The Philippines The Coup That Failed

  • Swiftly, silently, 16 trucks and buses rolled into Manila under the cover of a moonless tropical night. The curious convoy carried an estimated 800 Philippine army troops, all loaded down with weapons. According to a carefully laid plan, the vehicles split up and, as midnight approached, drove to assigned points around the city. Two of the trucks proceeded to a key location: Malacanang Palace, the headquarters of President Corazon Aquino, 54. Asleep in her residence about 50 yds. away from the main building, Aquino did not hear their approach.

    Shortly after 1 a.m., a woman sitting in a snack bar near the palace saw about 50 soldiers wearing black ski masks run past. Moments later the night was shattered by automatic-weapons fire and the blast of mortars and grenades. Those unexpected sounds of combat signaled the beginning last Thursday night of the bloodiest, most dangerous coup attempt yet mounted against Aquino's 18- month-old government.

    Since coming to power in early 1986, Aquino has survived five coups and rumors of countless others. She has endured confrontations with the left and the right, with Communist rebels and prickly colonels. She has moved too quickly for some Filipinos, too slowly for others, as she tries to undo two decades of corrupt rule by her predecessor, Ferdinand Marcos. But along the way she has captured the imagination of both her country and the world with her gentle words and indomitable spirit.

    Suddenly, a band of soldiers came closer than ever to destroying Cory Aquino and the country's budding democracy. To many observers, the violent raid on Malacanang by military rightists had all the marks of a last, desperate grab at power. But even if Aquino is not seriously weakened by last week's events, the foiled coup underscored the unwillingness of at least some Filipinos to give their President the time she needs to carry out her reforms. Once the gunfire died down and the smoke cleared, a troublesome question remained: Is the Philippines truly ready for democracy, or is it destined to slip once again into chaos?

    Stealing through Manila's darkened streets, the mutinous troops apparently hoped to catch the night watch of the presidential security guard by surprise. But at Nagtahan Bridge, just 300 yds. from the palace, and along J.P. Laurel Street nearby, the mutineers were stopped by heavy fire from the defenders. As the fighting raged and red tracer bullets arced through the night sky, civilians and journalists who turned out to see what was going on suddenly found themselves in a murderous cross fire. "They just sprayed us with bullets," said Ricardo Medina, 20. "I saw with my own eyes at least four dead on the street, with bits and pieces of brains scattered on the cement."

    The rebels kept up the assault for more than an hour before pulling back into the commercial district surrounding the palace. Some of the defenders took up pursuit, and sporadic gunfire continued for hours. By nightfall Friday, the government estimated that at least 20 people had died, including a photographer and a reporter, but there was widespread speculation that the toll was much higher. As many as 265 people were wounded. The President was unharmed, and the rebels reportedly never got close to her house, but her only son Benigno ("Noynoy"), 27, was seriously wounded. Caught in his car with four bodyguards during the shooting, the young Aquino was saved from death by a companion who threw himself across Noynoy's body. Three of the four guards were killed. Aquino was hit in the shoulder and neck, but is expected to survive.

    At 4:30 a.m. the President telephoned DRZH, a private Manila radio station, to deliver a live broadcast to the nation. Sounding somewhat shaken, she said, "I want to tell you, all my countrymen, I am safe and the presidential security group is here and prepared. It's all right here, but it's a little noisy. Since it's still dark, I would advise ((people)) to stay put." General Fidel Ramos, Chief of the Armed Forces and a loyal backer of Aquino, also went on the air. Reassuring listeners that the situation would soon be under control, he said, "I support President Aquino and her government, and so does the rest of the armed forces of the Philippines."

    By dawn the issue was far from decided. Mutinous units took hold of regional commands in several areas outside the capital, including Cebu, the country's second largest metropolitan area. In the Manila suburb of Quezon City, a fierce fire fight raged around the government communications center, home of television Channel 4. Rebels also managed to seize part of Villamor Air Base, adjoining Manila International Airport, trapping General Antonio Sotelo, the air force commander, in his office. A contingent of 300 men talked their way into Manila's Camp Aguinaldo, headquarters of the national defense forces and the general staff. Only late on Friday did progovernment forces succeed in routing the rebels.

    A principal figure behind the plot was Colonel Gregorio ("Gringo") Honasan, 39, a heavily decorated officer associated with at least one previous coup attempt. He apparently organized the scheme from his post at Fort Magsaysay, 70 miles north of Manila. As Honasan led his followers into Camp Aguinaldo, he told reporters that the operation "was not a coup" but was aimed at "unification of the people, the concept of justice and true freedom." Expressing a sentiment common in the military these days, he added, "We've been blamed and ignored so much. It's time to hear the voice of your soldiers."

    Honasan is a founder of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), a group of officers intent on rebuilding the army's image and capability, and was security chief for Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, 63, during much of Enrile's 15 years at the head of the Philippines' defense establishment. Aquino fired Enrile last November for allegedly conspiring to overthrow her. Late last week, after briefly dropping from sight, Enrile resurfaced in Manila and declared, "I had nothing to do with it."

    Although it may have seemed unlikely, there was suspicion that former President Ferdinand Marcos, 69, now living in Hawaii, had a hand in the plot. In July U.S. officials revealed they had squelched a Marcos plan to buy an estimated $25 million in weapons for a coup attempt. Marcos said of last week's affair, "We are not involved," though he added that he hoped Aquino was toppled and he would gladly accept an invitation to return. No such request came from the rebels.

    The midnight coup was not the first event to disturb Aquino's sleep last week. Two days earlier the President provoked a general strike by leftist and conservative trade unions, angry over a recently announced hike in gasoline prices, from $1.24 to $1.49 per gal. In a country where the average annual income is barely $600 a year, the increase was stunning. Though Aquino finally declared a partial rollback of the hike, thousands of Filipinos walked off their jobs and out of their classrooms in the largest show of protest since Aquino assumed the presidency. After the strike went into a second day, the military cracked down, arresting more than 120 labor activists. Several union leaders have been charged with sedition. Others have gone into hiding.

    The President's public support has been further eroded by her proposed land- reform measures, currently being debated in the legislature. The plans would redistribute an unspecified amount of acreage among the country's 8 million landless peasants. Landowners have vowed not to relinquish their farms, and peasant organizations say the measures are vague and likely to be watered down by the legislature, which includes many landowners.

    The President has, of course, had her share of successes. In a referendum last February, her democratic constitution was approved by 76% of the voters. Her candidates swept legislative elections last May. Economic growth for the first quarter of 1987 was a healthy 5.5%, after two years of recession under Marcos. The stock market is soaring, and foreigners are again investing in the country.

    But such attainments are threatened by the government's precarious military situation. The Communist New People's Army now claims to have 24,000 guerrilla fighters, and its assassination squads, known as Sparrow units, have moved freely through the capital, killing an estimated 25 policemen in the metropolitan area so far this year.

    Aquino's reluctance to unleash the military against the Communist insurgents has generated deep resentment among many professional officers. The malcontents feel that Aquino is more interested in negotiating with the guerrillas than in defeating them. Most recently she annoyed the military by extending a rebel amnesty program by six months. Many soldiers fear that the Communist insurgency and Aquino's dithering over such matters as land reform and gasoline prices are pushing the country to the brink of anarchy.

    Enlisted men and officers are also disgruntled with low wages and severe shortages of the most basic supplies. Those conditions, combined with Honasan's charismatic personality, no doubt fueled last week's coup attempt. Some of the colonel's confederates say Honasan did not plan to overthrow the popular Aquino but had only wanted to force the resignation of Ramos and improve the military's lot. But Captain Rex Robles, a close friend of Honasan's, believes the main target was the President. Said Robles: "If you bring Ramos down, then who is Cory?"

    The first of the failed coup attempts was mounted in July 1986. Pro-Marcos military officers took over the Manila Hotel for two days and declared Arturo Tolentino, Marcos' vice-presidential running mate in 1986, to be President. In November Ramos announced that he had blocked a coup attempt by Enrile and his backers, including Honasan. In January pro-Marcos troops moved again, holding a radio station in suburban Manila for 61 hours before surrendering. In July four officers linked to Marcos were arrested in connection with another plot.

    None of the previous coup attempts could match the ferocity or human toll of last week's rising. In a televised speech on Friday afternoon, Aquino declared, "I have ordered the Chief of Staff of the armed forces to terminate this mutiny as soon as possible. There will be no terms. I have nothing to say to these traitors . . . This morning my only son Noynoy was shot and wounded. I will not allow these people to bring back the cruelty of the past dictatorship." The President referred to the rebels, with uncharacteristic acerbity, as "monsters."

    As Aquino and Ramos took stock of the situation the morning after the shooting started, they had reason for concern. During the night Honasan had led 300 of his supporters into Camp Aguinaldo after persuading guards to let them pass rather than face a fire fight. His offices occupied, General Ramos moved his operations across the street to Camp Crame, headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary. In the morning and early afternoon, small units of progovernment troops tried to enter Camp Aguinaldo, only to be met by heavy fire from rebel troops, many with Philippine flags stitched upside down on their chests as a sign of identification.

    During the day about 7,000 curiosity seekers gathered outside Camp Aguinaldo in the hot sun to watch the skirmishes, while hawkers selling peanuts and cigarettes worked the crowd. Late in the afternoon, armored personnel carriers began advancing down the boulevard toward the camp, firing shells at the rebel-held buildings and sending the civilians scurrying for + cover. The crowd was rooting for the government forces, and a cheer went up when the troop carriers moved cautiously through Camp Aguinaldo's front gate. The cheering stopped when an errant shell exploded in the middle of a small crowd. The limp bodies of two civilians were hastily dragged away.

    Firing continued sporadically until two vintage World War II fighter- bombers suddenly appeared in the sky overhead and dived toward the three- story headquarters building where Honasan and his supporters were holed up. In three runs the planes dropped at least ten bombs, returning to strafe the area. Swirls of thick black smoke rose from the largely demolished structure. When she heard of the bombing, the wife of one mutinous officer inside the camp grew hysterical. "My husband is ready to die," she said. "That's how committed they are. They are ready to die for their cause."

    Honasan evidently did not share that view: he escaped from the sprawling campgrounds by helicopter. He is believed to be hiding in Manila with twelve staunch RAM members, and may take to urban terrorism. Honasan, said Robles last week, "would rather reduce the country to rubble now and see it rise again than watch its current slow death."

    Shortly after Honasan's flight, some 350 of his followers surrendered to government troops. That night Ramos said that five rebels had been killed and two wounded at Camp Aguinaldo, while the loyalist side had lost four, with 24 wounded. He also said that "mopping-up operations" were under way and called on Honasan to surrender.

    Progovernment forces also prevailed after a day of sporadic fighting at the government communications installation in Quezon City and several private television stations nearby. Fighting raged for nearly six hours as rebels tried to climb over a 10-ft.-high wall and into the Channel 4 complex, but Aquino's men withstood the siege. At 7:30 a.m. the rebels broke off their attack, and hundreds of civilians converged on the facility, cheering and waving Philippine flags. By late in the week most other pockets of resistance were yielding to government pressure. Honasan's followers at Camp Olivas, 35 miles north of Manila, surrendered. At Villamor Air Base, rebels gave up control of air force headquarters.

    In Cebu, 350 miles southeast of Manila, troops commanded by Brigadier General Edgardo Abenina flew the Philippine flag upside down at their garrisons as a sign of sympathy for the rebels. Civilian authorities were placed under house arrest. But after Ramos relieved Abenina of his command, the brigadier general peacefully submitted.

    Aquino will undoubtedly face strong pressure to deal harshly with the mutineers, if only to discourage other plotters. In the past the President has treated rebellious soldiers leniently. After the Manila Hotel coup, for instance, the participants received a ridiculously mild punishment: 30 push- ups. But this time Aquino's credibility is on the line. Says a sympathetic Filipino scholar: "Everybody is waiting for the President finally to put her foot down."

    Yet military men are generally sympathetic to Honasan's complaints, if not his actions. That will make it hard for Aquino to get tough without demoralizing the soldiers who remain the shield of her democratic government. The key may lie in taking dramatic steps -- improving conditions for the military, stepping up assaults on the guerrillas -- to allay her troops' concern, even as she disciplines the rebels. Indeed, some officers may have toed the Aquino line because of a threat to their goals. At the height of the coup attempt, Washington passed word to coup leaders that if they were successful, the U.S. would halt military aid to the Philippines, effectively paralyzing all operations against the Communists. Aquino, says U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, "has to organize her armed forces and find persons she can depend upon to probe these grievances and pull together an organization that she can depend on." Adds Lugar: "This is easier described than done."

    As bullets flew past Malacanang last week, the rudely awakened President may have reflected on the difficulty of that task, and of many others she faces. Months before Aquino took seriously to politics, she said, "If I were President, I don't think I could ever sleep with all the problems in my head." Now that she has the job, it is a wonder she gets any sleep at all.