Manila: President Aquino digs in ... while communist rebels wait

LAST month's attempted military coup came dangerously close to success. About 1,000 rebels, led by Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan, converged on this city before dawn on Friday, Aug. 28. Their initial attack on the presidential palace was repulsed, and the rebels dispersed to other points throughout the metropolitan area, occupying, among other key sites, the government television station and Camp Aguinaldo, armed forces headquarters. Throughout the morning, the situation was tense but relatively calm. Pro-government military and police forces quickly surrounded rebel strongholds.

Ironically, Colonel Honasan was one of the heroes of the revolution that brought President Corazon Aquino to power in February 1986. Originally, he had planned to lead a suicide assault against Malacanang Palace, then the home of Ferdinand Marcos, Mrs. Aquino's predecessor. He hoped that his death and those of his men would spark a widespread revolt against Mr. Marcos. Although the plan was not carried out, the charismatic ``Gringo'' won huge public acclaim.

Undoubtedly, Honasan, who possesses enormous self-confidence and a messianic sense of destiny, thought along a similar vein last month. This time, however, the results were different. The vast majority of the armed forces remained loyal to the government. Moreover, there was no sign of civilian support for the insurgents.

In 1986, both factors - significant military defections and huge pro-Aquino demonstrations - were critical to Mrs. Aquino's success. Neither was present in August, and, given their absence, crushing the revolt was simply a matter of time.

Just before noon on Aug. 28, I was returning from Quezon City, north of Manila. About 2 kilometers from Camp Aguinaldo I saw a column of armed personnel carriers moving toward Channel 4, the government television station. The station is in a walled compound, and earlier that morning it had been seized by a small rebel force.

I followed the convoy and when it reached the rear staging area, a large crowd of civilians started to cheer. It was clear the impasse would soon be broken. After parking the car, I ran after the column and watched the last vehicle enter the unguarded rear gate. At that time, I was perhaps 15 meters (50 feet) from the entrance and, as the last armored carrier disappeared into the compound, there was a loud explosion, followed by bursts of automatic-weapons fire.

I dived to the ground but kept my head up to assess the situation, which included my own safety. Initially, I was content to stay prone but soon changed my mind. Across the street, a squad of attacking soldiers had assumed their positions, and their fire would soon be coming in my direction.

I crossed the street and sought cover behind a car parked in front of the Joint US Military Assistance Group building. I was about 20 meters from the wall and parallel with the squad's line of fire. Ten meters away, a two-man bazooka team was firing rounds at unseen foes behind the thick concrete wall.

At that point, a large part of Friday's most important question had been answered: Government forces were attacking their rebel comrades, albeit from a distance. Would they now move forward?

The squad did not do so immediately, but eventually the soldiers did, alone and in pairs. At that point, and although hard fighting remained, particularly at Camp Aguinaldo, the rebellion had failed. It was about 1:30 p.m. when I left the area.

Ironically, the aborted coup has, at least for the moment, strengthened the Aquino government. On Wednesday, two days before the attack, the nation had been shut down by a highly effective leftist-led national strike protesting a sharp government increase in oil and gasoline prices. Previously, Aquino had strongly defended the move, but in a politically damaging reversal, she sharply reduced the increase.

Strike leaders were not placated and promised further action. More ominously, Aquino had suffered a sharp erosion of her power base. Many of those now confronting the government had helped bring her to office.

Moreover, among Filipinos, there was a feeling - uneasy and unattractive - that Aquino did not have sufficient mettle for the presidency. No one doubted her sincerity and honesty, virtues that in normal times would have seen her through her tenure. But for the Philippines - facing economic ruin, a restive military, and Muslim and Marxist insurgencies - these times are abnormal and virtue will not suffice.

People had started to believe she was not sufficiently strong, and pointed to her major theme of national reconciliation, which had been abused by disparate and irreconcilable factions. Her offer of amnesty had been ignored by the communists, who continued to attack. In addition, her failure to discipline soldiers involved in earlier coup plots encouraged this latest, far bloodier effort.

Part of Aquino's problem is her political inexperience, compounded by several bad appointments to advisory and Cabinet posts. The most egregious of these choices is Joker Arroyo, the executive secretary, who has somehow managed to unite both the military and the left in antipathy toward him and, by association, the President as well.

Her inner circle is widely perceived as arrogant and incompetent and, from the critical perspective of the armed forces, Mr. Arroyo, in particular, is seen as anti-military. Such perceptions, to a degree, are accurate.

During the Marcos regime, Arroyo, a human rights lawyer, aggressively protested a wide variety of military abuses. In those days he was perfectly suited for an outsider's role.

But as part of the government, confrontation and courage - ideal for the streets - must give way to cohesion, compromise, and efficiency, traits necessary to the function of a broad, anticommunist front. Under optimum conditions, this coalition would be unwieldy at best.

Aquino should accept the resignations of many of the more dubious members of her inner circle. Arroyo and others are, for the most part, friends and allies of long standing, and her personal preference is to stay with those who ``brought her to the ball.'' For the good of the country, that inclination must not prevail.

Of equal import, better lines of communication must be established between the executive and the military. What made Honasan's revolt singularly dangerous was that many of his complaints - such as scandalously low pay, insufficient supplies, and inferior equipment - are shared by even soldiers loyal to Aquino.

The effect of these conditions was evident even during the fighting in and around Manila. In one government assault, a helicopter gunship routinely misfired, striking homes. The excuse was both sad and understandable: insufficient funds for practice rounds.

Although there are other components to the restoration of stability, such as comprehensive land reform, the immediate focus must be upon the state of the armed forces.

Civilian and military authorities must make their country's renewed, but highly vulnerable, democracy work for this basic reason: In the countryside, communist guerrillas await, unaffected by recent events in Manila.

Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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