The retired army general's memoir was released last month.

Jamil Maidan Flores — Gen. Almonte: A Portrait of the Spy as Philosopher

MARCH 01, 2015

Last week in the run-up to the 29th anniversary of the 1986 people power revolution in the Philippines, retired army general Jose T. Almonte, launched a book he co-authored with investigative reporter Marites Danguilan Vitug.

Titled “Endless Journey: A Memoir,” the book recounts the colorful ways he served four presidents: Diosdado Macapagal, Ferdinand Marcos, Corazon C. Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos.

I began a friendship with him when he was head of the Economic Intelligence and Investigation Bureau (EIIB) during the administration of Cory Aquino. By then he had made a name for himself as an intelligence operative, military reformist and political thinker.

During the Vietnam War, as the intelligence officer of the Philippine Civic Action Group to Vietnam (PhilcagV), he walked into Viet Cong territory and talked its leaders into omitting the battalion-size Philippine troop contingent in their battle plans. In turn the PhilcagV would focus on civic action and strictly avoid combat.

“If you kill a few of us,” he told the Viet Cong, “there will be a massive reaction. Every Filipino will want to come here and fight. Remember, we have ten million unemployed.”

Never once did the Viet Cong mount an attack against the Philcag camp, not even during the Tet Offensive in early 1968.

When a group of young officers launched the clandestine Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) in the early 1980s, they sought his counsel. Then a colonel, he helped write their strategies and was involved in their failed coup plot that triggered the popular revolt that toppled Marcos in February 1986.

After the fall of Marcos, Almonte, now a brigadier general, together with allies in the banking world, tried to recover some $213 million of the Marcos wealth stashed in a Swiss bank. Code-named “Big Bird,” the operation could have succeeded outright but it was shot down by perhaps well-meaning higher officials in the Cory government.

It’s a long story with many legal twists and turns, but because of that initial effort, the Philippine government today has at hand some $658 million that it can use to fund the country’s land reform program and to compensate victims of human rights abuses during the Marcos administration. (Bank interests have dilated the original $213 million.)

Almonte became national security adviser and the country’s chief intelligence official during the presidency of his close friend Fidel V. Ramos. In this capacity he came to Indonesia in May1994 on the eve of the Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor (APCET) in Manila. Relations between the two countries were in a trough because of the impending APCET.

He was alone. He called me up and requested that I arrange for him to meet with then foreign minister Ali Alatas if only for a few minutes. Alatas said his frenetic schedule made the meeting impossible. But he suggested that a telephone conversation be arranged between him and Almonte.

This was arranged; they talked for at least 30 minutes. After that, Philippine-Indonesian relations seemed to improve in spite of the holding of the APCET as scheduled.

In his memoir, Almonte says that as national security adviser, he spent a lot of time “Baby-sitting” Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, a philanthropist and socialite, reputed to have had an intimate relationship with President Ramos.

Ambitious and ravenous for public attention, Baby Arenas often got out of control in a way that could embarrass the president. But Almonte was always able to calm her down. I witnessed one “Baby-sitting” episode when Almonte was still EIIB chief.

Now 84, Almonte remains an eminence grise in Philippine affairs. He was never just a bureaucrat with a gun but ever the soldier-philosopher, with a mind nimbly questing for ways to solve national problems.

So unlike the apparatchiks who sent the SAF-400 into Mamasapano.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.