Thu, Jul 31, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Rebellious troops continue to haunt Philippine politics

Coups may be a dime a dozen in the east Asian nation, but that doesn't mean the government can afford to ignore the causes

By John O'callaghan  /  REUTERS , MANILA

Much ado about nothing or a country teetering on the brink of chaos? Either way, observers of the weekend mutiny by a band of Philippine soldiers could be forgiven for thinking they've seen it all before.

The siege in Manila's business district ended without violence. But the sight of nearly 300 elite troops holed up in an upscale shopping mall they had rigged with explosives was as much political theater as a wake-up call for the government.

The junior officers and young enlisted men said they took radical action after their allegations of high-level corruption and weapons deals with Muslim rebels fell on deaf ears.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vowed to get to the heart of the grievances, as accusations flew that a mutiny designed to embarrass her government could not have been staged without the financial and logistical support of some of her political foes.

Parallels are also being drawn between Arroyo and Corazon Aquino -- whose 1986 to 1992 presidency was marked by economically crippling coup attempts -- as two leaders swept into power pledging to stamp out graft but unable to change the bad old ways.

But Joel Rocamora, head of the Institute for Popular Democracy think-tank, said the latest mutiny had no public support and that Arroyo's opponents would be weakened by any association with the renegade soldiers.

"If the president at least is perceived to have followed through on the government's promise to carefully consider the issues raised by the young officers, Gloria might actually come out of this ahead," he said.

"Are there likely to be more coups like this? I doubt it."

The Philippines is no stranger to insurrection -- real, attempted or rumored. Generals profited from the largesse of Ferdinand Marcos for 20 years before turning against the dictator when a tidal wave of public anger swelled unstoppably in 1986.

Arroyo, who rode to power on another army-backed popular uprising in 2001, has no end of enemies who would like to ensure she has no chance of rowing back on her pledge not to run in presidential elections due by next May.

For soldiers complaining about low pay, the crisp uniforms, top-of-the-line equipment, new satellite phones and red armbands of the renegades were evidence of a well-planned operation.

The government's finger is pointing at the camp of Joseph Estrada, who is on trial for economic plunder after being ousted from the presidential palace by the 2001 "People Power" revolt.

Police said they found weapons, ammunition and red armbands at a house owned by a member of Estrada's cabinet and that an apartment of one of the deposed president's mistresses was a staging area for the mutineers. Estrada denied any involvement.

All the troops -- loyal and renegade -- are back in barracks and the streets of central Manila are teeming with workers and shoppers as if nothing happened.

But Arroyo must tread carefully.

Estrada may be disgraced, but he still enjoys the support of many power brokers and voters.

And as Arroyo pokes at the military's underbelly, she will be thinking of the generals who blessed her rise from Estrada's vice president to leader of the nation of 82 million people.

"You gotta dance with who brung ya, as they say in a Western swing song," Clarence Henderson, a Manila-based consultant, wrote in his regular Web-based commentary on Philippine affairs.

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