AS Senator Gringo Honasan is reported by only too willing media to be hiding, now in Baguio City, later in Tuguegarao, and then in the Iglesia Ni Cristo compound in Culiat, Quezon City, expect his approval ratings to rise among the impressionable

Include certain ladies of the press in this vast category of Filipinos—perhaps the very same ones just out of journalism school who have been falling over each other in praise of Lt. (sg) Antonio Trillanes’ youthful good looks since July 27. Throw in others, now already as long in the tooth as their idol, who once saw in him the epitome of the military transformed from tormentor of citizens into their savior.

Honasan first came to the notice of the press at EDSA seventeen years ago as the Galil-wielding veteran of the Mindanao wars who used to parachute into “enemy” territory with a python wrapped around his neck, but who was at that time close-in security officer of then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.

For his mestizo looks, and the way he wore his combat fatigues (there’s something exciting about a man in uniform), he was breathlessly canonized by those who thought EDSA an anti-Marcos coup the country owed Ramos, Enrile, and company.

Honasan’s canonization as the officer we could now expect to be also a gentleman continued despite his attempts to seize power for himself and his civilian patrons between 1987-89. Reporters—most of them women, I’m sorry to say—sought him out for interviews, didn’t mind being blindfolded enroute, and ended up producing copy that painted him in flourescent colors and romanticized his quest for power as a crusade for which he was prepared to die.

That quote has since been immortalized through frequent repetition. Honasan said while resting in the aftermath of his coup attempts in the 1980s that he and his co-conspirators had failed because, while willing to die, they had not been prepared to kill.

Mostly that remark went unchallenged—despite the killing of some 40 civilians who had jeered Honasan’s troops while they were trying to take Malacanang in December 1989, and whose off-the-cuff criticism earned them a hail of M-16 rounds.

By then quick to condemn the slightest sign of imperfection in even the most self-sacrificing in the anti-Marcos resistance, many women in media seemed only too willing to ignore such liberties with the facts. It wasn’t the record of self-sacrifice, or the wisdom, but the looks most of all—and perhaps even the thrilling threat of violence a colonel armed to the teeth and surrounded by jackbooted, sweaty enlisted men suggested—that mattered.

In the coup attempts between 1987 and 1989, Honasan after all could justify himself only in the vaguest terms, and solely in the name of opposing the supposed dominance of communists in the Cory Aquino cabinet. He and his RAM cohorts also threw in a few nationalist phrases during their interviews with the eager media, claiming to have discovered the writings of Claro M. Recto by then (or some 20 years after UP students did).

In wisdom and consistency there were, after all, scores of Filipinos in public life who were vastly more intelligent, more articulate and more demonstrably patriotic, as well as dedicated, courageous and principled. On the other hand Honasan had until then spent all his adult life defending a hated regime—except that, in the post EDSA 1980s, he had been “sacramentally transformed” into an underdog, a hero agonizing for reform, and fighting against great odds.

Some of the same romanticizing that characterized the period was, by the way, evident in broadcaster Tina Panganiban Perez’ take on the Honasan saga, in the very interview that led President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to berate her for (the non-existent offense of) “abetting rebellion.”

Perez’ more credible offense could be her being caught in a time warp. There isn’t too much of the 1980s’ wide-eyed hero worship of Honasan nowadays (which could be why Mrs. Arroyo noticed Perez’ interview), perhaps because Honasan has been replaced in the heart-throb pantheon of certain women media practitioners by younger, more dashing heroes in uniform, now named Trillanes and Maestrecampo, among others.

But Honasan’s choosing to remain a fugitive, although no warrant has been issued for his arrest, is exactly what his (spin) doctors for campaign 2004 ordered—or should have.

It’s not only Honasan’s persona that makes him a still romantic figure today, seventeen years after EDSA and half a dozen coup attempts later. There’s also the tradition of heroism associated with the man hunted by the law for breaking from society, and his going up the mountains as a last resort that’s helping Honasan.

Part of that tradition is the belief among the folk that the similarly marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed—the vast armies of the poor—will naturally find in such a man the hero they have been awaiting for 300 years.

It’s doubtful if Honasan is banking on being the second Bonifacio that folk legend says will descend Mount Buntis and free the poor from oppression. What’s certain is that he’s perceptive enough to see that there’s something about the fugitive from justice that invites admiration and even respect in these, our troubled times—not to mention the kind of media mileage that could prove immensely useful during elections.

The Arroyo government is not too dimly aware of the opportunities the threat of arrest has opened for Honasan. Before the July 27 coup, Honasan had sunk into well-deserved obscurity and the contempt of civil society, thanks not only to his being among the eleven senators that on January 16, 2001 had voted to keep the contents of the Jose Velarde bank accounts secret, but also to his lackluster performance in the Senate, where he was an unremarkable presence.

His National Recovery Program failed to excite media either, when he released it to reporters, columnists and editors last summer. Neither did his announcement that he would seek the Presidency generate reams of copy.

This state of affairs was remedied soon enough by the July 27 mutiny, which provoked frantic searched in media offices for copies of the NRP the Oakwood occupiers claimed contained their program of governance (and parts of which some of them seem to have written), and thrust Honasan into the national limelight.

He had help, mostly from the government, whose spokespersons mentioned him so often they might as well have been his PR consultants. The result is Honasan’s return to the headlines and the six o’clock news.

Although charges of complicity and even masterminding the July coup attempt, of which the occupation of Oakwood was but a sidebar, have been filed against the truant senator, he is not under any threat of immediate arrest. The Arroyo government did say he was in the days following the Oakwood Incident, but learned soon enough that arresting Honasan would turn him into exactly the kind of martyr that could, finally, excite voter imaginations in time for 2004.

His honor the retired colonel and now senator knows a good thing when he sees one. Which is why he will remain “in hiding”, from the comforts of which he will remain available to the mass media—some of whose practitioners, they should admit, are turning into his best friends by constantly keeping him in the news and turning him into another version of Joseph Estrada’s most famous role, Asiong Salonga.

The media do have reasons to complain that they’re under siege—but should modify that claim by making it clear that only some sectors of it are—for example the community press, where four practitioners have been killed this year so far, and where 41 have been killed since 1986.

On the other hand, Honasan’s getting more than a little help from his friends—including those in the media mesmerized by the phrases he has learned to deliver by rote, and which to the uninitiated can sound like wisdom unappreciated as well as innocence betrayed.

This kind of help does not abet rebellion, only Honasan’s chances in 2004—although no one should be taking bets that it will be enough for him to win over Arroyo, Lacson, Cojuangco or Roco.

(Today/, August 26, 2003)

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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