JOSE MARI U. VELEZ (1942-1991) was a broadcaster, lawyer, and delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention. He was the youngest of the political detainees with Ninoy in Fort Bonifacio. Following his release, Velez became active in the political opposition and joined Lakas ng Bayan (LABAN) for the 1986 snap election. Under the administration of President Corazon C. Aquino, he returned to broadcasting and was appointed director of the Development Bank of the Philippines.
The following excerpt was taken from “Memories of a Hero” by Cynthia Sycip.
Q: I understand you became one of Ninoy’s closest friends and he consulted you often even before his tragic arrival. What I want to know is when and where did you first meet Ninoy and what impressions you remember?
A: He was elected Senator in 1967. Well I knew about Ninoy, heard about him, saw him here and there, but I really didn’t know him until I saw him in the Senate, covering it then and seeing him everyday. He was a man of incredible energy and inexhaustible supply of information, very brilliant, and for someone who was not a lawyer he could hold his own against the lawyers in the Senate. I am talking of very big guns in the Senate, Toletino, Pelaez…
Q: You worked then in the Senate as…
A: I was working in the Senate Committee on Justice which was headed by Senator Laurel at that time. I was with Voltaire Garcia. So, we saw Ninoy everyday at the sessions. He was generally on time. The thing is that when Ninoy is around, you can expect the sessions to get lively. There was always something that Ninoy knew that nobody else knew. I even watched the entire investigation of the so-called ‘Jabidah Massacre’ and Ninoy was at the forefront of that thing. You know, he even went to Mindanao to look at Camp Sophia. Everyday Ninoy would come up with new findings that nobody else would know about.
Q: Where do you think he got his inexhaustible supply of information?
A: Well, he did dig into many things. You know, he had his own people looking into these things, plus personally, as a reporter, it was something that I guess he brought with him all throughout his life. He was an investigative reporter who looked at events, interviewed the people involved and generally relied on his own information network.
Q: What distinguished Ninoy from his colleagues in the Senate?
A: Well, the thing which stands out most in my mind without going into any particular anecdote is that no one really could ever corner Ninoy in any debate. He would always slip in and out of whatever debate. He was generally a very passionate debater. There was hardly ever any subject that did not consume the passion of Ninoy. In short, when he stands up there, talagang bigay lahat. He’s very intense, very passionate, sometimes very heated…
Q: Did you also work for the Manila Times?
A: Well, that wasn’t exactly the Manila Times, well, not the newspaper, but the television network. Well, Manila Times as most people would know it would be the newspaper. I am talking of the Manila Times television network that was Channel 5, that’s ABC, Associated Broadcasting Corporation. I joined them in 1967 when I first did the news, The Big News – and Ninoy was always in the news. In the first place Lupita was there, the sister, who generally exhibits the same traits as Ninoy, a bundle of energy and so on… and then sometime I think in 1970, Ninoy had a program on Channel 5 and this is why I used to see him very often. I cannot remember the title, but it was a 30 minute program that would focus on different countries. And so Ninoy used to really travel a lot, for instance, this week’s subject would be Vietnam, he would go to Vietnam, take a look and make a documentary on Vietnam. He did this, then the following week would be Moscow, and then Peking, and then so on. So, he had a tremendous insight into these countries because he was doing this every week.
Q: So during those days Ninoy was always in the news, what do you think was the most newsworthy thing he got involved in, I mean aside from his tragic death?
A: That’s tough, there were many. Well, for instance his work in the “Jabidah Massacre” was fantastic.
Q: What was the “Jabidah Massacre” all about?
A: The “Jabidah Massacre” was this so called plan that was hatched to invade Sabah sometime in 1968… supposedly it was the Philippine government that hatched this plan. There was a certain Col. Martelino, they called him Abdullah Tish Martelino, who handled the recruitment of young Muslims, idealistic enough who would be willing to train in a secret force and then invade Sabah. This was at the height of the Philippine claim to Sabah. So these young boys were recruited very secretly, hush-hush, and were ultimately brought to Corregidor Island where they trained. When they got to Corregidor, for some reason, this plan seemed to have leaked out and the Malaysian government learned about it. This would have erupted into an international affair because the Malaysians made an issue out of it. So apparently, there was a directive to disband that so called secret force. But it seemed that there was quite a problem, what to do with these young fellows who had been trained. So instead of simply sending them home they were executed in Corregidor and they were all killed by machine guns. The thing is that there was one guy, a fellow called Jibin Arula, who escaped. He was shot but he escaped—he slipped down the mountain and got to the sea and was able to swim to Cavite. Jibin Arula was found by then Governor Montano in Cavite and subsequently, the Senate, or for that matter, the House of Representatives, conducted a probe. The star witness was Jibin Arula who was a fantastic witness. He told the whole story…
Q: Is he dead?
A: I don’t know what happened to Jibin Arula or whether he is still alive. At least during those days there were very little salvaging cases going on. At least I would imagine that if that had happened today, the guy would never have reached the Senate. Now, that was really an international affair. The thing was really international news. Everybody was interested in it but it was Ninoy who decided to look more deeply into it. So he went to Davao, to Marawi, to Camp Sophia and interviewed people and tried to piece together the story. So during the cross-examinations and so on, he was able to bring out so many facts.
Q: Did the Philippine government officially acknowledge its participation in the massacre?
A: The Philippine government of course never officially acknowledged that this was a force to invade Sabah, which is understandable… the news stayed in the headlines for months because both the Senate and the House went into it and the entire military hierarchy had to testify, ending up with General Espino who was then head of the army. But Jibin Arula never changed his story, he stuck to it, that they were recruited, they were trained, they were told it was for Sabah, and that subsequently they were executed and that he was the only one who survived.
Q: What about later when you and Ninoy were arrested. I understand you were one of those with him when he was detained at Camp Bonifacio in 1972?
A: Yes, we were all arrested on September 23, which was a Saturday morning. I was arrested supposedly on charges of rebellion, sedition, and insurrection. That was the charge in the warrant of arrest but Mr. Marcos never brought us to trial so I don’t know… Ninoy was arrested at midnight at the Manila Hilton, Senator Diokno was arrested at about one o’clock, Chino Roces, well, he was not at home, Soc Rodrigo at about three o’clock, and I was arrested at about four o’clock in the morning. In any case at about six o’clock that morning we were all together at the Camp Crame gym which was then being boarded up… I mean you could see that they were preparing it for more people who would come in and by noontime there were quite a number of us inside, but, of course, Ninoy was the bubbly one. Even inside he was greeting everybody. Of course, he was greeting everybody because he was the first one there and he saw everybody come in. The first thing he told me then was, “So, they got you. Welcome to the club”. That’s more or less how he greeted us.
Q: Were you genuinely worried that first day you were arrested?
A: Oh yes, all of us were worried. You gotta be worried anytime you’re picked up in the middle of the night by the military. And don’t forget, Ninoy was a senator, I was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Technically, we were all enjoying so-called parliamentary immunity, so it was a period when in effect the constitution was being suspended and it was quite a step for Mr. Marcos hoarding everybody into jail. So naturally, we were all worried. I guess we were all seeking strength and consolation in each other’s arms. Generally it was really not knowing what was going on. We didn’t know. We were told that it was martial law but none of us had a copy of the proclamation of martial law. You could see more or less the quality of the people coming in. It was really the opposition. One of the more chilling incidents was that on that same day in the afternoon the Sergeant came in and read the list and said “Will all of you follow me” and he starts out with “Senator Aquino.” Now, we asked the Sargeant what it was for and he said, “I dunno, sir,” that’s how a Sargeant usually answers, you know. The thing was that, when the list was read, and since it began with Ninoy, it sounded like a “death list”. Some of us really thought that it was a list of people who were going to be executed. Since I am talking of the first day of martial law, you can imagine how we felt. In other words we were all removed from Camp Crame gymnasium and put in a bus and we were brought to another place inside Camp Crame. They said that we were being transferred somewhere else. Then we were in effect transferred to Fort Bonifacio.
Q: When you were settled at Fort Bonifacio, so you all shared one big place there, and I understand that Ninoy was with your group. How was life with Ninoy in detention?
A: In the beginning we were placed in three separate stalags or quarters. Six of us stayed in one little building. Ninoy, Rodrigo, Nap Rama, Vicente Rafael, Max Soliven and myself. Senator Diokno and Senator Mitra were in the next building about 20 meters away and then Teddy Locsin and Chino Roces in another one. By the second month of our detention we were all placed in one building and we just had these plywood partitions and that was when we were all together… For one thing we were actually isolated from the rest of the world in the sense that there were no newspapers, no magazines, no radio…
Q: So how did you entertain yourselves?
A: Oh, that was no problem. We could talk ’til kingdom come. Nine of us were talking like crazy from morning until night and I guess at that point in time, we did have a lot to talk about. And our families would visit us one hour a day. Now, the reason I mentioned that degree of isolation is that, on the first days of martial law, Ninoy was the source of news for most of us about what was happening outside. This was incredible. We kept wondering… this guy either has a radio in his room, or somebody else is reporting to him, or he is manufacturing all of these news. Eh parepareho kaming nakakulong, bakit siya may news, kami wala? You know usually yan, papasok sa kwarto, ‘Padre, alam mo ganito ang nangyayari’ so I’d wonder, ‘Bakit mo alam? At this point we already had a television set and there was only one station that was operating and that was Channel 9. So we’d watch Newswatch, and generally what Ninoy would say in the morning or in the afternoon, lalabas sa Newswatch that evening or the next day. He was battling about 80% or 90% of what he was saying. So, we were beginning to suspect that he was getting his news somewhere. What is turns out really was that Ninoy was “second-guessing” Marcos. In short, you know Ninoy had been spending a lot of his time reading about coup d’etat, revolution, dictatorship. One of the books which he read was Edward Luttwok on “Coup d’etat” which was a dissertation of fifty years of coup d’etats around the world… and Ninoy had memorized most of these things. So in effect, what Ninoy was saying was, “ito ang gagawin niya, ito ang gagawin niya.” He was really basing it on what he had read and what he knew other dictators had been doing, and sure enough, Marcos had been following the same pattern. So maybe Marcos read the same book, but of course, he would vary it a little here and there, so, this is basically what Ninoy was doing… he was such a voracious reader that he would read books two at a time. I’ve never seen anybody read a book two at a time… we had most of these books mostly biographical or historical.
Q: What was his daily routine everyday in jail?
A: He was a health nut. That is why I was very surprised when he got sick. But I suppose that came about because of the years of isolation after we had left. He does not smoke, he does not drink, anyway, you cannot drink even if you want to, but we were allowed cigarettes, but he did not smoke. He used to exercise an awful lot, you know push-ups, calisthenics, and we were allowed one hour a day outside, 5 o’clock, this was our sunshine break. Most of us would play volleyball, but Ninoy, from the time they’d open the gate, would run all around the camp and the soldiers had to watch him because he might run all the way out to Fort Bonifacio because he was getting very good at running. He kept at this all throughout, he would just keep running and running and this was about all you can do. Inside, we just kept talking and talking. What else can you do? We were all confined in a room.
Q: When was the next time you met Ninoy after you were released?
A: Well, whenever he would furlough, when he was allowed outside, I would always see him in his house. This was several years later. Ninoy was still Ninoy, he didn’t really change. He was always full of enthusiasm, full of news about what was going on. He was the one inside pero kami pa ang babalitaan niya. But always, he was soaking up information about what was going on. Then, he had already trimmed down tremendously. Actually, he lost all of that weight after they brought us out. He and Ka Pepe Diokno were brought to Laur, Nueva Ecija, and that was where he lost a lot of weight and then subsequently, when he had the hunger strike and he went on a fast for forty days. Ninoy was about a hundred and ninety pounds when he was detained and he went down to about a hundred thirty-five. It was an awful lot of pounds to lose. I think that was what did something to his physique, to his heart, to everything else. Ninoy was the type, to a greater degree than most of us, who always needed somebody to talk to. He kept saying, “I have a feeling na palalabasin kayo at ako maiiwan dito”. He used to joke that he would wash our clothes, clean the dishes, lahat yan, huwag lang siyang iiwan dahil ang pinakamahirap kay Ninoy eh yung wala siyang makausap. When the day came that we were being released this all came to my mind. The guy wanted to talk, to discuss, to argue… of course he had Ka Pepe, for two years I think, although hindi sila magkasama, magka-hiwalay sila, at least nalalaman mo mayroon din tao doon, nung iniwan siya ni Ka Pepe, eh di nagiisa na siya… that must have been one of the most difficult and painful period in his life.
Q: And when was the last time you met Ninoy?
A: I met Ninoy May 28, 1983 – it was the wedding of my brother in new Jersey and he was one of my sponsors. This was just about two months before he died and we had a long, long talk because he knew I was coming home while he was still in the States. Looking back, you know, before I get on with the story, I really regret so much that I could not accept his invitation to go back with him. He wanted to talk some more. I was already ready and I had to come back to Manila. I had been in the States for one month. Anyway, that was the time that Ninoy told me he was coming home to Manila. I was very surprised. He and I were alone outside, now and then other guys would come outside in the garden. He said, “You know, I came from Nicaragua and I feel that we are getting nearer and nearer the point where we are going to have a Nicaraguan situation in the Philippines, and at that point in time, sasabog na ang lahat. Hindi mo na mapipigil, masyadong marami ang mamamatay.” And just like Ninoy and I used to argue a lot when we were ‘inside,’ I guess we carried that habit, and this time we were again arguing. And I was asking him, “Ninoy, do you know enough of what is happening in the Philippines to make that assessment?” He said “yes”, and he rattles off with everything that is happening in the Philippines that you will be amazed. Here he was talking to me, and I was from here, and I was coming back, and he was telling me many things even I had not heard of. Obviously, he was getting an awful lot of information and feedback. But the thing that struck me the most was that he said, “As far as I am concerned, there is only one guy right now who can stop all of this and that is Mr. Marcos.” I said, “I don’t agree with you but you mean to tell me you’re coming to the Philippines just for that?” He said yes. “No matter what it takes, the expense, all of that, including my life, if I can, I will convince him to bring us back to democracy, while he is still there and before it is too late, I will do it.” Sabi ko, “Is it not too high a price to pay?” “No”, sabi niya, “ang daming mamamatay sa ating mga kababayan pagka nagrebolusyon tayo niyan.” I said I did not agree with him because one, I did not agree that Mr. Marcos will do it. Second, I did not believe that Mr. Marcos can do it even if he wanted to, meaning, this business of bringing us back to democracy. I was telling Ninoy I felt that at this point in time, it is debatable whether Mr. Marcos is calling the shots or he is merely following. So who’s leading whom? Certain events are taking over him, and at that point in time, as you recall, Marcos obviously was very sick. This was another consideration of Ninoy. Probably the other interesting highlight, he and I were discussing the various scenarios that could happen to him, like we were both talking about the possibility of his getting shot…
Q: And he talked about it…
A: Yes, of course. Well, the number one thing that we were talking about was he would be jailed. Sabi ko nga, “Tingnan mo naman Ninoy, pagbalik mo pa lang, pagbaba mo pa lang sa eroplano, tuloy-tuloy ka na naman sa Bonifacio. Sayang ka.” Sabi niya, “No, no, no, maybe this time I might have a chance to talk, anyway that’s one possibility. Pangalawa, house arrest. Baka naman kung i-house arrest ako ni Macoy, di doon na lamang ako sa bahay and so, alam mo naman pag-house arrest marami akong makakausap, so O.K. lang yon. Pangatlo, ang lalong mahirap, yung hindi ako huhulihin, hindi ako kukulungin, palalayain ako.” Alam mo naman pag si Ninoy ay pinalaya mo eh kung saan-saan pupunta yan magsasalita yan and so on and so forth. Eh napakadali ng magkaroon ng aksidente sa ganyan. We were very concerned, alam mo sabi ko, “Biruin mo kung dumating ka sa Pilipinas at magpadala ng banda si Marcos sa airport, sinalubong ka ,maraming Pilipinong hindi na maniniwala sa iyo. Baka ang akala ikaw ay nabili na ni Macoy.” This was May 28, you remember, May 21 he had a talk with Imelda in New York. Then Imelda was telling him not to come home. But then I was talking to him May 28 and he was determined to come home. I was asking him, “Ano ba? Mag-iiba pa ba ang pag-iisip mo?” Sabi niya, “Hindi. Talagang I have to come home. Alam mo time is running short, we’ll have to do something.” I kept trying to tell him, “You know Ninoy, I feel you will be needed more either alive or outside.” Hindi ko naman akalain na babarilin siya doon sa airport. Madaling sabihin yan ngayon dahil nabaril na. Sabi ko, “Alam mo pag nabaril ka, di wala na.” And even the unbelievable outpouring and what happened afterwards, not even Ninoy dreamed of that, that he would surpass the funeral of Gandhi and Nasser and everybody else in the history of man… I raised one point to him which bothered him a lot and that is – is Mr. Marcos in complete control? That was on May 28, 1983. And Ninoy said, “That’s what worries me a lot. If he is in complete control, it would probably be easier to predict what will happen. If he is not in complete control, this return of mine is going to be very risky.” So, it was on that note that he and I parted… There is another thing…he said he was more or less decided and that Ka Pepe (Diokno) was coming that week. He said he would talk to Ka Pepe. Later on sometime in July I talked to Ka Pepe Diokno dito na sa Manila. Tinanong ko, “Ka Pepe, nag-usap ba kayo ni Ninoy”. Sabi ni Ka Pepe, “Papaano ko kukumbinsihin yon? Hindi naman ako tinanong, sinabihan ako, he told me. “I am coming home, eh ano pa ang magagawa ko.” So, in short, talagang desidido si Ninoy umuwi… That was the last time I saw Ninoy alive.
Q: Were you at the airport when he was shot?
A: No, I was not at the airport… I decided to stay at home and wait. The irony was that I received a call from the States informing me that Ninoy had been shot. This must have been around 2 o’clock in the afternoon that Sunday. The caller asked, “Nabalitaan mo ba dyan na nabaril si Ninoy?” I said, “Hindi”. He asked, “Ano ba ang nangyayari dyan?” I said “Aba ewan ko… siguro bali-balita lamang yan… bakit nila babarilin si Ninoy? Anong klaseng kagaguhan yon?” Then I listened to the radio. The first time I heard it from the radio I could not believe it. I could not believe it for its sheer stupidity. This was my first reaction. I said how can anyone do that. By “anyone,” in so far as I was concerned, there’s only one group in this country who could have done such a thing. I was totally in shock and still was clinging on to the hope that maybe he was still alive. It was so frustrating trying to get details. You don’t know from whom to get details… I think the confirmation was about 5 o’clock or something… I guess I felt so sad about losing Ninoy and I recalled with regret the time I was trying to convince him not to come home. I thought they would wait a little bit longer before shooting him.
Q: What made Ninoy different from all the other opposition leaders?
A: I think it will be a long time until we find another man who could combine his brilliance, his energy, his resources, his dedication and his determination, put them all together in a man who would try to serve his country… Perhaps the Filipino people should remember one thing about Ninoy. His faith in the Filipino people never wavered. This guided him in everything that he did. Now the reason I am citing this is because when we were all put inside Fort Bonifacio, it was always Ninoy who would say, “Alam mo padre, hindi magtatagal ito, hindi papayag ang bayan…”
Q: Do you think he miscalculated the Filipino psyche?
A: Yes. I think he did. I suppose that you can see that to this day we’re still here and this guy is still there and he’s still issuing decrees and screwing up our lives. And now that Ninoy is not around, eh sino ngayon?
Q: Do you think Ninoy died in vain?
A: No. I don’t think he died in vain because no matter what happens now the Filipino will remember that event. Now, it may take an awful long time before the Filipino actually makes a move… I guess the Filipino takes a long time doing things that he hopefully eventually will do. It did take us an awful long time before we rose against Spain.
Q: If there was one word you could use to describe Ninoy, what would that word be?