An armed battalion of Filipino Marines confronted thousands of Aquino followers Sunday in the first such showdown since the disputed Feb. 7 elections. The Marines, wielding M-16 rifles and riding in jeeps and armed personnel carriers, retreated before a chanting crowd of nuns, students, and workers after a four-hour, nonviolent standoff near a highway in Manila.
The retreat raises serious doubts about the loyalty of the Philippines military to the beleaguered regime of President Ferdinand Marcos.
It also marks the first major victory for the civil disobedience campaign launched Feb. 15 by Corazon Aquino after she lost the Marcos-controlled vote tally in the presidential election.
``Today was a psychological battle,'' said Aquino campaign manager Ernesto Maceda. ``Marcos was testing the people.''
The Marines, wearing helmets and camouflaged fatigues, had moved out of Fort Bonifacio about midday Sunday in an attempt to enter Camp Aguinaldo (about two miles away) where Defense Minister and longtime Marcos ally Juan Ponce Enrile and Deputy Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos had resigned their posts Saturday.
The two had remained in the camp until early Sunday afternoon, when they crossed a highway into another military area, Camp Crame, with several hundred dissident officers who had joined them.
President Marcos, claiming the officers had been planning a coup against him, ordered the Marines to be within artillery range of Enrile and Ramos.
But, as the following account shows, the Marines miscalculated the resistence of the crowd, which had occupied the highway between Camps Crame and Aguinaldo in an attempt to protect Ramos and Enrile. The standoff
About 2 p.m. Sunday: As the battalion reaches the top of a hill a mile from Camp Crame, it faces dirt-bag barricades placed by Aquino followers. The Marines, joined by this reporter, turn right, crashing through a fence in hopes of flanking the crowds.
Seven huge armed personnel carriers, followed by jeeps and truckloads of troops, roar across an empty, grassy field. The lead carrier crashes through a six-foot-high cinderblock wall onto another four-lane highway.
But it is prevented from moving forward by a parked, unoccupied Volkswagen Beetle. The entourage is halted. While several Marines try to lift the car onto the curb, hundreds of protesters -- including many Roman Catholic nuns -- place themselves in front of the carriers.
Not willing to crush or forceably remove the people, the Marines regroup in the middle of the field.
The young Marines, numbering some 700 and looking just as fearful as many of the civilian demonstrators, huddle around written plans and maps, talking about their next moves. Many of them have recently come from the southern island of Mindanao, where they were battling communist insurgents in the jungles.
As they check their ammunition and form into battle-ready lines, Marine commander, Gen. Artemio A. Tadiar Jr., begins to reassess the situation. This is not the typical anti-insurgency warfare for which his Marine Corps has been trained. Protesters are moving in on the Marines' rearguard, chanting ``Cory, Cory, Cory'' and ``join us, join us'' (in their native Tagalog language).
With frustation on his face, General Tadiar jumps on top of the carrier to address the crowd.
``We cannot have a confrontation,'' he tells them. He is joined atop the carrier by Agapito Aquino (brother of slain oppositionist Benigno Aquino, who was Corazon Aquino's husband) who tells the large crowd:
``Ramos and Enrile are very brave. If General Tadiar is prepared to respect the will of the people, we will respect him also. But we now recognize Cory Aquino as commander in chief. Nobody's moving.''
The general then orders the two carriers, stuck outside the broken wall, to retreat into the field with the rest of the battalion. The crowd prevents it, singing hymns, patriotic songs, and campaign chants.
``We just wanted to go to the other side of Camp Aguinaldo,'' Tadiar tells this reporter.
``We are under orders,'' he says, with a slight smile.
Orders from whom? Marcos?
The general radios his headquarters for new orders, and then calls in a helicopter so he can survey the size of the crowd. On his return, he says ``It seems we cannot go on without hurting the people.''
Meanwhile, peddlers ply the crowd and the soldiers take gulps from canteens. The tension mounts. The crack troops hold their M-16s steady as they face the taunts and rally cries of demonstrators. Nuns hold up crosses to the soldiers, and some women throw flowers.
``Tell them to stop giving the soldiers things,'' he tell two leaders of the demonstrators.
``Just a little consideration for the people, general,'' says one of the leaders.
``We will try our best, but once the shooting starts. . .'' says the sweating Tadiar.
As the sun begins to set, Aquino's campaign manager moves to the front of the crowd and asks to speak to the general. Tadiar hesitates, not wanting to appear as taking orders from an Aquino. After a few minutes, they meet. Maceda says there are top-discussions underway and advises the general to ``weather this crisis.''
Finally, some four hours after the showdown began, crowds close in on the troops. Chants break out between the antagonists. An old military academy classmate of Tadiar, now a pro-Aquino businessman, comes up with tears in his eyes and hugs the general. They can barely speak, knowing what this crisis means for each of them.
By dark, the general orders a full retreat as the crowd no longer blocks their way back. The people clap and cheer the soldiers as they leave. The Aquino followers, having won this battle, appear to have no doubts that they will win in the war with Mr. Marcos.