Only by coincidence are reports of a brewing coup plot circulating on the eve of the 29th anniversary of the EDSA 1 People Power uprising. The usual suspects behind coup attempts may find it convenient to link their conspiracy to the overthrow of the Marcos regime in 1986, but they would be unduly stretching the meaning of their clandestine enterprise if they did so.
A coup is the exact opposite of what happened in 1986. A coup d’etat (literally, a sudden move against the state) is a clandestine, elite undertaking usually instigated or supported by military adventurists acting in behalf of their own or other limited interests. In more recent times, it has often been justified in the name of regime change and has been driven by foreign, mainly US, encouragement. It is a retrogressive, anti-democratic act contrary to humanity’s aspirations for freedom.
Responding to a military mutiny against the Marcos regime, EDSA 1 was a direct people’s initiative, and, because it involved millions of ordinary citizens, was a democratic undertaking. But equally important, EDSA 1 did not merely overthrow a hated regime. In the aftermath, the people’s aspirations for an alternative State and state of affairs—respect for human rights, the making of a society of equals, and the achievement of real independence—were enshrined in the Constitution of 1987, some of the drafters of which, having been involved in the anti-martial law resistance, sought to institutionalize in the country’s Charter the protection of those rights.
Prior to the 1980s the Philippines had had only limited experience with coup plots, the only known pre-martial law case having been reported during the term of office of President Carlo P. Garcia (1957- 1961), when such a plot was supposedly being hatched with US support within the Department of National Defense and among the country’s senior generals to frustrate and reverse Garcia’s “Filipino First” policy. Marcos’ 1972 declaration of martial law, however, was itself a coup d’etat, albeit against the very political system that had twice elected him President.
Almost immediately after EDSA 1, Marcos-era politicians and technocrats gave the country its first post-martial law taste of a coup attempt. On July 6, 1986, some 500 soldiers and several thousand Marcos loyalists occupied the Manila Hotel. Former senator Arturo Tolentino, who had run with Marcos for vice president in the tainted elections of January 1986, alleged that Marcos had authorized him in a letter from his Hawaiian exile to temporarily take over the government.
Tolentino forthwith took his oath as the country’s “acting President,” and named several people to his “cabinet.” Expectations that the occupation of Manila Hotel would lead to a military mutiny in support of the restoration of the Marcos regime did not materialize, however, and the occupiers, including Tolentino himself, soon fled the premises.
Although the “occupation” has been described as a farce—and for its mindlessness indeed defied any rational explanation—it was nevertheless a precedent for a succession of coup attempts from 1986 to 1989, one of the most destructive of which was that of 1989, during which more than 50 people were killed.
All of these attempts had for common aim the restoration of authoritarian rule, whether by inviting Marcos back to the Philippines or by replacing the Aquino administration with one ruled by a Marcos surrogate. Driven in all instances by the military loyalists of Marcos and his senior bureaucrats, these attempts were contrary to the spirit and intent of EDSA 1; they were intended to reverse the restoration of the institutions of liberal democracy. But although none succeeded in seizing power, they did compel the Corazon Aquino administration to take a harder stance against the communist-led revolutionary movement and to dismiss supposedly left-leaning officials. The coup plotters had claimed that Mrs. Aquino was “soft” on communism, and as proof of this alleged bias, had appointed “leftists” to such important posts as Executive Secretary and Secretary of Labor.
Every coup attempt must be seen as an ultra-right wing attempt to restore authoritarianism. The alleged conspirators that both the Department of National Defense as well as some journalists say are involved in planning a coup against the Benigno Aquino III administration include some of the most backward elements of Philippine politics and society, among whom are the unrepentant ideologues of home-grown fascism. These were the architects of the brutal campaign of annihilation and terrorism during the Arroyo regime against unarmed dissenters, social and political activists, and human rights defenders in furtherance of an anti-insurgency program that made no distinction between non-combatants and combatants.
As flawed and as cluelessly conservative, and as compliant to imperial interests as the Aquino III government is, it is imperative for mass and civil society organizations to oppose any attempt at a coup with the pronounced intention of “saving” the Republic. (Marcos himself had declared that very same intent as the reason for his declaration of martial law, and so had the leaders of the coup attempts in the late 1980s.)
Mr. Aquino may not be the sterling model of human rights protection, wisdom and governing skills he fancies himself to be, his own right wing predilections being evident in his unquestioning reliance on the wisdom of his closest military advisers. But he at least has rejected without conditions any adoption of open authoritarian rule.
During the first Aquino administration, which was itself far from the ideal envisioned by the anti-martial law resistance, every coup attempt was correctly resisted by the people’s and civil society organizations as well as by the progressive elements of the Catholic and other churches. So must such attempts be resisted today as conspiracies to repudiate the Filipino struggle for freedom and the legacies of EDSA (as brittle as these may be), and the plot and plotters exposed.
But just as during the first Aquino administration, their opposition to coup attempts did not prevent the people’s organizations from being critical of it, opposition to any coup attempt today does not preclude Mr. Aquino’s being compelled or convinced to resign his post via an authentic coming together, in the tradition of EDSA 1, of the sovereign Filipino people in enough numbers, should that be what their collective wisdom dictates. Rather than a handful of individuals with an authoritarian agenda, only the people in their millions can legitimately decide whether Mr. Aquino should complete his last year in office or terminate it before 2016.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Gov.ph