August 23rd 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Saving the Internet from itself

EDITORIAL: Australia-US trade deal and the debt crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Marriage law changes: the fight is worth it

AGRICULTURE: Water rights and trading petition launched

ECONOMY: The housing boom: history repeats

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Dictators and dark continents / Get Blair

HISTORY: How political myths are made

Senate calls for EU-style 'Pacific Community'

FAMILY: Governments put gay marriage on the agenda

COMMENT: Feminist arithmetic

NEW ZEALAND: The story behind the destruction of ANZUS

PHILIPPINES: Filipino coup attempt destabilises Arroyo

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Filipino coup attempt destabilises Arroyo

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, August 23, 2003
Nothing much ever changes in Philippines politics, except maybe for the worse. In the murky world of the Philippines power elite, power is more and more, as Mao said, "growing from the barrel of a gun." The recent coup attempt in Manila is looking more and more like a long-term program of destabilisation orchestrated by forces opposed to President Gloria Arroyo.

When the armed forces co-operated in the "people power" overthrow of former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, it let the genie out of the bottle - and this particular genie is resisting recapture. Indeed, it was with the active support of the military that Arroyo overthrew the profligate and massively corrupt President Joseph Estrada.


The spin put on the "mutiny," as it was called, is that it was a protest by a group of young and idealistic officers to redress grievances particular to the military. These consisted of complaints about low and inconsistent pay, poor housing and, more bizarrely, the government had been detonating bombs to get more money out of Washington for the war on terrorism.

Another equally arresting allegation was that the senior military brass had been selling arms to the various rebel groups opposed to the Manila Government. The pay and adequacy of housing is open to dispute, though the Philippines army is relatively well paid, the bombing accusations seems to be not credible, and it is true that soldiers sell weapons to the enemy, but not in any organised fashion involving the top brass.

Two points need to be made. It seems probable that the "mutiny" was indeed a coup attempt, but failed though lack of support, and, due to quick action by Arroyo.

Second, little doubt seems to remain that the mutiny will now play a part in a larger plot to destabilise the Arroyo presidency in the year leading to the next presidential election in 2004.

So far, over 300 troops have been charged with abetting the mutiny, with more officers and men being sought.

The first to be arrested in connection with the coup was Ramon Cardenas, a member of Estrada's Cabinet, followed later by a recommendation for charges against another high profile politician, Senator Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, a former army colonel who led several coup attempts in the 1980s against Corazon Aquino.

In the strange world of Philippines politics, the jailed Honasan was released as part of a deal to stop further coup attempts, and is now a senator and ipso facto one of the most powerful men in the nation.

Even armed forces chief of staff General Narciso Abaya was giving no guarantees about further rebellions, saying that while most of the known conspirators had been arrested, he could not guarantee those still at large would not attempt another coup, adding,"There are no overt acts right now, but again we are still checking to determine whether the silence means something else."

What are the results of the drama in Manila?

Arroyo has many political enemies and some see the hand of the egregious master looter of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada, behind the plot, even though he is still under detention.

As for the Philippines people, the major effect will be a loss of jobs and further deterioration in the economy.

"Even now, the business sector is in a state of shock," said Trade Secretary Manuel Roxas, adding the Government's effort to create jobs "will become meaningless if we cannot hold our society together."

"Investors locating in the Philippines want to make sure that peace and order are in place. We should realise that these incidents have long term effects in our economy and society," Roxas said.

Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon said that the attempted coup could have long-term effects on tourism: "If we let this drag on, we will again become the laughing stock of the whole world."


Cardinal Jaime Sin, Archbishop of Manila and an influential figure in this staunchly Catholic nation over 80 million, also weighed in at a thanksgiving Mass after the end of the mutiny. Cardinal Sin called on the country's leadership to remain committed to political and economic reforms to stamp out poverty and graft.

"If we never learn, our thanksgiving today adds nothing. We might be nursing another mutiny again," the Cardinal said.

In all, it is likely the instability will intensify in the run up to the 2004 presidential elections and the instability will deter investment and cause financiers to demand a risk premium in any transactions in the Philippines.

For the poor, long suffering people of the Philippines, there is not a great deal of light at the end of the tunnel, whatever happens.

  • Jeff Babb is an editor at Taiwan's China Post

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