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    Southeast Asia
     Feb 28, 2006
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.

"She has 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 years ago.

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.

Eventually, the 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 conditions.

"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."

Historically, 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 several years.

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 "Marcosian".

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.

The officers 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.

Their 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.

"They believe 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.

Now both 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.

"A vast 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."

But neither 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 Marcos.

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