Coup highlights corruption challenge

Philippines President Gloria Arroyo said Monday that state of emergency would be lifted sooner than expected.

Eight days after crushing a bumbling coup, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo projected confidence that the threat to her government was over.

The young officers who led the bizarre seizure of a financial-district shopping mall, apartment, and hotel complex are in jail awaiting court-martial, and government officials say they are moving to file charges against civilian politicians they allege encouraged and financed the plotters. An aid to former President Joseph Estrada, who the government alleges backed the coup, is also in custody.

"We will lift the state of [emergency] earlier than expected as we mop up the fringes of the conspiracy," Mrs. Arroyo said in a speech Monday. Political analysts in the Philippines say the failed coup may even have ironic benefits, giving Arroyo the chance to pursue a long-stalled campaign to clean up corruption and abuse of power.

But the incident, involving some 300 soldiers and officers, serves as a reminder that civilian control of the military is weak in the Philippines. The resulting corruption in the ranks is hampering Manila's efforts - backed by Washington with money and military advisers - to clamp down on terrorism and separatist grievances.

More than 17 years after the end of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, the Philippines' military continues to play the role of kingmaker in national politics.

That hasn't always been bad. The military backed the 1986 "people power" revolt that ended Mr. Marcos' reign and lent quieter support to the protesters that swept Arroyo to power in 2001 at the expense of the crony-bedeviled administration of Mr. Estrada. But that has created a tradition that is undermining democracy, and with it the Philippines' ability to be a reliable American ally in the war on terror.

"There were only a small number of soldiers involved in the mutiny, but this is not some lunatic fringe, it's a sentiment shared by many,'' says Marites Vitug, a Philippines analyst and editor of Newsbreak magazine. "Their attitude is, if it was right for Arroyo or Aquino, why is it wrong now?"

One answer, Vitug says, is that the military's continued vision of itself as a fiefdom outside normal national law helps foster corruption and a lack of accountability that has enabled some of the country's long-running conflicts to fester, including the Muslim rebellions centered on the southern island of Mindanao, that have fed the terrorism problem.

The Philippines has been a staunch American ally in Southeast Asia since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Philippines also hosted a US deployment last year that sought to root out the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist organization with ties to Al Qaeda. At least four of the plotters, according to Philippines newspapers, trained with US special forces during the deployment.

In exchange, Arroyo was rewarded with a rare state visit to Washington earlier this year, during which President George Bush pledged $356 million in aid and training to help the Philippines military upgrade everything from its helicopters to its eavesdropping technology.

But there are signs, at least in some cases, that the Philippines' problems in dealing with terrorism are far more than technical, and could make the American investment a waste of money.

Last month, Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist convicted for deadly bombings in 2000, walked out of his cell in the middle of national police quarters with two other militants. Filipino politicians say they suspect he bribed his way out.

In 2001, the main body of the Abu Sayyaf Group was surrounded in a hospital on Basilan island by Philippine soldiers, but managed to slip through the cordon with 19 hostages and escape without a fight. Hostages later alleged the military had been paid off to allow the escape, and a senate investigation recommended three officers be court-martialed.

Regional intelligence officials say corruption in the south has made Mindanao a haven for Al Qaeda-linked terrorists, where explosives and guns are freely available and borders porous.

"There's a lot of corruption in the Philippines Army, and the big source of corruption opportunities is the fighting in Mindanao,'' says a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist movement now in peace talks with Manila. "That's been a problem for our peace negotiations - they blame us, but frequently they are the problem."

Indeed, the coup plotters themselves claim they were motivated by corruption in the rest of the military. They alleged that officers sell weapons to Muslim rebels in Mindanao and were behind a series of bomb attacks in the city of Davao this year designed, they say, to trick the US into giving more money to the military. Vitug calls their claims "preposterous."

"These claims about corruption were their fall-back position,'' says Jose Almonte, a retired general who backed the 1986 people power revolt and later served as national security adviser to Fidel Ramos, Philippines president from 1992 to 1998. "Their real objective was pushing [Arroyo] from power. However, the general problem of corruption is real."

Government officials allege that Senator Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, a former colonel and Estrada ally, was the principal architect of the coup. Both Mr. Honasan and Estrada have denied involvement.

Honasan is one of the infamous adventurers of Philippines politics, and participated in several coups against the Aquino government in the 1980s before finally being discharged in disgrace. Honasan's continued prominence is a stark illustration of one of the Philippines' biggest problems when it comes to bringing its military and corruption under control: Rarely does anyone go to jail. Honasan was officially pardoned by the government in the early 1990s as part of a reconciliation drive, and was elected to the Senate in 1995.

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