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Aquino and the Price of Weakness

By W. Scott ThompsonW.Scott Thompson, the author of a book on Philippine politics, has been a Fulbright research professor in Manila this fall. He is on leave from the Tufts University faculty. / December 18, 1989



NEWSCASTERS calling from the United States during the recent coup attempt against Corazon Aquino repeatedly asked, Why was this gallant Philippine leader, who had ousted the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos, subjected to so many attacks; why didn't the country give her a break? The answer is an unkind one. But after the Philippines has been subjected to six coup attempts, two of them bloody, since Mrs. Aquino took power, the basic point must be faced. President Aquino, through her indecision, lack of clear signals, tolerance of corruption, and incompetence, all but gave a green light to discontented military officers and troops.

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Americans tend to confuse Aquino's courage in standing up to Marcos with the ability to take charge of a government, with coherent and competent leadership. Leadership means priorities, toughness, and an ability to galvanize bureaucracies with well-thought-out programs. A Cabinet member told me that at one point she stopped going to Cabinet meetings because ``all one did was go around the room and listen to everyone's assistant's report, and watch Cory nod to each as if students were reporting on school papers. There was no agenda, no purpose.''

One American specialist called it the worst government the country had ever had. When I asked if it could be as bad as a notably corrupt government in the '50s, he replied that then, at least, ``somebody was minding the store.''

The Philippines has been a nation in crisis ever since the murder of Mrs. Aquino's husband in August 1983. But whereas the problems at the end of the Marcos regime were ones of right and wrong, the problems of the past four years have been the compounding of little problems, technical problems, that through inadvertence have become big problems. No one looked at the growing need for electrical power on Luzon, the main island. Out of aversion to Marcos, his great nuclear reactor in Bataan was abandoned, though it could supply more than the entire energy deficit. This fall people have been subjected to longer and longer brownouts, up to six hours a day. The consequences for industry and on foreign investment are enormous. There is garbage in Manila's streets.

Taxi drivers will say that ``Tita'' (Auntie), as Mrs. Aquino is called, is as corrupt as Marcos. They are referring to her toleration of alleged corruption by her family, especially by her beloved younger brother, super-rich congressman Jos'e (Peping) Cojuangco. When Peping was implicated in a gun-running scheme, ``Tita'' announced an inquiry - and cleared her brother in advance. The perception is that Cabinet members, senators, everyone with official access is trying to get his hands in the cookie jar.

The problem in the military is that the armed forces were given a share of governance under martial law, and corruption and political ambition quickly permeated the ranks. It was in this atmosphere that RAM - Reform the Armed Forces Movement - emerged a year prior to the 1986 revolution. Its goal was to professionalize the corps and give the government an example of stern and efficient leadership, a goal that became one of taking over the government itself. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan, a man of extraordinary personal charisma, was one of its leaders from the start.

The government knew that RAM had too much support for it to lock Gringo up, after his dramatic escape from a prison ship last year where he had been confined following his 1987 coup attempt. That he could come and go in the capital - he was often in my apartment house where we talked - and that the government avoided arresting him indicated how much was wrong.

Filipino journalists have written of the crisis in leadership, but Mrs. Aquino's only response has been to say that the people don't want a dictator, and they can't have it both ways. Yet the problem has been so obvious that talk of a coup has been in the air - and in the press - for the three months that this observer has been in Manila. It still won't go away.

A week before the coup, Gringo said in interview that he would move as soon as he had heard the public's ``clear signal.'' When Mrs. Aquino raised the price of oil products by a fourth, with immediate effects on transport costs for the poor, he knew the time was ripe.

At no point did Mrs. Aquino stand up to the military reformers. The price to Philippine democracy was nearly fatal and may yet be. It will be years before this country can return to normal, and one fears that that day will come only with the new and stronger leadership that this battered country craves.