Questions over Marcos and military changes spark coup rumors

Like many other prominent Filipinos, Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Roman Catholic primate of the Philippines, is worried about a coup. The worry is apparent in his public speeches. He is also said to have been in contact with generals who oppose a coup to gauge their reaction to such a possibility.

Coup rumors stem from continuing fears about President Ferdinand Marcos's health. But nervousness has been intensified by potential changes at the top of the military hierarchy.

Talk of a coup has been part of Manila life since last October, when Gen. Fabian Ver took leave of absence from his post of armed forces chief of staff. He is charged with conspiracy to murder former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. Most rumors single out General Ver as the likely coup leader; some rumors center around his temporary replacement, Gen. Fidel Ramos.

Sources close to the cardinal say that he is responding to something more tangible than rumor. Several times this year, military officers -- unidentified, but probably members of General Ramos's staff -- have visited an aide to the cardinal. The officers have spoken of unusual troop movements around Manila -- movements they can only explain in terms of preparations for a coup, sources say.

At the moment, with defense lawyers in the Aquino trial expressing optimism that their clients will be acquitted early, Ver would seem to have little need to organize a coup.

But well-placed security specialists interviewed recently confirm that unusual troops movements have been taking place around the capital for a number of months. The sources, who did not want to be identified by name or position, say that Ver and his supporters are in a position to seal off Manila -- for whatever reason -- if they so desire.

Acting chief of staff Ramos is unable to break up this troop concentration because real military clout in the capital lies with Army commander Josephus Ramas, sources say. General Ramas is the rising star in the Ver camp.

``When the President was sick last November, there were at least 14 battalions in the city,'' said one of the sources. (A full-strength battalion has about 600 men). ``General Ramos ordered some of these battalions redeployed out of the capital, but now there are 16 battalions here.''

The battalions in Manila are among some of the armed forces' best-equipped units, sources say. They include:

The Metro Manila Brigade, part of the Army's second division. The division is commanded by Gen. Roland Pattugalan, a prot'eg'e of General Ver.

Three Air Force combat battalions. The Air Force commander, Gen. Vicente Piccio, is thought to be a strong supporter of Ver, and has recently received an indefinite extension of service from President Marcos.

A newly created marine battalion, led by the former commander of the first security battalion of the Presidential Security Command (PSC), an elite unit effectively controlled by Ver's three sons.

The forces in the capital also possess an impressive amount of armor, the sources say. They estimate that 70 of the approximately 100 armored vehicles in Manila are controlled by Army commander Ramas. Some of these are assigned to his Manila Security Command.

Most of these units have been trained in riot control, the sources add, and their movements appear to be coordinated by the Presidential Security Command.

Other units control the main entry points into the capital. A PSC battalion, for example, is stationed in the northern suburb Caloocan and an armored unit is located near the University of Life, one of the First Lady Imelda Marcos's showpiece projects in the east of the city.

The deployments could be part of a careful contingency plan designed to handle another wave of public unrest -- sparked, for example, by the possible acquittal of Ver and his codefendants. The security specialists quoted above, however, feel that the troops are there for another reason -- to support a grab for power should Marcos suddenly die in office or be permanently incapacitated.

``If this happens, Ver will have first-strike capability,'' said one of the sources. The state of the President's health is known only to a very select few -- excluding most, if not all, of the Cabinet. One person who will know, most observers agree, is Mrs. Marcos. Another is General Ver.

The general is one of the few people thought to have virtually automatic access to the President. And his eldest son, Lt. Col. Rexor Ver, heads the 200-man Presidential Security Unit, which provides close security to the President and his family. Colonel Ver was confirmed in this position late last year -- probably after his father took leave of absence from his chief of staff position.

Any military move will have to be ``sweeping, and over in 24 hours,'' one of the security specialists says. After that the military will have to hand over power to a civilian counterpart, he says. One of the most likely candidates for this role, many observers suggest, is Mrs. Marcos.

The First Lady reportedly has good contacts with the Ver group of generals -- for example, both General Ramas and Mrs. Marcos come from the central Philippines. And she is widely thought to be preparing to present herself as a successor to her husband.

Military men opposed to Ver say they are powerless to counter any of the general's plans. They say they are placing their hopes in the faintly discernible signs of tension between highly ambitious pro-Ver generals: Ramas, for example, reportedly does not see eye to eye with General Pattugalan. Anti-Ver officers also hope that the Marcos-Ver military hierarchy will suffer the same fate predicted for the Marcos political machine -- fragmentation once the President leaves the scene.

Some observers doubt anti-Ver officers are being as passive as they make out.

``Ver may have the senior commanders but he doesn't necessarily have the junior ones or the men, even in Manila,'' says one retired senior officer who maintains good contacts in the military. ``And faced with a situation like this, Ramos must have a counterplan -- first to protect himself against any move, then hit back at the organizers. If he hasn't, then he's not the professional officer I thought he was.''

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