MANILA — MANY Filipinos are applauding the arrest Tuesday by the government of President Corazon Aquino of opposition Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile on charges of rebellion, murder, and harboring a wanted criminal. ``It's about time,'' was the common reaction of Filipinos who had earlier expressed dismay at the slow progress made by government in investigating and arresting suspected plotters of the coup attempt that left 113 dead and 600 wounded, and almost toppled Mrs. Aquino last December.
The coup, which was mounted by cashiered Col. Gregorio Honasan, is widely believed to have been supported by the colonel's patron, Senator Enrile, among others. It was the sixth coup attempt against the government since Aquino came to power in February, 1986.
While the arrest of Enrile apparently has had a cathartic effect on a populace grown impatient with Aquino's inability to bring coup plotters to justice, doubts remain whether her government can make the charges stick.
The government charges that on the first evening of the coup, Enrile threw a party in his suburban home allegedly attended by about 100 rebel soldiers, including Colonel Honasan. The following day, Enrile held a press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel attended by rebel officers.
After Enrile left, the rebels took over the hotel and several other buildings in the area where they held out for three days. Enrile denies the charges as ``fabrications'' and ``inventions.''
Under Philippine law, rebellion is a bailable offense punishable with life imprisonment. But coupled with murder, it is nonbailable.
Enrile was minister of national defense for deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos throughout 14 years of martial law, and his justice secretary before that.
Despite the uncertainty about the strength of government's case against its former defense secretary, many Filipinos praised Aquino for finally taking action to defend her government.
Businesswoman Isabel Caro Wilson remarked that the ``neutralization'' of Enrile, who is widely perceived to be coddling Honasan and destabilizing the government, could only have a positive effect on the business climate. Ms. Wilson's analysis was not reflected in the country's stock exchanges on Feb. 28, however, where investors, fearing armed reprisals from Enrile's followers, assumed a wait-and-see attitude.
Professional pollster Mahar Mangahas predicted that Enrile's arrest would be met with ``high approval'' by the public. In a survey of Manilans conducted after the coup, 57 percent of those polled said they disapproved of Enrile.
Other personalities linked by the public with the attempted takeover such as Vice President Salvador Laurel and Honasan received similar ratings.
The pollster cautioned, however, that government must go ``all the way'' with Enrile. ``He has to be jailed to convince people that government is serious. People are watching to see if they can hold him.''
A Filipino Chinese trader who declined to be identified said he fears that the arrest of Enrile may be ``too costly for government, politically.'' Coming as it does after Enrile's apology to the Filipino people for installing Aquino as president, he said, ``It can be seen as vindictiveness on the part of the president.''
A palace insider said there was no hesitation on the decision to execute the arrest. Presented with the evidence against Enrile on Tuesday, President Aquino said, ``Let's do it.''
When some military advisers hedged on what they saw as a risky move, she reportedly shrugged and said, ``No guts, no glory.''