Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Coups in the Philippines not what they used to be


"We mean no harm! We mean no harm!" shouted the rebel leader as his men laid booby traps around a downtown mall and luxury apartment building here early Sunday morning.

For the next 18 hours, a band of 300 junior military officers and troopers barricaded themselves inside the apartment building and demanded the resignation of the president and defense secretary and better equipment for soldiers in the field.

By the time they gave up and agreed to return to their barracks Sunday evening, it was clear that this had been only a caricature of the coups and popular putsches that have kept the country on edge for the past 18 years.

No shots had been fired; indeed, no guns had been pointed. No real threats had been made by either side. An overheated news conference was the mutineers' main action, and fatherly talks by senior officers brought the squall to an end.

Coup rumors are so common here that most people, while enjoying a frisson of worry, tend to discount them. The current rumors had been circulating for a week -- ?some here say the mutiny was delayed by weather when a typhoon struck.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may have spurred the rebels into action when she ordered the arrest on Saturday of "a small band of rogue junior officers."

The soldiers' passion was very real, though, and some of their grievances -- ?corruption and bad management in the military -- ?seemed justified. But as the political scientist Alex Magno said, they were "pretty naive."

"We hope the Filipino people will get our message," said the rebel leader, Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes of the navy, although he never made the message quite clear. "Maybe we can change the system."

"Hooray!" his men shouted as reporters besieged them in the lobby of the apartment building.

"Of course, they are very emotional," said Glenda Gloria, an expert on the military and the Muslim insurgency in the southern Philippines. "Some were trained by the United States, and the United States is very much aware of how mismanaged the armed forces is."

Ineffectual as it was, the brief standoff offered a lesson in the patterns history sets. In a country where coup attempts were at one time almost routine and where two presidents have been ousted when the military turned against them, it was only a short step for these young officers from disaffection to mutiny.

When they dismantled their booby traps and returned to their barracks, grumbling that nothing had changed, they took with them a promise by their commanders to address their grievances.

That light touch from the commanders also followed a pattern that was set in the first of half a dozen coup attempts in the 1980s against Corazon Aquino, who was president at that time. In that case, soldiers who took over the Manila Hotel were sentenced only to a round of push-ups before being sent back to their barracks.

The most dangerous and dashing of the coup leaders from those years, Gregorio Honasan, is now an overweight senator and has declared his candidacy in the next presidential election.

Mutiny is not necessarily a career-ending move in the Philippines, and as Honasan showed in the 1980s, it can be addictive.

Some officials said they had evidence that he had somehow been involved in Sunday's action but any possible backing for the mutiny remained unclear.

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