Mutiny raises questions of Philippine Army corruption

A rebellion of junior Army officers ended peacefully in Manila Sunday.

The mutiny of a group of junior Philippine Army officers over the weekend is a setback for President Gloria Arroyo, a key US regional ally in the war on terror. But their action so far is not being seen as a serious challenge to her power, as senior officers remain loyal to the government.

Renegade officers, who ended their nearly day-long siege of an upscale shopping center in the capital late Sunday, were protesting what they charged was corruption in the Army and government.

The disgruntled troops began dismantling what appeared to be explosive devices they had placed around the residential and office complex late Sunday.

They had denied they were staging a coup and eventually dropped their demands for Arroyo to quit. Arroyo, who is tipped to run for reelection in 2004 despite having earlier ruled out a second term, said the 296 mutineers, including 70 junior officers, would face court martial.

Despite the quick resolution of the mutiny, analysts say the rebel soldiers are raising questions over US-assisted security operations in the country's troubled southern region.

The mutineers accuse Army chiefs and their political bosses of selling weapons to separatist gunmen in order to prolong the conflict there and shore up the Army's political muscle.

The rebellion comes as the Bush administration prepares to send more troops to help counterterrorism operations in the south, where a mostly Muslim population has bridled for centuries under Manila's rule.

Early Sunday morning, the rebel officers marched into the downtown Glorietta complex and placed explosives outside. Scores of people were trapped inside, including the Australian ambassador and other foreigners, but were later released.

The events in Manila follow weeks of speculation over a possible coup by disgruntled officers. On Saturday, Arroyo issued warrants for scores of soldiers who were accused of disloyalty. Just after midnight, the rebels stormed into the building, in the heart of Manila's Makati financial district, without firing a shot.

Analysts say the officers may have sought to persuade other troops to join them. "I think the purpose was to create a standoff that encouraged other disgruntled members of the armed forces to withdraw support from the government," says Armando Doranila, a political analyst.

After many years of martial law under President Ferdinand Marcos, the Army turned against him in a 1986 uprising. But instability continued under civilian rule: Seven failed coups were launched between 1986 and 1989.

This insurrection, which both sides insist is not a coup, is a troubling echo of that period.

The government accuses the rebels of being tools of political opponents who want to undermine Arroyo. A senior government adviser said Sunday that ousted former President Joseph Estrada, who is being held on corruption charges, is linked to the junior officers who led the insurrection. He said a police raid on a house allegedly owned by Mr. Estrada had uncovered paraphernalia used by the rebels.

"They're trying to show their moral authority whereas, in fact, they're there on the instigation of the former president... They have legitimate concerns, but are using them as a cover," says National Security Adviser Roilo Golez.

Estrada has in the past been accused of fomenting protests against Arroyo, who replaced him in 2001, with backing from the Army and through public demonstrations.

Analysts say that Arroyo's opponents may have stoked the current mutiny but question whether that is sufficient to explain their rash actions, pointing instead to anger among young, more idealistic officers about army complicity in southern unrest.

"This is worrying and dangerous because it reflects an element of unrest among younger members of the officer corps ... though (Arroyo) clearly has the support of mainstream armed forces," says Mr. Doranila.

Among the rebels' grievances are familiar complaints about pay, privileges, and promotions.

The powder keg of Mindanao, where the government is battling decades-old guerrilla revolts and emerging terror groups, is key to their antigovernment stance.

Last year, the military sought US help to defeat the Abu Sayyaf kidnap gang, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and other fringe armed groups that operate in the lawless southern island.

Analysts say the mutineers didn't appear to be at odds with US involvement in training and supplying Philippines armed forces, a program that is due to be expanded this year.

Security forces in the Philippines are already under a cloud after a convicted Indonesian bombmaker escaped from prison in Manila earlier this month, along with two members of Abu Sayyaf.

The Indonesian terrorist, Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, who trained with the MILF, was convicted last year of bombing a Manila train station in 2000.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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