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Manila Abuzz With Coup Talk

Times Staff Writer

Prospective military coups are usually discussed in conspiratorial whispers, but it’s hard to miss the chatter in Manila these days that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo may soon become the latest in a string of Philippine presidents removed from office at the point of a gun.

Rumors of a coup are wheeling like vultures over this chaotic capital. The speculation is heard on prime time TV and swapped in text messages between politicians, exchanged in flashy hotel bars where businessmen gather and along stalls in street markets. Some opposition politicians clamor for a coup. Others doubt the soldiers are ready to strike -- at least just yet.

But some people wonder whether a coup would succeed, and, if so, at what cost in blood.

“You walk past a coffee shop and you can almost see the bubbles rising from the gossip,” said Rex Robles, a retired naval commodore whose involvement in coups includes the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986. He also served prison time for failed attempts -- “let’s just say three and leave it at that” -- to topple President Corazon Aquino.

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“You can’t keep anything secret here,” Robles said. “The problem is not a lack of information but information overload. And that makes it harder to separate what’s fact from fiction.”

After two decades of coups and attempted coups in a raucous democracy, Filipinos have acquired a certain stoicism about the prospect of the military intervening yet again.

It was the armed forces’ withdrawal of support that sealed the fates of Presidents Marcos and then Joseph Estrada in 2001. Those coups instilled the belief in many military officers that they have a legal right to act under their constitutional role as the “protectors of the people and state” against rogue politicians.

Many argue that the nation has again reached this state of crisis, with Arroyo’s administration crippled by allegations of rampant financial corruption and claims that she rigged the election that returned her to power in 2004.

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Wiretaps leaked in June suggest that Arroyo called a member of the elections commission 15 times during the tallying of vote totals from each province. She has acknowledged only a “lapse in judgment” in phoning an election commissioner to “protect” her votes.

Arroyo has refused to resign, challenging her opponents to impeach her. That process is set to begin in Congress this week but there is profound frustration among opponents at what they regard as Arroyo’s stalling tactics as the country slides into deeper economic despair.

“Somebody has to take her out if she won’t go,” said Ike Seneres, a former ambassador who was an Arroyo advisor until a few weeks ago, when he bolted to the opposition. “The armed forces of the Philippines have to take her out. Do they not have a sense of smell? This government stinks, and they have not done anything.”

Seneres made his plea Thursday at the launch of an umbrella group of opposition forces under the banner of a civilian Caretaker Council, which aims to govern until fresh elections can be held if Arroyo is forced from office. Opposition politicians have not been able to rally around an alternative leader.

If a coup does come, no one will be able to claim surprise. Arroyo and her dwindling band of supporters are clearly aware of the risk, repeatedly demanding that Filipinos stick to constitutional methods in trying to remove her. “No To Junta, Yes to Democracy” reads a government banner strung across a major bridge that leads toward the president’s Malacanang Palace.

The top commanders of the police and armed forces have publicly pledged to remain neutral. The threat of a coup comes from junior officers in the armed forces who are widely regarded as idealistic, nationalistic and appalled by what they see as corruption extending into the upper reaches of the Philippine military itself. These officers have some backing from retired generals who have gone public with laments for the current state of the military.

“I did not join the armed forces of the Philippines to become rich, although I realize now that some of my colleagues have become wealthy beyond anyone’s wildest dreams,” retired Gen. Ramon Farolan, formerly head of the air force, wrote in the Philippine Daily Inquirer last week. “Today we are being urged by our superiors to remain neutral and stay out of politics. Didn’t someone say that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of crisis remain fence-sitters?”

The junior officers are further alienated from the top brass by revelations that the tapes of Arroyo’s alleged election fraud include segments implicating four generals in vote rigging. Only under the threat of mass resignations from junior officers did the armed forces announce last week that they would investigate the charges of military collusion in the scandal.

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A collective shiver greeted publication Friday of a fiery call for a coup, allegedly from soldiers belonging to the Young Officers Union, or YOU, a group behind the relentless attempts to overthrow Aquino. The manifesto was immediately dismissed as a fraud by the armed forces, largely on the basis that it was written in well-composed English believed to be beyond the grasp of Philippine soldiers.

Officially, YOU has been out of business since 1995, when it struck a formal deal with then-President Fidel Ramos to stop its attacks on the government. Many of its members have risen in the ranks or retired, and there is a widespread belief that the shadowy group no longer exists.

“I don’t think there ever was a second generation of YOU,” Robles said.

But whatever the unhappy junior officers call themselves these days, they have unsettled those in the establishment who still want a democratic resolution to the impasse.

“Because of the Marcos experience, many military officers acquired the code that they can judge a government, and the Estrada revolt reinforced the belief that they have a right to replace a government,” said Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, a onetime armed forces chief of staff who defended the Aquino government against seven coup attempts.

Biazon recently met with frustrated young officers, including colonels and one-star generals, and encouraged them to stand back and let the politicians sort out the troubles.

“That right to judge, to replace a government, does not belong to the man with the gun. It belongs to the people,” the former soldier said. “That’s why I have been talking to these officers. We cannot allow this interference in politics to happen again.

“But the soldiers see the difficulties being suffered by the people here, the economic injustice, the social injustice, the corruption. It should not be a political dilemma for the military about whether to act,” Biazon said. “But the reality is, it is.”

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Special correspondent Sol Vanzi contributed to this report.


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