IF THE best-laid plans of military rebels had not been waylaid in the wee hours of Friday morning, Filipinos would have woken up today to find a few hundred fully armed soldiers marching toward the people power monument in Edsa to announce their “withdrawal of support” from the government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. There, they would meet with civilian supporters and force the government to its knees.
Although the attempt this morning was foiled, it is clear that military rebels have lost neither their flair for drama nor their propensity to intervene in the affairs of state. The genie of military intervention, unleashed in the aborted coup against President Ferdinand Marcos 20 years ago this month, has not returned to the bottle. Instead, it haunts the Philippine polity, fed continuously by the dissatisfaction in the barracks over corruption in the armed forces and in government and the politicization of military promotions and appointments.
President Arroyo, herself a beneficiary of the military’s “withdrawal of support” from her predecessor Joseph Estrada, has only stoked the restiveness in the barracks. Her appointment of favored generals to key posts and her refusal to put a closure to allegations of election fraud, including the military’s alleged role in cheating to ensure her victory, have been a constant source of resentment and frustration in the ranks.
The volatile political environment — with the dissatisfaction with an unpopular president spilling out into the streets since July — has further encouraged the rebels. It was really only a matter of time before opposition politicians and civil-society groups, including those from the Left, began flirting with rebel soldiers. After all, these civilian groups feel that the avenues for holding the president accountable for her actions in 2004 (including the famous “Hello, Garci” phone calls) had been closed: the impeachment rap against Arroyo was killed in Congress last year and the judiciary appears reluctant rock the boat.
The details of the plot are still sketchy, but so far the military’s pronouncements indicate that what Army Chief Hermogenes Esperon has called a “pending coup” was a joint operation involving various military factions and possibly three generations of rebel soldiers — from retired generals who withdrew support from Marcos in 1986 to the putschists that bedevilled the Aquino government in the late 1980s and the younger Magdalo group that attempted to oust Arroyo.
Military authorities say that one of the alleged leaders of the destabilization attempt was Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim, the bemedalled chief of the 1st Scout Ranger Regiment and a veteran putschist. As an army captain in 1989, Lim led Scout Rangers in a weeklong seige of the Makati commercial district. He was also a leader of the Young Officers Union or YOU, formed in 1988 by young officers, mainly from the old Philippine Constabulary and the Army Scout Rangers, who had become disgruntled with the leadership of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement or RAM and its string of failed coup attempts against the Aquno government.
Unlike RAM, YOU in the late 1980s and early 1990s had a nationalist and anti-elitist ideology and was made up of officers then aged 35 and below and belonging to Philippine Military Academy classes 1973 and later. Lim himself is a member of PMA class 1978.
Military spokesman Maj. Bartolome Bacarro said in a television interview today that it was likely that today’s move was a coordinated effort between some of the old YOU members like Lim and the younger Magdalo rebels, who took over the Oakwood Hotel Makati in a daylong siege in July 2003.
It’s possible other factions and individuals are involved as well. What is worrisome for the government is the apparent involvement in the plot of Chief Supt. Marcelino Franco, chief of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force. Franco was relieved of his post this morning. This is an indication that the virus of intervention had infected the police as well, and the most elite police unit at that, and was no longer confined to the military. In fact the aborted destabilization attempt last December reportedly involved police officers.
There are also indications that retired generals are supportive of the rebels. The military has likewise implicated former Senator and RAM leader Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan in today’s plot, which is looking more and more like a rebel soldiers’ homecoming reuniion. Indeed, the same network that provided the backbone of military adventurism in the 1980s — the network of PMA classes where classmates or “mistahs” remain loyal to each other — is still an effective recruitment and organizational base for military rebellions.
While these groups are independent of each other and have differences among themselves, they now appear to be united in their aim to force Arroyo’s resignation. As of this writing, it is not yet clear whether the “pending coup” is over, as the psy-war is intense on both the rebel and government side.
But ultimately, the cause of such interventionism goes back 30 years. As the Feliciano Fact-Finding Commission reported:
“The politicization of the military amid the erosion of civilian political institutions that had oversight powers over the military, particularly during and since the imposition of martial law, is a cause of military adventurism. The AFP’s role as a partner in national development efforts led them to assume roles that used to be played by civilian authorities. This tended to increase their political leverage over other sectors of society, and contributed to their politicization as they interfaced directly with the people and the problems of the country. During the martial law period, there were no institutional checks on the military’s power and influence as well as on the uses to which its power was used, other than the personal power of President Marcos.”
Aside from this, the report noted the failure of previous governments to punish those who had been involved in previous coup attempts as encouraging further putsches. Likewise, it cited the politicization of the military and the encouragement of military adventurism given by politicians and other civilians. But the Feliciano Fact-Finding Commission also recognized other precipitating factors, including corruption within the military, especially in the procurements system, and the failure of the top brass to provide the basic needs of soldiers in the field. After all, the Magdalo group was composed mainly of young officers in their 30s who had served in elite fighting units and saw how their men suffered from the woeful lack of support from central headquarters. (See ,for example, Magdalo leader Lt. Antonio Trillanes’s paper on military corruption.)
All these factors seem to be still at play in today’s attempt. But the biggest precipitating factor may be Gloria Mapacagal Arroyo herself. (See Newsbreak’s reporting on this, for example.) In her desire for re-election and survival, the president has further weakened the military as an institution and further contributed to the disenchantment in the ranks. In the end, the things she does to prolong per political life only undermine her rule. She may unwittingly be sowing the seeds of her own destruction.