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The Shadow That Was YOU

By GLENDA M. GLORIA

The name continues to seduce the media and politicians. But is there real fury behind the sound?

“YOU fight for what is right. YOU condemn what is wrong.”

Carried by faceless, nameless junior military officers, the slogan easily caught fire in camps and newsrooms during the heady years of the Aquino government.

It was January 1990. The bloodiest coup attempt ever launched against a sitting president had just been crushed, but the young, mostly Army and Marine, officers who had plotted and executed it remained defiant.

Then 32-year-old Army Maj. Abraham Purugganan, who led the siege of Makati’s financial district during the December 1989 coup, refused to face defeat, choosing to escape before the rebels waved the white flag. Purugganan would be identified later as one of the leaders of the Young Officers Union (YOU) that formed the backbone of the uprising. Now 44 and already out of the military service, Purugganan dismisses fresh rumors of a brewing coup.

“Take it from me,” Purugganan tells Newsbreak, “it took us two years to indoctrinate and train—quietly—the troops who joined the [1989] coup…it’s not easy to launch one.”

If there’s a real plot, he says, “you wouldn’t hear of officers openly talking about it.” Isn’t the YOU involved in this alleged new plot?

“Ilibing na natin ang YOU (Let’s bury the YOU),” the former rebel declares.

‘CHEERLEADERS’

In separate interviews, former leaders and organizers of the YOU acknowledge that the YOU began as a propaganda arm of the rebel movement within the military under the Aquino government.

Despite plans to transform it into a cohesive organization, the YOU remained just that—a propaganda tool, admits a former student activist who took care of YOU’s propaganda program after the failed 1989 coup. The best proof of this, he tells Newsbreak, is that the YOU leadership is now being claimed by two personalities—Police Supt. Rafael Cardeño, on one hand, and ex- ROTC commander Baron Cervantes, on the other—without any reaction from their supposed members.

“It started as a good concept to push for reforms, yet the YOU had no structure, no list of members, no list of responsibilities, no organization,” explains the former student activist who now works for a politician. “But since it has captured the public imagination, it became easy for its leaders to use the name for political ends.”

The Arroyo government recently accused Cardeño, the new YOU chairman, and Police Supt. Diosdado Valeroso, YOU founding leader, of openly attempting to recruit troops for a new destabilization plot against President Arroyo.

Until the controversy, Cardeño was executive assistant to Land Transportation Office chief Edgardo Abenina while Valeroso was with the Philippine Center for Transnational Crime. The two are classmates (Philippine Military Academy, 1982) and were known to have worked with the Estrada camp after the 1998 elections.

Asked to comment on Cardeño’s highprofile moves, an Army colonel who joined the 1989 coup retorted that in its heyday, the YOU’s strength came from the elite Scout Rangers and the Marines. “We had the troops, they were the cheerleaders,” he says, referring to Cardeño and Valeroso.

ARMY AND CONSTABULARY

Valeroso founded the organization in 1988, when he was still a captain with the Constabulary’s (now Philippine National Police) intelligence branch.

At the time, YOU’s mother organization, the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), was smarting from its defeat in the botched August 1987 coup. “It [creation of the YOU] was part of the overall strategy…to look for an alternative organization that could still recruit troops,” according to Army Col. Danilo Lim, former YOU chair. (Lim, a West Pointer, has been reinstated and is now back with the Rangers under the Army’s Special Operations Command.)

The December 1989 coup, however, put the YOU in a strange situation that has led to its moribund state.

A year before that, in August 1988, Valeroso, on the behest of his mentors— coup leader-turned-senator Gregorio Honasan and veteran intelligence officer Victor Batac—gathered three other officers and one Army reservist at Camp Aguinaldo for a symbolic founders’ meeting of the YOU.

The five-man core group did not command units in the military, but they had propaganda and agitation skills that the RAM needed then for the birth of a new organization that would appeal to junior officers, who comprise about 70 percent of the officer corps. Thus when the December 1989 coup broke out, the junior Army and Marines officers who formed the bulk of the mutinous troops immediately had a ready organization with a nice name.

So who are the group’s real founders? The psywar experts who organized the core or the battlefield commanders who delivered the troops in the coup that came closest to toppling Corazon Aquino?

That question divides them to this day. Despite this, many young officers associated themselves with the shadowy organization.

In its final report on its findings into the causes of the 1989 coup, the Davide Commission noted that the YOU may have been an attempt to “distance younger generation officers from their elders, many of whom have been tainted by close association with powerful politicians in the previous regime.” It added: “Seeking change possibly for reasons different from their elders, these idealistic officers became easy recruits into the plot.”

A BIZARRE ALLIANCE

What followed after the 1989 coup— detention, amnesty, and elections—eventually sobered up the Young Turks.

In the underground and later in jail, the YOU personalities flirted with a new strategy— coup cum revolution—and announced their links with civilian sectors espousing nationalism. “YOU was a powerful idea but the bearers of the idea failed,” says the former student activist, who served as an organizer for what were intended to be YOU’s sectoral allies.

The “personal differences and inter-service rivalry” of the leaders made them “forget their assignment to organize and keep the issue of reform alive,” he laments.

The military at the time continued to dismiss the group as a phantom organization.

Piqued, rebel soldiers conducted a daring rescue of rebel Col. Billy Bibit from a Manila jail in May 1990, and let the YOU own responsibility for it.

Then key YOU leaders struck a bizarre but short-lived alliance with the communist Alex Boncayao hit squad, bombing installations in Metro Manila and in the process earning publicity points.

The overriding concern for propaganda was not matched by legwork needed by a real organization, says the YOU civilian organizer. The group had boasted of operating in “cells,” but this did not materialize, he adds.

A Marine officer who joined the 1989 coup says he knows “for a fact” that some coup plotters made money in the stock market during the Aquino and Ramos administrations just by spreading coup rumors or openly undertaking recruitment. “Nakakahiya (What a shame),” he told Newsbreak.

MAINSTREAM POLITICS

By 1995, under the Ramos government, rebel officers and soldiers, including the YOU personalities, were granted general amnesty and reinstatement.

In 1998, the name of the YOU was dragged into yet another adventure, this time the presidential race. YOU personalities like Purugganan, Valeroso, and Cervantes backed the candidacy of their former nemesis, ex-defense chief Renato de Villa. On the other hand, Lim chose to support the Ramos administration’s bet, Jose de Venecia Jr. The RAM campaigned for Estrada.

At the height of the impeachment trial against Estrada, presidential son JV Ejercito solicited support from some YOU leaders who were assigned to specific commands in the Armed Forces. “They committed their troops to him in exchange for a few favors,” says a source privy to the talks. “Of course, they did not deliver.”

By that time, Cervantes had made the wiser decision, presenting himself and the YOU name to the anti-Estrada movement. At Edsa 2, the former ROTC commander who never really got any military posting, became known as a YOU leader.

TURF WAR

Cervantes claims to have been present at Camp Aguinaldo when the YOU was officially formed in 1988, as a fresh-from-college recruit of Valeroso. “But the fact that I’m not a PMA graduate made it difficult for me to be accepted by the group,” he says.

In any case, after Edsa 2, Cervantes took the back seat when Cardeño named himself chair of the YOU. Still, they quarreled over media space.

Following reports that Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes was involved in a shady military aircraft deal, Cervantes called for Reyes’s resignation. An angry Cardeño held a separate press conference to disown Cervantes.

A Camp Aguinaldo officer says it was Cervantes who provided National Security Adviser Roilo Golez the information that Cardeño was plotting a coup. Cervantes, however, insists that he’s unaware of what Cardeño is up to. He would not say for whom he is working now except to admit he’s doing “intelligence” work.

Out of the shadows, the YOU is back to its old quarters—in the mouths of those who know the power of noise.

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