July 7, 2005
In few countries does an assurance of political neutrality from the military cause as much nervousness as in the Philippines. And with good reason.
In the 19 years since the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose iron grip on the country did much to politicize the armed forces, the military has been an active player in national affairs.
That is a worry for President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as she comes under intense pressure from allegations of election cheating against her and graft involving family members, even though security analysts say conditions are not ripe for a coup.
“She lives by the sword, she dies by the sword,” former navy commodore Rex Robles told Reuters, referring to the army’s pivotal role in Arroyo’s rise to the presidency in 2001 and the danger that it may now pose to her scandal-prone administration.
Robles, a member of an independent panel that investigated a failed July 2003 coup against Arroyo, said the military has always invoked its constitutional duty to protect the republic and its people when it decides to shift loyalty.
That can happen quickly.
“In 1986, Marcos had all the generals behind him, but not one was able to save him,” said Robles.
Marcos’s support from the military only cracked in the final hours before the million-strong “people power” protests of 1986.
Four years ago, Joseph Estrada suffered a similar fate when his generals suddenly withdrew support from his government as a huge crowd gathered on streets in the capital, demanding his resignation over graft and illegal gambling allegations.
For the past three months, rumors of coups against Arroyo have been swirling.
Ghosts of Oakwood
The military, the source of at least a dozen coup attempts since 1986, has felt it necessary to dampen the speculation.
“The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) will remain apolitical and never allow any group or personality to use the AFP to advance any political and personal interest,” the armed forces leadership said in a statement on Monday.
The statement only fuelled speculation of unrest in the military.
On Tuesday, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dominguez, army commander for the northern Philippines, went on national television to deny media reports his troops were plotting to install Arroyo’s vice president, Noli de Castro.
Army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Buenaventura Pascual said the military would strongly resist any unconstitutional attempt to change the political leadership.
Jose Rene Jarque, a security analyst, said divisions within the officers’ corps could be preventing elements within the military from taking action.
He said the generals wanted to keep the status quo while younger officers, angry about corruption and underfunding that has hampered their fight against communist and Muslim rebels, were agitating for drastic change.
But the memory of the failed coup in 2003, when 300 captains and lieutenants took over the Oakwood apartment hotel in central Manila to highlight corruption in the army, could be deterring the younger officers from action.
The one-day mutiny at the luxury apartment block in Manila’s business district ended without a shot being fired. Most of the soldiers who joined have been demoted but the young officers involved still face military charges of mutiny and civilian charges of leading a coup.
“The ghosts of Oakwood still haunt the junior officers,” Jarque told Reuters.
But he added that a protracted political crisis would raise the chance of another coup attempt because it could affect the economy and weaken Arroyo.
“Weak governments invite army intervention,” he said.