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Aquino, Aides Seek to Dispel Coup Rumors as She Prepares for U.S. Trip

Times Staff Writer

An American visitor gaped at the newspapers displayed Wednesday on a street corner in Manila, shook his head and observed, “My God, you’d think this whole place is falling apart.”

“No Fear of Coup! But Defense Chief, Military Wary,” the Philippine Star trumpeted.

“Military Seeking a Stronger Hand,” the Manila Chronicle warned.

“Cabinet Quarrel Worsens!” the tabloid Tempo fairly screamed.

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Less than a week before President Corazon Aquino is scheduled to leave for the United States, Manila is alive with rumors and speculation.

There is talk of a coup, of Cabinet infighting, of an imminent Communist takeover. There is speculation that deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos will slip into the country from exile in Hawaii, possibly before Aquino leaves Monday for Washington, possibly afterward.

Military authorities have reported that members of a liquidation squad from the Communist New People’s Army infiltrated into the capital Wednesday and killed a soldier outside a military camp.

After the latest rumors were reported in the nation’s press, which has been freed of restraints since Marcos’ departure, Aquino at her regular Wednesday Cabinet meeting secured pledges of total support and unity from her top advisers, among them controversial Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

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Enrile, who led the coup that brought Aquino to power last February, talked with the president by telephone on Tuesday and reportedly assured her that he and the 200,000-man armed forces are totally loyal to her.

Also on Wednesday, Aquino convened for the first time her newly formed National Security Council, which is made up of Cabinet ministers and top military leaders. She announced that the council will be in charge of maintaining peace and stability while she is out of the country.

She emphasized at the Cabinet session that the council will be strictly under her control and that she alone has the authority to convene it.

The council was expanded Wednesday to include the ministers of education, finance and labor and budget, along with the presidential press secretary--apparently an attempt to provide a measure of balance for the presence of Enrile and the military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos.

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Despite the president’s moves and the rumors about the government’s instability, several Cabinet ministers and even Defense Minister Enrile, who is usually at the center of speculative reports on impending coups, emphasized that Aquino’s government has never been more in control.

Asked Tuesday about the speculation about what might happen during Aquino’s absence, Enrile replied: “What kind of thing will happen? Nothing. Nothing will happen.”

A Western diplomat said the period that Aquino will be in the United States, where she is to address a joint session of Congress and the U.N. General Assembly, “will be the most boring eight days in Manila’s history.”

In a speech to 1,500 local officials at the palace Tuesday, Aquino said, “The reason I am leaving is because when I come back, I know I will still be president.”

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Aquino’s press secretary, Teodoro Benigno, also went on record with a statement that Filipinos have nothing to fear. After the Cabinet meeting he told reporters: “President Corazon Aquino remains the center of political gravity in the Philippines, and there is, as a matter of fact, no alternative to her. Her popular support remains undiminished.

“In spite of all these acoustics, I will state without fear that people power is very much in existence, and people power is very much behind the government of President Aquino.”

Benigno said it is the newspapers--there are 23 dailies in Manila alone--that are responsible for the rumors.

Clearly, though, there is genuine popular concern about Aquino’s traveling so far from home just seven months into her presidency. In July, when she left the capital for a two-day visit to the southern island of Mindanao, forces loyal to Marcos attempted a countercoup, though it proved to be ineffective.

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None of the 300 soldiers or the dozen or so political figures who took part in the attempt were punished, and political commentators have speculated that the same people may try again to seize control of the government or smuggle Marcos into the country while Aquino is in Washington.

Enrile has added fuel to this rumor. He has expressed sharp disagreement with Aquino’s civilian advisers on how to deal with a Communist insurgency.

In recent weeks Enrile’s speeches have become harsher, his criticism more pointed and his approach more direct.

“I am losing my patience,” he said Monday in a speech to a group of army officers in Manila. And in a direct reference to Aquino’s civilian advisers, he added, “Maybe these people are not aware that when I lose my patience, I am like Rambo.”

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In an address Tuesday at the Manila Playboy Club, he said, “We’ve been pushed and pushed,” referring to recent offensives by the New People’s Army, which has continued to attack military patrols and local officials throughout the country despite peace talks between Communist leaders and Aquino’s government.

“It seems that the same thinking that plagued the past regime has crept into our own system,” Enrile went on. “People want to insist that everything is OK when our soldiers are actually being slaughtered from day to day.”

Enrile criticized the Aquino government for not developing “a coherent, well-coordinated political, economic and military plan to address the insurgency problem.” But he made it clear that he has no plans for a coup.

Nonetheless, Enrile, a 62-year-old Harvard graduate who is known to have personal political ambitions, continues to be the focal point for what most Filipinos regard as intensifying infighting within the Cabinet.

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At a meeting with the foreign press last week, Minister of Local Governments Aquilino Pimentel challenged Enrile either to stop criticizing Aquino’s policies or to resign. This point of view has been expressed privately by other government ministers, who along with Pimentel have been branded by the military as “the leftists” in Aquino’s government.

Pimentel charged that Enrile is “an American boy” who is more interested in keeping two large U.S. military bases in the country than he is in domestic peace.

Enrile countered with caution, telling reporters that he respects Pimentel’s position but disagrees with him.

Behind the feud is politics, and a growing political void surrounding Aquino. Pimentel heads a coalition party built on a foundation of more than 1,000 local and regional officials whom he appointed. Enrile is widely believed to be the moving force behind the newly formed Nacionalista Party, which counts among its supporters many of the local leaders who served Marcos but were fired by Pimentel.

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Both men have hinted privately that they hope to run for president when Aquino’s term expires in 1992. Aquino has pledged that she will not run for reelection.

Pimentel, too, was careful to tell reporters that he is certain the political differences within the Cabinet will not trigger a coup.

“There is no possibility of a coup at this time because Mrs. Aquino enjoys the full support of the people,” Pimentel told reporters.

“All the wranglings you read about really aren’t there at all,” a close aide to Aquino said. “They all talk to the newspapers and make a lot of noise, but essentially, when they sit down together and make policy, the Cabinet is working together.”

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When asked whether the president and the Cabinet ministers closest to her actually trust Enrile, the source said, “I don’t think she trusts him, but she feels confident she has nothing to fear from him.”

Several ministers refused to comment for the record on reports that the president, concerned about her image on the eve of her departure for Washington, scolded the Cabinet for fomenting a public squabble. Privately, though, one said that Aquino merely suggested that they talk less to the national press for the time being.

After the meeting, there was at least one sign that the ministers were heeding her advice. As Enrile strode out of the presidential palace, a dozen reporters descended upon him with questions.

“I have nothing to say,” he said.

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