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Another Philippines Coup Plot Fails

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ROMEO GACAD / AFP / Getty Images

Rebel Philippine soldiers stand guard after seizing control of Manilaĺs luxury Peninsula Hotel , 29 Nov. 2007.

The Philippines, in recent weeks, has been battered by typhoons and tropical storms that threatened to cause widespread devastation but never quite wreaked havoc on the scale experts feared. The same, it seems, could be said for the political storms battering Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's presidency. The latest attempt to overthrow her, a bizarre echo of a 2003 mutiny involving many of the same actors, ended Thursday evening with the President declaring a midnight-to-5 a.m. curfew in order to dampen any potential threat of a "people power" revolt against her administration.

The leader of the plot, Senator Antonio Trillanes, had done a similar thing once before. In 2003, as a navy Lieutenant, he was involved in the Oakwood Mutiny, in which a group of rebellious military personnel occupied a luxury apartment complex in Makati demanding that Arroyo step down.

Trillanes, who over the summer was elected to the Senate while behind bars awaiting trial for his involvement in the mutiny, was in the Makti regional trial Court Thursday listening to evidence against him in the Oakwood plot. At around midday, he and a group of heavily armed soldiers stormed out, making their way to Makati's Peninsula Hotel. The group was also joined by former Vice President Teofisto Guingona. "Today, we address all loving and decent Filipinos to announce that now is the time to end the sufferings and miseries inflicted upon us by this illegitimate, Gloria Macapagal government and start a new life in a new Philippines," Guingona told reporters. "The dice is cast. Thus we make this fateful step of removing Mrs. Macapagal Arroyo from the presidency and undertake the formation of a new government."

The abrupt departure took witnesses at the courtroom by surprise. "We take exception to the utter laxity of the security sent by the Armed Forces of the Philippines," State Prosecutor Juan Pedro Navera, who was present at the hearing during the walkout, told reporters at the Department of Justice. "This would not have happened without the laxity and familiarity with the accused, and we will be investigating more in detail this angle." While it is still not clear if the soldiers were Trillanes' guards or whether they had arranged to rendezvous with him at the courtroom, Navera said there appeared to be "some influence on the military and police security detail," noting that the security men just surrounded the accused and "did nothing."

Peter Parcell, a Manila-based businessman, was waiting for friends in the lobby of the Peninsula when the soldiers arrived. "It just suddenly went crazy," he told TIME. "These armed guys just walked in and locked all the doors. It didn't seem particularly well organized." Government troops soon surrounded the hotel; a 3 p.m. deadline for the rebels to give themselves up came and went. Then, around two hours later, after a few brief bursts of gunfire, the authorities smashed an armored vehicle into the hotel lobby and hurled teargas. Soon, civilians began to stumble out of the building, coughing and crying. The rebels followed shortly afterward and were taken away in a bus.

While it was a dramatic day of events, the siege ended with only one person reported injured, and the ordeal is unlikely to have a great impact on the administration of President Arroyo, who has beaten back multiple impeachment attempts and coup plots and weathered a string of election and corruption scandals. Despite the repeated entreaties of Trillanes and other plotters, few Filipinos, if any, went out into the streets to protest. "This was a publicity stunt," says Benito Lim, a political analyst and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. "It doesn't seem to have been particularly well-planned and there also does not seem to have been a great deal of support from the masses or from the military."

The problem, Lim believes, is that while Arroyo's approval ratings are dismal, there are few legitimate opposition figures set to replace her. "I don't even think the opposition want Arroyo to fall, not really," he says, noting that most would prefer to wait for a legitimate transfer of power in coming elections scheduled for 2010. "If Arroyo went now, it would be very inconvenient for them. There is no obvious replacement for her."

Still, Arroyo doesn't seem to have gained much sympathy during Thursday's events, particularly after TV news feeds showed government troops arresting an estimated 50 journalists who were covering the coup attempt and herding them into buses. "The way the police and military seized the press was ridiculous. That will not look too good for Arroyo." Lim says. "But, I believe, she will survive."

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