentary released by Malacañang alleging an alliance between the Magdalo group and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) intended to further justify Proclamation No. 1017 which declared a state of emergency throughout the country on February 24. This was a sequel to another Malacañang documentary titled 1017: Paglaban sa Kataksilan (1017: Fighting Treason) which was released in March.
When asked about the two, Pulido said he has not got around to talking to them since they terminated his services as their counsel. “I see them in court but we haven’t talked,” Pulido said.
Meanwhile, San Juan and Bumindang escaped from Army headquarters last January. They were reported to have led in plotting another uprising against the government. While outside, San Juan issued several statements calling for Arroyo’s ouster.
San Juan was arrested in Padre Garcia, Batangas last February; while Bumindang was caught together with fellow Lieutenants Angelbert Gay, Aldrin Baldonado, Sonny Sarmiento, and Kiram Sadava and lawyer Christopher Belmonte (nephew of Quezon City Mayor Feliciano Belmonte, Jr.) in a house in Filinvest Homes, Quezon City early July.
San Juan publicly issued an apology and declared allegiance to the Arroyo administration a few days after the Filinvest arrest. He has also declared that there is an alliance between the Magdalo group and the CPP-NPA. He has even dragged Pulido into the issue, pointing to the lawyer as a “propaganda officer” of the Magdalo group.
“Which is more believable, what San Juan said when he was outside and had all the freedom to do and say what he pleased, or what he said after five months of being held incommunicado and suffering all other kinds of pressure?” Pulido replied when asked to comment on San Juan’s recent allegations. “I’d say the first is definitely more believable.”
Interestingly, San Juan and Gambala were both trained by U.S. Special Forces during the Balikatan 02-1 exercises in Basilan in 2002, and are both described by military sources as “deadly snipers.”
Both the Magdalo group and the CPP-NPA have denied allegations of an alliance between them.
Bumindang, meanwhile, is alleged by his military custodians to be at odds with the others arrested at Filinvest, and to have in fact facilitated their capture.
“They have not crushed dissent”
Pulido said that many among the Magdalo remain consistent with the cause they fought for at Oakwood. He however admits that “there is a lot of pressure on them.” He did not elaborate.
He said that three years after the Oakwood uprising, the factors behind it remain. He agrees with observations that the outstanding issues which fan military restiveness remain unresolved.
“They always say let’s make the military apolitical, let’s make the military apolitical,” Pulido said. “But the military is but a part of society, and when the military man goes home, he faces the same problems we all face: he lacks money for his children’s food and tuition, the Meralco bill is so high, water and fare rates are so high, everything is expensive. So of course it pushes him to question himself: ‘Why am I risking my life every day I go into the field for a government that does not even allow me to feed my family?’ So they may have crushed whatever it is that they say they’ve crushed, but certainly they have not crushed dissent.” (Bulatlat)