On July 10, or less than two weeks into his presidency, Benigno Aquino III told the Department of Justice to review the coup charges, which he described as “unjust,” against former Navy lieutenant and now Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. The order was interpreted at the time as part of Mr. Aquino’s efforts in behalf of the Francisco Pangilinan campaign for the Senate presidency. But serial coup plotter Gringo Honasan was already proposing an amnesty for Trillanes even then.

Honasan got his wish early this October, when Mr. Aquino issued Proclamation No. 50 granting Trillanes and his fellow Oakland Hotel mutineers amnesty, an act that’s been interpreted as either an attempt to buy the loyalty of the Trillanes-Lim faction in the military, a message that the Arroyo government against which Trillanes mutinied in 2003 was not legitimate, or both.

The Trillanes amnesty has been opposed not only by two of the four Arroyos in Congress — Gloria Macapagal in the House of Representatives, and Joker Arroyo in the Senate. It’s also been opposed by some Aquino officials on the argument that it will encourage future coup plotters, which it probably will, despite the fact that no coup attempt by Philippine military officers has ever succeeded in this country. As past experience, and the attempt by far Right groups to exploit whatever military misgivings there may be against the Aquino government show, military adventurism dies hard, and is likely to be part of the political environment for some time to come.

That it should be doesn’t make sense. It used to be said of the Philippine military that, uniquely in Asia, it respected civilian authority. To that distinction, add that unlike its Burmese, Indonesian or Thai counterparts, it can’t launch successful coups either. Apparently Mr. Aquino doesn’t think a military coup likely at this time, and he’s right. As most Filipinos have learned, a military coup isn’t likely in this country even in the worst of times. A President may have basement level approval ratings, and be widely suspected of violating the Constitution, but could still cling to power. For reasons too complex to get into at this point, coup plotters seem unable to keep secrets and to put together the organization needed to launch a successful putsch.

Past coup attempts suggest that it’s not so much respect for civilian authority that distinguishes the Philippine military as its need for civilian patrons. Having a civilian patron best assures a colonel’s becoming a general, and the same mindset apparently drives coup plotters, who, with the possible exception of Trillanes, had civilians at their vanguard.

The martial law period could have been the biggest opportunity for the military to put one of its own in power. But while Ferdinand Marcos used the armed forces to enforce martial law and enrich a number of generals in the process, he seemed perfectly in control of the military until 1986, when a supposed plot by the Enrile-Ramos wing of the military that felt it wasn’t getting enough of the perks Marcos was showering on the Ver faction was discovered.

Despite Enrile-(Gringo) Honasan claims that they were responsible for EDSA, EDSA itself showed that the military needed civilian leaders as well as the warm bodies of civilians to protect those leaders. The lone military personality to gain enough support to win the Presidency since 1946, Fidel Ramos, also had to reinvent himself from Marcos general and chief of the dreaded Philippine Constabulary to a civilian icon of democracy.

But the martial law period and its immediate aftermath of repeated coup attempts did transform the Philippine military from a mere instrument of civilian rule into a power center whose support politicians think they need as a factor in the stability of governments — or even, as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo demonstrated in 2004, as a means to gain, and remain in power.

The military as power broker is in short the creation of the politicians of this country, whose hunger for power can’t even wait for Mr. Aquino to make even worse mistakes than his mishandling of the August 23 hostage taking crisis and its aftermath to threaten it. A group that calls itself the Solidarity for Sovereignty (S4S) has this early called on the Armed Forces of the Philippines to “protect the country’s sovereignty,” (sic) and has declared all elective positions from President down vacant supposedly because the May 10 elections were “unconstitutional.”

The S4S list of convenors includes the usual far Right suspects, and thus provokes conclusions that it’s one more group of crackpots. Crackpots or not, they still have to be taken seriously, derangement in this country not being a hindrance, and in some cases even being an advantage, to gaining the support of the military and other similarly damaged institutions, as the entire country realized in 1972. Some personalities identified with the past regime are also ideologically committed to ridding the country, through whatever means necessary including mass murder, of every thought, movement and personality that they think qualifies for the label radical. There’s also the military’s opposition to any social movement that will disturb the political and economic structures they’re pledged to preserve. Like the Terminator, neither will stop, because that’s what they do — that’s all they do.

The Trillanes-Lim faction has been described as reformist, and Mr. Aquino may have bought its loyalty — or at least its pledge not to launch any coup against his government — by granting it amnesty. Mr. Aquino is of course no revolutionary, and neither is Trillanes a Hugo Chavez. They also have in common the belief, no matter clumsily articulated, in the capacity of the political, economic and social systems to address their problems and to mend themselves. They’re both reformists, in thought if not in deeds. That is what unites them against whatever destabilization, or even coup attempt, the far Right and its deranged adherents may launch. That — and the military’s proven incapacity at coup making — should lay to rest whatever fears of destabilization are troubling the sleep of some Aquino officials.


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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