Front-Row Seats at the Firefight
I found out about the attack on Malacanang Palace, the Philippine presidential headquarters, late in the morning. Government troops had already repelled the rebel assault with heavy casualties, particularly among innocent bystanders. The estimated death toll ranged from 30 to 50.
A large number of the rebels had taken refuge in Camp Aguinaldo in the Makati district of Manila--including the leader of the coup attempt, "Gringo" Honasan. Under General Ramos, government troops quickly assembled at Camp Krame, directly across form the rebel holdout, in preparation for an attempt to overpower Honasan's troops.
The battle between the two bases had gone on since early morning. A friend and I drove down late in the afternoon towards the bases as the two government Tora-Tora planes bombed Camp Aguinaldo. Smoke rose up from the camp as the two planes circled overhead and then dove, dropping their bombs.
The crowds of curious civilians blocked the highway and forced us to park the car about a mile from the firefight. The faces of the onlookers revealed a nervous excitement rather than fear. As we walked further down the road, the sound of machine gun fire became louder, but to our surprise the crowd did not thin. The multitude of people offered us a sense of security, so we kept on moving towards the battle.
I expected to be stopped from proceeding by several soldiers we passed, but they ignored the people streaming back and forth. There were no road blocks set up to keep the civilians away from the range of the guns.
When we reached the outskirts of Camp Aguinaldo we spotted a group of government soldiers outside the gates of the camp. One Filipino informed my friend in Tagalog, the local language, that the government forces had captured some of the rebels, identified by the inverted Filipino flag on the upper arm of their uniforms.
A few steps further brought us to the edge of the thinning crowd, and at last we could see the fighting. The troops battled in a space of about two blocks, and on the other side another large crowd of people looked on. There were two government tanks moving slowly down the road between the two camps and through the crossfire of automatic weapons.
Then to my amazement, a group of young Filipino boys dashed into the field of gunfire stooping low and ducking every few steps. They seemed to be heading for an abandoned truck. When we asked what was going on, a man showed us a bullet he had plundered earlier from the truck as a souvenier. Apparently the boys hoped that both the government and the rebels would take care not to shoot them even though it was known that earlier the rebels had opened fire on a crowd of pro-government civilians.
I felt almost as if I were watching some spectator sport. Although I did not see it happen, I heard later on the news that occasionally some people in the crowd would applaud and whistle as the government troops stepped up their attack.
The attitude of the people was much different than during the February 1986 People-Power Revolution, also centered around the two bases. The people that showed up at Edsa Highway during the August rebellion were curious rather than supportive.
I found out afterwards that, despite the danger, no civilians were killed that day on the highway. Lucky for them. Lucky for me.