The Philippines

The Coup Next Time

A rebel Philippine soldier guards a Manila apartment complex and shopping center after taking it over in a 20-hour coup attempt
A rebel Philippine soldier guards a Manila apartment complex and shopping center after capturing it in an attempted coup, July 27, 2003 (Photo: Joel Nito/AFP-Getty Images).

On July 27, some 300 rebel Philippine soldiers took control of a shopping center and apartment complex in a suburb of Manila. Navy Lt. Antonio Trillanes, a spokesmen for the mutineers, told reporters that his group was “not attempting to grab power,” but was “just trying to express [its] grievances,” including allegations that the government and armed forces were selling arms and supplies to separatist rebel groups; that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her defense secretary, and the chief of the intelligence services had planned bombings in March and April in order to get more aid from the United States to fight terrorism; and that the government was planning to declare martial law so that Arroyo could stay in power after the end of her term in 2004. The mutineers surrendered after Arroyo gave them a five-hour ultimatum. The entire crisis lasted 20 hours.

Navy Lt. Antonio Trillanes, the most visible leader of the officers and men who took over Makati’s Oakwood hotel-residence [in a suburb of Manila] Sunday [July 27], has every reason to be unhappy over the resolution of the crisis he and his fellows created.

It’s not just because the issues they raised, after the usual show of official concern (Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, whose resignation Trillanes’ “Magdalo Group” had demanded, has urged the creation of a commission to look into its charges) are not likely to ever be resolved, although that should be disturbing enough.

It is also because the credibility of those charges has been compromised by the group’s own actions as well as the rumored involvement with it of the usual opportunist groups and politicians. (And how well thought out was the group’s name, which celebrates the Katipunan faction that killed [19th-Century Philippine liberation hero] Andres Bonifacio?)

What’s even worse for Trillanes and other like-minded officers and men, though perhaps not for the country, is that no attempt at a so-called coup will ever again be taken seriously either by the government or the citizenry.

All are tied together in a package called “credibility.”

Ordinary citizens and the representatives of people’s organizations—even government officials and some broadcasters usually too busy talking to do much thinking—were agreeing early Sunday morning that most of the issues the mutineers had raised were both serious and quite possibly “legitimate.” By late evening they weren’t so sure.

Those issues included allegations of corruption in the upper ranks of the military and defense hierarchies, the illegal sale of ammunition and weapons, probably by common soldiers desperate for sources of income to augment their meager salaries and allowances, but quite possibly also by high-ranking officials, and the government’s own, alleged involvement in the [April 3] bombing of the Davao wharf supposedly to demonize Muslims. Lest anyone forget, however, the mutineers also claimed that the Arroyo administration intends to declare martial law to stay in power beyond 2004.

As serious as these charges are, the Trillanes group did not bring with them to Oakwood and to the people any proof beyond their personal claims. Although their personal testimonies were initially convincing, the group’s eventual decision to return to barracks after an earlier refusal to even negotiate with the Arroyo administration made those claims seem like the exaggerated claims of children who only needed a bit of attention to behave. Of course the mutineers had claimed all along that all they wanted was to bring their charges to the people. But surely occupying a part of Makati was a less than ideal means of doing so?

It was as if the mountain had labored—and brought forth a mouse.

The pity is that corruption in the military and defense hierarchies has been rumored for so long and so persistently—and supported by such tangible evidence as the mansions and Mercedes sedans of colonels and generals—that it does bear looking into.

Corruption in the form of the diversion of such military supplies as boots, uniforms, and field rations, as well as the misuse of intelligence funds, for example, bears directly on the capacity of common soldiers to survive in combat situations. It affects their morale and discipline and forces them to victimize the people whom they’re supposed to protect. It makes for uninformed decisions in the field, and breeds soldiers capable of fighting only the unarmed whose rights they habitually violate.

On the other hand, allegations that the military itself was responsible for the bombings in Mindanao that had led to the demonization of the MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group] and of Muslims in general have been afloat for months. Though deficient in empirical proof, the credibility of these allegations was based mostly on logic and the force of the military’s martial-law tradition. Far from benefiting from the bombings, the MILF, for example, was their biggest casualty, while the military seemed their primary beneficiary, as the bombings seemed to validate its opposition to peace talks.

With the attention of the entire country and some of the world on them, the officers and men of the Magdalo Group could have made their mutiny meaningful and even worthwhile if they had presented convincing proof that these persistent suspicions are at least based on verifiable information. That they did not made their little adventure seem needless, reckless, and destructive, given its undeniable impact on the economy.

For all of Lt. Trillanes’ persistence in saying that the costs were worth the public airing of his group’s charges, the result was exactly the opposite. It wasn’t worth it because the airing was less than promised.

This was not due alone to the group’s failure to prove its allegations. The seeming involvement of the usual politicians, primarily Sen. Gregorio Honasan, who have made the military their special turf, in at least “advising” the group was another factor that affected its credibility. While Honasan could argue that the mutineers’ adoption of his so-called National Recovery Program was their independent decision, it could not help but taint the group’s idealist image with the colors of partisan politics.

Those colors were also in the Mandaluyong apartment, supposedly once owned or occupied by a woman identified with Joseph Estrada, which the group had maintained as its headquarters. They were also visible in the attempt by a group supportive of the former president to march to Makati in support of the mutineers.

Any attempt at political reform does try to enlist support beyond the proponent’s own limited ranks. For any band of idealists, that support is best found among the people, whose patience with the Arroyo administration’s failure to deliver on its promises has been severely tested. By enlisting instead the support of discredited forces, the Magdalo Group compromised itself and made it seem less than the idealistic group it earlier seemed to be.

It is the unenviable lot of the Philippine military, despite whatever idealistic forces and groups may be within it, to serve as the handmaiden of narrow political and economic interests. It is unable to act without the patronage of politicians, for example, and is surprisingly inept in the made-for-the-military enterprise of coup-making.

Although it did seem at one point to be different in commitment, coherence, and IQ from the leadership of past coup attempts, the Magdalo Group leadership was nevertheless soon exposed as equally burdened by partisan politics. Fortunately for the Arroyo administration and the nation, it was also burdened with the same lack of foresight and planning capacity, as well as overall ineptness, that characterized Honasan’s own clumsy attempts from 1986 to 1989.

Having called attention to themselves by seizing a hotel-residence in the country’s financial and business center, and apparently not having looked beyond that high-profile goal, Sunday’s mutineers had no recourse but to return to barracks after a 20-hour exercise that achieved virtually nothing except the inconvenience of foreign tourists, headlines in the world’s news channels that will surely keep other tourists away, and futile discussions in the inane talk shows that infest Philippine television.

Only in one sense did the Magdalo Group achieve something. Trillanes and company have made not only the success of the next coup attempt as unlikely as reforms in Philippine society. They have also made any attempt at a putsch next time something no one should take seriously.