Manila-Watchers Reassess Aquino Strength After Coup

AS the latest coup attempt against Philippine President Corazon Aquino nears an apparent end, US foreign policy experts are beginning to assess its longer term effects on the Philippines. They foresee: Important but probably not permanent damage to desperately needed economic development in the Philippines.

Renewed international concern about Philippine political stability, and about the politicization of the military.

A weakening of President Aquino, who nonetheless will remain in office but may lack the political strength to prevent future coup attempts by punishing now the young military officers who keep staging them.

After a cease-fire yesterday, rebel officers left the buildings they seized in Manila's financial district and returned to their military barracks. The fighting thus came to an end in Manila; the rebels, however, did not immediately give up their positions in Cebu, to the south.

``Without any doubt the coup ... is a disaster for economic development'' in the Philippines, says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ``And for the type of surge which the Philippines need in terms of new jobs and new wealth.''

Since Mrs. Aquino assumed the presidency in February 1986 the Philippine economy has grown by 4 to 5 percent a year.

``That is a reasonable achievement,'' said Senator Lugar in a telephone interview, ``but everybody else in the Far East is moving along at a much faster clip.''

Lugar forecasts that neither US nor Asian investors in the Philippine economy will remove their investments, despite initial concern. This decision may depend on how investors perceive both the renewed military effort to become involved in politics, and the effects on Philippine political stability.

``The dilemma of the coup is that it brings back the whole politicization of the armed forces that occurred during the last years of Marcos,'' says Lugar.

The senator was instrumental in the peaceful transition from the Marcos to Aquino administrations in February 1986, when as the head of a US observer committee he reported that Aquino had won the presidential election and that Marcos was trying to steal the result. The subsequent groundswell of international and Philippine opposition forced Marcos to leave the Philippines.

``There was a lot of military activity against Marcos in the last part of his regime,'' says Frederick Greene, a political science professor at Williams College who specializes in the Philippines. ``And then these guys feel that they have a right to political activity,'' and continued against Aquino.

The current coup is believed to be their sixth attempt against her. Rebels complain that that she has not vigorously prosecuted the war against communist insurgents, that corruption and inefficiency remain in the military, and that the armed forces are not paid or housed well enough.

This latest coup attempt clearly has weakened Aquino politically. ``The need to call on Americans to help her is going to hurt her,'' says Carl Lande, a specialist in the Philippines who is a political science professor of the University of Kansas, and currently a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution. The question is how much she has been hurt.

Her final decision on how to treat the rebellious officers will provide one answer. ``Will President Aquino be in a position to lock up the perpetrators?'' Lugar asks. Or will she lack the political strength and have to let them remain free to try again.

Analysts also are waiting to see how firmly she deals with her vice president, Salvador Laurel, who supported the rebels. ``Clearly he's ambitious to be president,'' Professor Lande says.

One indication of Aquino's remaining power is how many Filipinos heed her televised plea for a public show of support Friday: ``Our people must join us in dealing the enemy the final blow'' through a mass demonstration, she said.

``The president's real power still lies with the fact,'' Lugar says, ``that when push comes to shove the vast majority of the Filipino people believe that she's the best that they have'' to run the government.

But their confidence has waned during Aquino's nearly four years as president of the Philippines. Among the middle class the decline was inevitable, Lande says: ``There were simply too high expectations among the middle class'' as to what she would be able to do, given the country's political and economic problems when she assumed office.

``She's still got her halo but it's tarnished,'' Professor Greene says.

Something she clearly hasn't gotten in her nearly four-year presidency is a grip on the military, he adds. Although most of the top-level officers have remained loyal, numerous middle-level officers keep plotting against the government.

In the current coup the rebellious officers thought they would get mass support but they did not, Lande says.

As darkness fell in the Philippines yesterday, government and rebel representatives were negotiating on a surrender of all rebellious troops. Whether leading rebels are jailed is not certain.

But experts have been saying that in the Philippines, unlike many other nations, leaders of an unsuccessful rebellion would not be put to death.

``Philippine society is a very forgiving one,'' says Lande. ``That's the Philippine way.''

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