Philippines: Military on the
move By A Lin Neumann
MANILA - The military's involvement in the
current crisis in the Philippines can be traced to
the officers whose aborted coup 20 years ago
launched the people power movement that propelled
Corazon Aquino into power over Ferdinand Marcos.
The grievances of those military rebels a
generation ago are echoed in the complaints of the
young officers involved in a variety of plots
against the current administration of President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, according to people in
touch with the disgruntled officers.
Arroyo's declaration of a state of
emergency last week was
clearly designed to deflect a
military attempt to overthrow her troubled
administration. The power play may have bought her
time and derailed at least one plot, but it seems
unlikely that the controversial move will
stabilize her rule or put an end to the military
intrigues that surround her.
co-opted the senior ranks so they may not move
against her," said a former American intelligence
officer with longstanding connections to the
Philippine military. "But the military has never
before been more politicized than it is now and it
is the junior ranks that suffer the most."
The two active duty officers publicly
identified with the unrest that erupted last week
are both highly decorated and well respected
combat veterans. Brigadier General Danilo Lim, the
1978 West Point graduate who last week was
relieved of his command of the army's elite First
Scout Ranger Regiment, was the youngest general in
the service when he was elevated to star rank two
Marine Colonel Ariel Querubin,
who led a tense standoff at Marine headquarters on
Sunday night over the relief of the Marines
commandant, received the Medal of Valor, the
nation's highest medal for bravery, for battling
Muslim insurgents in 1999 on the southern island
of Mindanao. "These guys are folk heroes to the
average soldier. They are the most respected
officers in the service," said a retired officer
once active in trying to overthrow Marcos.
Both Lim and Querubin emerged as officers
keen to overthrow what they perceive as a corrupt
civilian authority in the late 1980s when they
were part of the Young Officers Union (YOU), a
successor group to the Reform the Armed Forces
Movement, or RAM, which led the faction that broke
ranks with Marcos in 1986.
The two were
also both implicated in a deadly coup attempt
against Aquino in 1989, when soldiers from RAM and
YOU took over the Makati business district for
several days and fierce fighting erupted between
loyalists and rebels. In that incident, which was
led by then-captain Lim, Querubin was seriously
wounded and left for dead.
soldiers who led that uprising were pardoned and
men such as Querubin and Lim resumed their steady
rise through the ranks. Others involved, such as
the leader of the 1986 coup attempt, Gregorio
Honasan, went into politics. "This problem is now
in the third generation," explained a RAM veteran
in touch with current coup plotting officers. "It
won't go away."
Honasan and two other
former RAM officers, Felix Turingan and Jake
Malajacan, all retired and veterans from the 1986
people power movement, have been charged with
rebellion by the police. None of them has been
arrested, but Honasan has gone into hiding.
Another long-time renegade officer, now
retired, told Asia Times Online, "Every day they
see the suffering of their men and they see the
corruption of their senior officers and the
politicians. They don't trust Arroyo and see her
as corrupt and part of the problem." The
latest generation of rebels goes by the name
"Magdalo", a Tagalog word that roughly translates
as brotherhood and was used by Filipino
revolutionaries in the battle against Spain in the
18th century. These young soldiers first emerged
when they took over a portion of a shopping mall
in a failed coup attempt in 2003. On January 17,
four of the Magdalo officers under military
detention escaped and were later found to be in
contact with communist rebels, another factor used
by Arroyo to justify her state of emergency.
The grievances of idealistic officers from
combat units now and those that surfaced when
Marcos was still president are almost identical.
Senior commanders grow rich on perks and cash
dispensed by civilian politicians while soldiers
and officers on the front lines battling
decades-old communist and Muslim insurgencies
fight and die using inferior equipment in harsh
"This is the racket of
Philippine society," said a retired officer. "And
it will continue unless there is a restructuring,
a cleansing. The only one that can do that can
change it is the military."
military attempts to change governments have come
with support from the church, business and
politicians. The blueprint remains the 1986 people
power uprising when civilians called out by the
church came to the aid of rebel soldiers. When
Aquino was in office, though, hardline rebel
soldiers such as Honasan soon grew restive and
tried to overthrow her in a series of coup
attempts that began in late 1986 and continued for
She survived largely
because then General Fidel Ramos, the lead rebel
of 1986, remained loyal as her chief of staff and
defense secretary. When he became president in
1992, the ranks went calm for a time, only to grow
itchy when movie actor-turned politician Joseph
Estrada's corrupt and embarrassing government was
elected in 1998 after Ramos left office.
Ramos was a vocal critic of Estrada
publicly and behind the scenes, but until recently
he was nominally loyal to Arroyo. Over the
weekend, though, he also broke ranks. Now an elder
statesman, he said of her declaration of a state
of emergency, "I was not only surprised, I was
appalled and dismayed." He called the move
Arroyo herself has little
credibility when it comes to insisting that the
military stay out of politics. When she was vice
president under Estrada after the 1998 elections,
she was in talks with the military to drum up
support for Estrada's ouster, according to several
sources. Estrada was removed in 2001 when a
combination of politicians, church leaders and
military officers decided to act. When the
military "withdrew support" from Estrada, Arroyo
was installed in office in a move that many legal
experts insist was unlawful.
involved in the current unrest seem to have been
trying to follow the same script used successfully
in 1986 and 2001. Lim and Querubin, who commands a
brigade of Marines, last week approached Chief of
Staff General Generoso Senga and told him that
"restive young officers and soldiers" planned to
join rallies timed to coincide with the 20th
anniversary of the 1986 rebellion.
plan was to call for civilian support to oust the
government, according to an account of the plot
released by the presidential palace. The soldiers
had made contact with both leftist rebels and
traditional oppositionists in an attempt to build
a coalition that would have included rightists
like Estrada, the church and communists.
Sources familiar with the officers'
thinking said Arroyo's version is largely accurate
and that the two officers, as well as a number of
other officers from elite units, had been
discussing their desire to overthrow Arroyo for
the past couple of years.
she is horribly corrupt," said a retired officer
involved in discussions with the rebels. When
audio tapes pointing to Arroyo apparently
discussing ways to manipulate the results of the
2004 presidential election surfaced in June, the
plot became more urgent, he said.
sides seem at a standstill. It is unlikely Arroyo
will risk her fragile support within the armed
forces by moving aggressively against supporters
of hero-officers such as Lim and Querubin. If she
moves harshly against civil liberties she could
provoke a counter-reaction that would finally lead
people into the streets.
On the other
hand, the soldiers have failed so far to generate
anything beyond token civilian support. On Sunday
night, Querubin called for people power to protect
his nascent Marine mutiny. Only a few thousand
people showed up and the mutiny was short-lived.
In 1986, changing the government was a
matter of urgent national interest, but the
changes were, in the end, largely cosmetic.
Soldiers kept dying, the poor remained poor, the
economy continued to falter and traditional elites
held on to the reigns of finance and power. In
2001, the movement against Estrada produced
similarly dismal results, with Arroyo a
disappointment who is widely believed to be guilty
of rigging the 2004 election.
majority of Filipinos now are simply indifferent
to her one way or the other," said pro-government
Congressman Teodoro Locsin, Jr. "She cannot get
any good feeling for herself."
can military rebels get any traction - at least
not yet - to overthrow her. "They will not stop.
This will not stop," said a retired officer of the
younger rebels. "Arroyo is the immovable object.
The soldiers are the irresistible force."
While politicians and civilians look on
from the sidelines at a political system seemingly
in collapse, the worry many people have is that a
time is coming when the military will unite and do
away with civilian rule altogether. "I think the
army is calling the shots or will be soon," Locsin
said . "Soon," he added, quoting the Roman
historian Tacitus, "they are going to start making
emperors somewhere other than Rome."
A Lin Neumann is a veteran
Philippines correspondent who witnessed the
movement that led to the overthrow of Ferdinand