Arroyo administration officials and members of the opposition were for once publicly in agreement. Almost to a person did they belittle former defense secretary and retired Army general Fortunato Abat’s declaration of a “revolutionary transition government” and of himself as president.

So seemingly outlandish was Abat’s establishing himself at Club Filipino, issuing the proclamation, signing two edicts, and declaring that he would not leave the premises until Gloria Macapagal Arroyo steps down, that everyone was running out of words to describe the episode and its chief instigator.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye described Abat’s proclamation as “pathetic and unfortunate.” Raul Gonzalez of Justice stopped short of saying that Abat was into his second childhood, while Senator Joker Arroyo claimed that Abat was “senile”.

Police officials doubted that Abat was “serious” and suggested that the whole thing was “just a joke.” Opposition senator Aquilino Pimentel described Abat’s Folly as a diversion, “a nice intermission number,” presumably in the sense of providing comic relief from the seriousness of the ongoing political crisis. Former president Fidel Ramos, under whom Abat served as defense secretary, said what Abat did was “just antics”. But he did say that Abat and company had a very minimal chance of success in forcing Mrs. Arroyo to step down.

The key phrase is “and company”. For all of Abat’s supposed dotage, he did have a number of people with him, among them former budget secretary Salvador Enriquez and former Ambassador Roy Seneres, as well as other political and business personalities. Some 300 people also heard him proclaim the existence of the “revolutionary transition government” at Club Filipino, where, in 1986, Corazon Aquino was sworn in as president upon the overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Abat’s timing also suggests that he may not be as foolish as almost everyone thinks. His proclamation came on the eve of the first death anniversary of Fernando Poe Jr., whom Mrs. Arroyo is accused of cheating in 2004. The re-appearance of former Comelec (Commission on Elections) Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano has also revived the wire-tapping controversy and, despite the holidays, fueled renewed public resentment of the Arroyo government.

But what most suggested that Abat had something else up his sleeve were the persistent rumors of a pending coup attempt, which, say the military and the police, involve police as well as military officers, with at least one active general and several colonels involved.

These rumors and more have been circulating since summer. Working overtime for months, the country’s rumor mills have been saying, among other claims, that former senator Gregorio Gringo Honasan, who has mysteriously dropped out of sight, has kept himself busy touring the country in an effort to rally military support for a coup against Mrs. Arroyo’s government.

Already in place, the rumors have been saying since June, is a three-person council or junta composed of a former secretary of defense (not Abat), a former chief of the Philippine National Police, and Honasan himself. Once in power, the council would preside over an election within six months which would create a transition government charged with cleaning up the mess the Arroyo regime has created, restoring key government services, and drafting a five-year plan.

While Abat’s declaration of a “revolutionary transition government” short-circuits that supposed blueprint, what’s important is that, in the context of a restive military whose junior officers are organized in various political groupings, Abat may have been promised military support and was thus encouraged to proclaim his “government” and himself as president.

That support, however, does not seem forthcoming, probably because, as Ramos implied, whatever plan Abat has put into motion has very little chance of succeeding, and few military people were willing to risk another failure. But there is also the fact that would-be military putschists, for all their bravado and pompous rhetoric, have been mostly talk in this country.

Loose talk is also what distinguishes the so-called coup attempts in this country from their counterparts elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Every military plotter from Jakarta to Rangoon knows that secrecy is one of his major allies, and every coup has relied on the element of surprise for its success. Not in the Philippines, where the plans of coup plotters are so known well ahead of their implementation that foiling them has been child’s play for any regime’s police and military.

The successful changes in government in which the military has been involved, the military led only in its imagination. Civilian rather than military leaders led the successful attempts to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and to force Joseph Estrada out of power in 2001, for example. In both cases, it was the critical mass of citizens in their millions that was decisive in the military’s changing allegiances and helping resolve the crises.

On the other hand, every attempt by military adventurists to install in power their patron of the moment from 1987 to 1989 failed because they lacked citizen support. Both Abat’s as well as other attempted coups against Mrs. Arroyo are thus likely to fail, because they lack the kind of citizen initiative and support that in 1986 and 2001 removed governments. Any change in this country has been and will be decided by its sovereign citizens’ collective action, and not by a handful of conspirators.

Because this practically guarantees that no military coup attempt can ever succeed, it’s good news not only for the country, but also for the Arroyo regime. The regime need not fear coup attempts, if past history is to be a guide. But what it has to fear is an outbreak of the fury that in 1986 and 2001 mobilized the people enough for the military and the police to think it worth their interests to switch allegiances. That can still happen– and it can be sooner rather than later.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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