Aquino's Test

PHILIPPINE President Corazon Aquino survived the sixth coup attempt against her government, but to say she still has problems is an understatement. The military, civil authority, Philippine economic status (which had been improving), and Mrs. Aquino's own public standing - all have been damaged by the rebellion. Aquino was right in not stepping down from office, as her ambitious vice-president, Salvador Laurel, suggested they both do. Nor, in the aftermath of the coup, are new elections called for, as the rebels and some critics are hoping. Both Aquino and the Parliament were elected properly. They should serve out their terms.

What Aquino does needs to do now, and it will be a major test for her, is assert some real authority over the military. She did not do this after the last coup attempt. The rebel soldiers and their officers were simply let off. This time, difficult though it may be, toughness is needed. The perpetrators of the coup - soldiers, leaders - must be brought to justice, and if convicted, duly imprisoned. So, too, should be the coup's financial backers, who reportedly include Eduardo Cojuanjco, a Marcos crony and the richest man in the Philippines. The lax penal system, that through complicity allowed former coup leader Gregorio Honasan to escape and lead again, must change.

In the current climate of the Philippines, such actions may seem drastic. But they are part of establishing the rule of law Aquino wants and the Philippines needs. A tough stance would also send the message to the US and the East Asian nations that the Philippines is doing something to make investment and commerce safe. There is still plenty of good will overseas for Mrs. Aquino.

The rebel leaders and junior officers in the Philippine military assert that corruption in Manila has gone too far and promised reforms have come up too short. Their criticisms are correct, but their solutions are not. Military rule is not the answer. Even a struggling democracy is preferable to a military dictatorship.

Aquino is taking a beating in the Philippine press for resorting to the US military during the coup. It raises the sensitive issue of the US bases and Philippine autonomy. Aquino has to be firm in public about getting better terms from the US - even if privately she is glad to have US aid.

The real test, however, will be the military. If Aquino cannot exercise civil authority and punish and restrict the Army, that will unfortunately suggest that in the final analysis it is the Army that runs things in the Philippines.

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