The following is an edited version of a news report on events surrounding the fall of Marcos written by William E. Smith and published in TIME on March 10, 1986.
If there was something inexplicable about the mass phenomenon that rescued the Philippines from a failing dictatorship, there was no doubt when the process began. It was Aug. 21, 1983, on the tarmac at Manila's international airport. On that day, opposition politician Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr., 50, returning from three years of self-imposed exile in the U.S., was shot as he stepped off a jetliner into a crowd of soldiers and well-wishers. Though Ferdinand Marcos, the country's authoritarian President, tried to blame communist agitators, one Filipino civilian and 25 members of the military, including General Fabian Ver, the armed-forces chief of staff and Marcos stalwart, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to murder. The defendants were acquitted in December 1985 after a yearlong trial, but few Filipinos doubted their guilt.
The Aquino murder shocked and angered the country, sparking popular demonstrations, intensifying the disaffection and causing the already stagnant economy to spiral downward, even as most other Southeast Asian nations were prospering. Two of the most important elements of Philippine society, the church and the military, began quickly turning against Marcos. The Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, a powerful figure in a country nominally 85% Roman Catholic, openly encouraged opposition political figures.
The revolt in the armed forces began to take shape as long ago as 1977, when a power struggle eroded the influence of the President's longtime political ally Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. "It began as a self-defense action," recalls Navy Captain Rex Robles, a spokesman for the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, which Enrile clandestinely helped establish. Realizing that he was being pushed aside in favor of General Ver, Enrile began to work secretly to protect himself and lay the groundwork for the inevitable post-Marcos period.
In the fall of 1985, events began to move rapidly. Marcos declared in November that he would hold a special presidential election to convince U.S. President Ronald Reagan's Administration that he still enjoyed popular support. A month later, Corazon Aquino announced that she would challenge Marcos for the presidency. The military men established links with Aquino and helped train her security detail.
After Marcos won the blantantly rigged election, the reformers prepared to take a more active part in the efforts to topple him. By this time they had won the support of some of his closest security forces. Says one reformist: "I don't think the President thought that so many of his praetorian guards would turn against him. He thought money could buy loyalty. He underestimated the basic decency of Filipinos."
On Feb. 22, 1986, Enrile resigned from the government and announced that he was joining the opposition forces. Early in the morning of Feb. 24, a crowd of Marcos supporters armed with batons and tear gas moved toward Camp Crame, where the reformers were gathered. Over transistor radios, Marcos was heard vowing, "We'll wipe them out. It is obvious they are committing a rebellion." And over Radio Veritas came Enrile's reply: "I am not going to surrender."
End Game Tanks arrived. when helicopters began circling overhead, it looked as if the reformist rebellion was over. But then the choppers landed, and out came airmen waving white flags and giving the L sign for laban (fight), a symbol of the opposition. The crowd, realizing that the air force was now defecting, went wild.
Perhaps the most ominous moment came that same morning, shortly after Marcos announced in a televised news conference that he was declaring a state of emergency. At that point, General Ver whispered to Marcos in a voice that was audible to the whole nation, "Sir, we are ready to annihilate them at your orders ..." Marcos did not respond. Whether he knew it or not, his failure to move swiftly against Enrile had already cost him the office he was fighting desperately to retain.
Instead he went on with his press conference, but at 8:47 a.m. he was interrupted midsentence as the government-run television station, Channel 4, went off the air. When it reappeared three hours later, the newscaster jubilantly declared, "This is the first free broadcast of Channel 4 ... The people have taken over."
To many Filipinos, the seizure of Channel 4 was one of the most remarkable events of an endlessly astonishing week. Feb. 25 was a day of twin inaugurals. Aquino had wanted a daylight ceremony because, as she said in her address, "it is fitting and proper that, as the rights and liberties of our people were taken away at midnight 14 years ago [when martial law was declared], the people should formally recover those rights and liberties in the full light of day." An hour later Ferdinand Marcos stepped onto the balcony at Malacañang Palace before a crowd of 4,000 cheering supporters and took the oath of office. "Whatever we have before us, we will overcome," he promised, while his wife Imelda vowed to serve the people "all my life up to my last breath." Though she was choked with emotion, few people outside the palace sensed that this was to be the Marcoses' farewell.
An hour after the ceremony, Marcos telephoned Enrile and demanded that he "stop firing at the palace." Enrile said he had no troops there. Marcos asked him to call U.S. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth to find out if the U.S. could provide the Marcoses with security in flying out of the palace. Enrile promised to do so. At 9:05 p.m., four American helicopters picked up the President, Imelda and a contingent of relatives and aides, including General Ver, and flew them to the U.S. air base.
with reporting by Sandra Burton / Manila and Johanna Mcgeary and William Stewart / Washington