Occurring only two days short of the 34th anniversary of the 1972 declaration of martial law, the military coup in Thailand immediately drew denials from Arroyo officials that it could also happen in the Philippines. Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita– himself a general during the Marcos dictatorship– and Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Hermogenes Esperon led the chorus that claimed that the Philippine military was behind Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and could not possibly rebel against her.
A faction of the military is indeed behind Mrs. Arroyo. But whether the military is solidly behind her is as relevant a question today as in 2004, 2005 and early this year. One recent indication was the speed with which the defense and military establishments assured the officer corps that Navy Chief Vice Admiral Mateo Mayuga was not about to be replaced by Vice Admiral Tirso Danga.
This and previous events indicate that Mrs. Arroyo’s military support remains fragile. While she has most of the generals of the armed services and the police behind her, the regime itself knows that junior officers are either outrightly hostile to her rule or skeptical at least.
The hostility is driven by outrage over senior officers’ partisanship in 2004, the skepticism by doubts over her legitimacy. During the Aquino presidency, senior Armed Forces officers as well as then Secretary of Defense Fidel Ramos frequently cited Mrs. Corazon Aquino’s Constitutional legitimacy as the basis for their opposing the coup attempts against her government. Unremarked but significant last week was that no Arroyo official reacting to the Thailand coup mentioned loyalty to the 1987 Constitution as the basis for military support for Mrs. Arroyo.
It was hardly surprising. Not only is the Arroyo regime engaged in a systematic campaign to denigrate that Constitution. It is also preparing to impose on the nation a new charter of its own making. Arroyo officials could not mention military loyalty to the Constitution as an obstacle to a military coup, and could cite only the military’s loyalty to Mrs. Arroyo, period.
Despite junior officer reservations about Mrs. Arroyo’s rule, it does seem unlikely that the Philippine military will soon follow their Thai counterparts’ example. No purely military coup has succeeded in the Philippines. It is not so much because of the divisions within the Philippine military—the Thai military too is divided, but nevertheless succeeded in removing Prime Minister Thaksin from office. This failure is primarily due to its reliance on the patronage of politicians, and secondarily to its organizational and disciplinal inadequacies.
But there is an even more crucial reason why a coup is not about to happen in the Philippines. The coup has already happened, and it took place months before the Thai generals launched theirs.
The antecedent of the coup was Ferdinand Marcos’ own in 1972, with the help of what amounted to a civilian-military junta which included himself and the chiefs of the Army, the Air Force, the Navy and the Philippine Constabulary as well as the Secretary of Defense and a businessman-associate.
Marcos’ declaration of martial rule was a coup against the 1936 Constitution, in whose name he seized power, but which he then proceeded to dismantle by abolishing Congress, suspending the Bill of Rights, and arresting hundreds of thousands of men and women including members of the opposition.
If Marcos had Proclamation 1081, Mrs. Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017—which in wording is incidentally almost entirely the same as PP 1081, including a reference to presidential decrees. Disguised as a proclamation of a state of national emergency, PP 1017 called the military out and ordered the police to further curtail freedom of assembly. The police also raided a newspaper office, while the military deployed troops around the two major TV networks in Quezon City.
The Proclamation was also the basis for arrests without warrants, and the filing of rebellion charges against regime critics including six congressmen from activist party-list groups. Although supposedly meant to cope with a military-leftist conspiracy, the regime moved gingerly against the alleged military conspirators, detaining them only months later.
Meanwhile, the murder of political activists in the countryside, which had accelerated in 2004, intensified even further as the regime abandoned peace talks with the National Democratic Front and declared “total war” against the armed Left.
These initiatives were almost completely in violation of the Constitution, which, together with the Supreme Court, the regime has been ignoring since, unless it suits its primary purpose of staying in power indefinitely.
The Marcos regime paid lip service to the 1936 Constitution while dismantling it, and moved quickly to have the 1973 charter ratified through its bogus barangay assemblies. While ignoring the 1987 Constitution altogether, the Arroyo regime is similarly putting in place a constitution that will legalize authoritarian rule by weakening the Bill of Rights, allow its House minions to run for parliament, and assure Mrs. Arroyo and company of staying in power until 2010 and beyond.
The continuing coup which began February is thus a far craftier, far more innovative enterprise than its Thailand counterpart. It is undeclared, largely unnoticed, and worst, subject to no deadline, time limit or legal restraint. The Philippine political and military elites have done the Thai military one better, to the detriment of the country and its people.