Philippine ‘Coup’ a Putsch of the Absurd

The plan was to topple the government, but the third failed coup attempt against Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo turned into another comic-opera failure by a dwindling band of angry soldiers, doing little more than score additional points for her while reinforcing the country’s sometimes absurdist image.

At about 5 p.m. on Thursday, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and Brigadier General Danilo Lim, gave up their attempt to overthrow the government and emerged from the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel in Makati with about 30 other officers to be hustled into police vans. No one died in the assault, but it did create a bit of chaos in the high-ceilinged hotel lobby, long a favorite watering hole for Manila politicians. Hotel guests were evacuated and no doubt given a wonderful cocktail party anecdote to relate in years to come.

The tough-talking but ultimately soft-punching rebels had barged into the ‘Pen lobby in the heart of the country's business district after storming out of their court martial trial. They overwhelmed guards and holed up together with reporters at the cushy Rizal Suite on the second floor atrium of the hotel. They announced, yet again, a withdrawal of support from Arroyo and called, again, for the people to rise up.

It is not known if they ordered coffee and finger sandwiches as they waited to see if the nation would join them in revolt.

In July 2003, just across the street at another high-end hotel, the Oakwood, Trillanes, then a swashbuckling Navy lieutenant, led a group of over 300 soldiers referred to as “Magdalo,” a name borrowed from 19th century Filipino revolutionaries, in an 18-hour mutiny that disrupted a major shopping mall but also quickly sputtered. Detained since while on trial, Trillanes won a seat in the Philippine Senate during the May 2007 elections. Because he is jailed and therefore cannot perform his duties as one of the country’s 24 senators, Trillanes has complained that the government has no respect for the will of the 11 million people who voted for him.

Lim, a much heralded officer who has allegedly been plotting against one government or the other for virtually his entire career, was the commanding officer of the elite First Scout Ranger Regiment before being relieved of duty. He is accused (but not charged) of involvement in an attempt to seize power in February 2006. He attended Thursday’s court martial session trial as a witness.

Protector of the people

Soon after the drama began, a rebel website was on-line detailing the demands and gripes of the soldiers, and calling for all “decent” Filipinos to converge on Makati to “rise up and be counted” and to boot out the crooks in government. “Our life is given for you,” said a slogan on the website in Filipino.

“Pursuant, therefore, to our constitutional duty as ‘protector of the people and the state,’ we have today withdrawn our support from Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in order to end her unconstitutional and illegal occupation of the Presidency,” the website says, listing the names of the participants in the lobby coup and a handful of politicians, academics and even two Catholics bishops said to be supporting the move.

Corruption allegations

Not that Arroyo is blameless in all this. Her administration has been plagued by scandals and was this week also accused by a United Nations human rights investigator of engaging in a campaign of assassinations against leftist opponents. Her legitimacy after former President Joseph Estrada was ousted by street protests manipulated by military and business leaders in 2001 has long been in question. The 2004 presidential election was supposed to solidify her claim to the country’s top post, but it was marred by allegations of fraud after taped conversations of her speaking to election officials were made public. In addition, both her Congressman-son and powerbroker husband have been accused of involvement in illegal gambling.

Recently husband Mike Arroyo was also accused publicly by well-placed businessmen of trying to strong arm competitors out of the way in favor of a Chinese company in a government-financed national broadband Internet network project.

Under tough new corruption guidelines, earlier this month the World Bank suspended $265 million in funding for road-building projects in the country. The lender said there were "strong signs of collusion and excessive pricing" in a series of contracts signed with Arroyo’s government between 2003 and 2006. In response, Arroyo’s legal advisor said, "The government supports all efforts to curb corruption."

For the afternoon mutiny, a number of civil society groups and other familiar figures identified with opposition politics quickly showed their support for the mutineers ‑ former Vice President Teofisto Guingona, who has previously come out in support of dissident soldiers; former police chief General Ramon Montano; former University of the Philippines President Francisco Nemenzo, a leftist academic; activist Catholic Bishops Julius Labayen and Gaudencio Tobias and a well-known priest, Fr. Robert Reyes.

Outside the hotel, military units quickly secured the perimeter. Streets were barricaded and anti-riot police took up positions. Traffic was terrible.

Tear gas and tanks

After a 3 p.m. deadline to surrender passed, and with no signs of civilian support for the mutineers, the military began their assault, lobbing teargas into the hotel and ramming the doors with an armored personnel carrier. Live TV coverage from inside the mutineers’ redoubt showed people cringing from the effects of the tear gas.

A couple of hours later, Trillanes and his would-be saviors of the nation announced that they were exiting the hotel “for the sake of the safety of everybody.” He added that they could not live with their conscience if anybody got hurt in the crossfire of a battle. “Like soldiers, we are going to face this,” he added.

Justifying their action, Trillanes said that: "What we did was not only our duty but our moral obligation. It is our duty as religious individuals to do what is right."

Learned her lesson

Arroyo does seem to have learned from the past. The first coup attempt against former President Corazon Aquino after she took power in the People Power revolt against the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 also took place in a luxury hotel. That rather bizarre standoff in the landmark Manila Hotel in July 1986 went on for several days as the government dawdled and rebel soldiers emptied the mini-bars. Eventually the leaders of the revolt were ordered to do push ups for their transgressions and many of them went on to lead other, more serious, overthrow attempts, some of which nearly succeeded.

This week’s lobby-coup leaders are descended from that earlier generation of would-be protectors of the nation, allied in a network of officers’ groups who have consistently expressed their disgust with the nation’s civilian leadership.

But as silly as seizing power via hotel lobbies may seem, it was not a spur of the moment action, but rather a well planned move, political analyst Earl Parreno told the Asia Sentinel, judging from the fact that the detained soldiers found quick access to high-powered guns.

"Their goal was the same as their goal during the mutinies of 2003 and 2006 ‑ a military action supported by civilians to topple the government. People power, in other words," says Parreno.

However, "the move was premature." The analyst says that, based on his informants, an action such as what took place Thursday was being planned for the first quarter of 2008. This would have given the opposition time to create further social unrest so that their move would generate sufficient civilian support, which would, in turn, encourage the military top brass to withdraw their support from the government ‑ the tipping point in Philippine-style uprisings.

Arroyo wins again

About an hour and a half after the drama ended, Arroyo went on live television to say that new charges will be filed against the mutineers, meaning it may be some time before Sen. Trillanes can attend his committee meetings. She commended the Philippine army and police for their loyalty and service to the nation.

"Time and time again," Arroyo said in Filipino, "we have shown the strength of our institutions."

Financial markets, long accustomed to the drama of Philippine political life, showed little reaction to the events. Indeed in recent years, the Philippine economy has been performing well, bolstered by a rising currency, strong overseas remittance and a booming call-center sector.

The government imposed a curfew from Thursday midnight to 5am Friday in Metro Manila and neighboring regions to prevent other possible destabilization efforts, but the putsch seems likely to fade from view quickly, other than the inevitable long legal proceedings that will unfold.

Trillanes was quoted as saying that, “If there's a loser here, it's the Filipino nation because she's [Arroyo] still there.” But if there’s a winner in all this, Parreno says, it is Arroyo.

"This is the end game for Trillanes' camp," Parreno says, explaining that Arroyo’s decisiveness to put an early end to the mutiny practically ensures that no one else will attempt to remove her by force again before the end of her term in 2010.

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