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Rebels’ Fatal Move: Killing of One Marine

Times Staff Writer

Before Sunday, few Filipinos had ever heard of Pfc. Pablito Baladad, a young marine who was among the government troops killed in crushing last week’s attempted coup against President Corazon Aquino.

Even the president, who named Baladad on a list of new heroes Sunday during the annual National Hero’s Day ceremony beside the Tomb of the Unknown Philippines Soldier, did not know how significant this one death actually was.

When Baladad was killed by a rebel bullet at the outset of the loyalist assault on rebel positions inside Camp Aguinaldo at 3:30 p.m. Friday, the tide began turning against the mutineers, and Aquino’s 18-month-old government ultimately was saved from an uprising that had been growing in strength.

A marine was dead, and the marines retaliated.

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Minutes after Baladad was killed, a full battalion of the armed forces’ most professional and effective combat troops moved out of marine headquarters in Ft. Bonifacio, where, according to several senior marine officers interviewed by The Times on Sunday, most of the marines had been seriously considering joining the rebel side.

An hour later, the marine armored column, backed by amphibious tanks and army troops, moved into the rebel stronghold, and, within half an hour, the government had retaken rebel positions inside Camp Aguinaldo and smashed the 20-hour coup.

Aquino acknowledged the vital role played by the marines during her Sunday speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Citing advice given to her by U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz during a private lunch last year, Aquino said, “Someone told me before, ‘Take care of your marines, and your marines will take care of you.’ ”

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“Well, they did.”

They almost didn’t.

Agreed With Grievances

One marine officer interviewed Sunday told The Times that the marines, almost to a man, agreed with all of the grievances aired by the rebel soldiers led by Col. Gregorio Honasan, a key officer in the planning and leadership of the February, 1986, coup against then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

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“We agreed strongly with everything the rebels were saying,” the officer said, asking not to be identified by name. “They are all legitimate--increased pay for the soldiers, better compensation for the families of soldiers killed in action, better equipment.

“If they hadn’t killed Private Baladad, who knows? All I know is they never should have killed that soldier. Everything might be different today.”

At least five independent military analysts interviewed by The Times have confirmed that the vast majority of soldiers and marines had remained undecided about whether to join Honasan and his rebel forces--estimated to have numbered more than 1,000--for at least 13 hours after the rebels launched their first attack about 1 a.m. on Malacanang Palace, Aquino’s home and office complex.

Not Pro-Marcos Mutiny

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Unlike five previous coup attempts and plots aimed at overthrowing Aquino, Honasan’s was not a pro-Marcos uprising. Honasan and his followers consider themselves right-wing ideologues who believe that Aquino’s indecisiveness and naivete has seriously weakened the government’s campaign against an 18-year-old Communist insurgency.

The rebels’ pro-armed forces pronouncements, which aired over seized television stations throughout the day Friday, fell on thousands of sympathetic ears among the 155,000 members of the armed forces. The military lacks enough ammunition, money for salaries, medical facilities and even medals for bravery to wage an effective counterinsurgency.

Even after Aquino’s palace was attacked, her only son wounded and many civilians gunned down in random automatic weapons assaults by a small rebel force, only a handful of army and marine troops moved to support her government.

Among the latter was a small contingent of men and an amphibious tank manned by Col. Braulio Balbas, who, during the 1986 coup against Marcos had remained loyal to the authoritarian former president until the very end.

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Loyal Contingent

On Friday, Balbas remained just as loyal to Aquino, and among the men in his contingent was Pfc. Baladad.

After helping secure Malacanang, Balbas brought his men and tank into the fighting between rebels inside Camp Aguinaldo and loyalist troops under Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the armed forces chief of staff, operating from Camp Crame across the street.

Before Balbas arrived, the loyalist forces under Ramos consisted mainly of elements of the Philippine Constabulary, a combat police force. For four hours, they had fought Honasan’s men with mortars, assault rifles, two jeep-mounted recoilless rifles and a single howitzer. They were having little effect.

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Ramos ordered Balbas and his men to attack Camp Aguinaldo’s main gate, using their amphibious tank as cover. Baladad was killed during that attack.

“The instant I heard that a marine had been killed, I knew that Gringo Honasan’s rebellion was finished,” said one of the marines who then moved to crush the mutiny.

“What Cory (Aquino) said today is very true. If you want to win, you need the marines.”

Mingling With Marines

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Ramos, equally cognizant of the adage, spent more than an hour after Aquino’s speech mingling with the marine assault battalion as well as with a second marine battalion that was flown in Sunday from the southern island of Mindanao to reinforce loyalist forces in the capital.

Ramos, himself a constabulary officer, delivered a 15-minute speech to the marines in the Camp Aguinaldo parade ground, praising them as “the true heroes” and thanking them profusely for their crucial contribution on Friday.

When Ramos announced that he was recommending to Aquino that she promote Col. Balbas to the rank of brigadier general, there was uproar of applause.

“And I assure you,” the chief of staff added, “we will continue to take care of our marines.”

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Important Message

But several marines interviewed said they still fear that the president may overlook the most important message of Friday’s failed coup.

“It is very, very crucial now that the president and the new Congress move quickly to redress the grievances brought forward by the rebels,” one marine officer said.

Another marine said he was grateful that Aquino had mentioned Pfc. Baladad by name during her speech. But he added that he hopes the president remembers to compensate the soldier’s family, as well as the relatives of all of the loyalist soldiers who died defending her government.

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“In times like these, when our economy is a mess and all we know is war,” the marine added, “you have to take care of the marine’s family, as well. We hope that Private Baladad will not become the ‘unknown soldier’ of 1987.”


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