Aquino’s bold power play

ROSS LAVER December 8 1986

Aquino’s bold power play

ROSS LAVER December 8 1986

Aquino’s bold power play



Barely two weeks ago the talk on the streets of Manila was that Philippine President Corazon Aquino was losing control. Then, last week, after standing by quietly for days while rumors of an impending coup swirled around her, Aquino moved swiftly to assert her authority. She fired Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile—a vocal right-winger widely suspected of plotting to overthrow her—and eliminated from her cabinet two other ministers whose controversial business dealings have provoked allegations of corruption. Aquino also imposed a strict deadline on negotiators for the government and the Communist New People’s Army to reach agreement. Last Wednesday government officials finally emerged from two days of hard bargaining to announce a 60-day ceasefire with the Communists, who had been fighting a guerrilla war against successive Philippine governments for almost 18 years.

It was a week of triumphs for the 53-year-old former housewife who

came to power in last February’s People’s Revolution. Even some critics of the government were impressed by her new get-tough approach. Blas Ople, a former labor minister under deposed autocrat Ferdinand Marcos and now an opposition spokesman, said that the mild-mannered president had “withstood the most serious test yet” for her nine-month-old government. But others were doubtful that the new atmosphere of stability would last. “Superficially, it may seem like a lot of the pressure has been removed from Cory,” said a Manila-based Western diplomat, referring to the president by her nickname. “But beneath the surface she still faces the same raft of problems.” Those difficulties included political extremism on both the left and the right, a factionalized military and an economy weakened by 20 years of often corrupt and inept rule under Marcos. Still, Aquino’s bold counterstrike tended to overshadow those larger issues.

For weeks Aquino had become increasingly angry with Enrile and his

supporters. Then, on Nov. 22 rumors swept Manila that opposition politicians loyal to Marcos were on the verge of reconvening the Batasan Pambansa, or National Assembly, which Aquino dismissed last March, contending that 1984 elections to the body had been marred by fraud. According to armed forces chief of staff Gen. Fidel Ramos, the Marcos loyalists had the active support of dissident army officers close to Enrile. Ramos said that the soldiers planned to remove Aquino from power, name former legislative speaker Nicanor Yniguez as acting head of state and call new presidential elections.

Although he had no hard evidence that a coup was in progress, 58-yearold Ramos, who attained hero status in the eyes of many Filipinos when he and Enrile led a military revolt against Marcos last February, decided to act. Late last Saturday night he instructed his 230,000 troops to disregard any orders that Enrile’s defence ministry might issue. He also put military bases in the Manila area on

red alert. And in the early hours of Nov. 23 he sent truckloads of armed soldiers to stand guard outside the presidential Malacañang Palace, government-owned television and radio stations and Aquino’s private residence in Arlegui, a middle-class Manila neighborhood.

Ramos may have finally decided to side with Aquino after he received a message from Washington. It was delivered with what U.S. state department sources described last week as “the utmost delicacy,” but its thrust was clear. Said a state department official: “In our public statements here and in the private word passed by our embassy in Manila, we left no doubt about the U.S. belief that Mrs. Aquino is the person we believe most capable of uniting her country. That message had to register hard with the military and other power brokers, since they realize that the Philippines can’t begin to cope with its economic and political problems without sizable American help.”

After Ramos had deployed his troops, the crisis mood in Manila soon dissipated. By the following morning the soldiers had returned to their barracks. At that point Aquino moved resolutely against the dissenters inside her government. Summoning an emergency cabinet meeting at Malacañang Palace, she demanded letters of resignation from all her

ministers and immediately accepted one —Enrile’s. Hours later she presided at a swearing-in ceremony for Enrile’s replacement, former deputy defence minister Rafael Ileto, 66, a retired general and diplomat. Declared Aquino during a brief national television appearance to announce the changes: “Of late my circumspection has been viewed as weakness and my attempts at reconciliation as indecision. Both have got to stop.” She added, “We need a fresh start.”

Indeed Aquino’s image as a wellmeaning but naïve and vacillating leader has been the cause of many of her government’s most serious problems. As a symbol of democracy and a beacon of hope for national reunification, she is still immensely popular with the poor and uneducated masses. But many middle-class Filipinos—including some of her closest advisers— regard Aquino as too gentle to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of Filipino politics, where survival often depends on machine-guns and the ability to command private armies. Said Richard Gordon, 41, a former member of Marcos’s New Society Movement who has since joined the opposition Nacionalista party: “The triumph of people power in last February’s revolution was a beautiful moment in this country’s history—I cried. But now Cory has to face some hard realities.”

When the president finally took ac-

tion to neutralize her critics last week, the feeling of relief among her allies was almost palpable. Said Luis Villafuerte, minister for government reorganization: “She has done what needed to be done. She is holding the reins of authority.” For his part, presidential adviser Rene Saguisag told Maclean's that after Aquino informed her ministers of her decision to dismiss Enrile and change her cabinet, “we all stood up and before we knew it we were clapping our hearts out.” Added Saguisag: “We were never more proud of her.”

In fact, Aquino’s decision to call for the mass resignation of her cabinet was well-planned. According to her press spokesman, Teodoro Benigno, the president first toyed with the idea during a state visit to Japan in mid-November. At the time, the rumor-andgossip sessions at Manila’s Intercontinental Hotel, where many of the city’s top politicians and businessmen gather each morning for breakfast, were dominated by discussions of a coup by a small but powerful clique of senior military officers close to Enrile. Like the defence minister himself, the officers claimed that Aquino’s willingness to negotiate with the National Democratic Front, a political wing of the rebel New People’s Army, was a sign of weakness that could undermine the army’s campaign against the Communist insurgency.

A source close to Aquino said that in addition to firing Enrile, the president originally planned to name several of the rebellious officers publicly and to order their immediate arrest. Those officers, he said, were Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan—head of the 600-strong defence ministry security force—Col. Eduardo Kapunan, Col. Tito Legaspi and Capt. Rex Robles. All four men, former classmates at the elite Philippine Military Academy, were founding members of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). That organization played a major role in toppling the Marcos regime but turned on Aquino because of her refusal to back a full-scale military assault on the rebels. But the source said that the president agreed not to take action against the so-called “RAM boys” in return for Enrile’s personal assurance that no further coup attempt would be launched. Added the source: “The situation has been defused. If they want to try anything again, they know their lives will be on the line.”

After becoming the new defence minister, Ileto told reporters that there were no immediate plans to file charges against anyone suspected of plotting to overthrow the president. But he said that several senior officers attached to the ministry, including Ro-

bles, had “submitted their courtesy resignations” from the defence ministry force and would be “relocated or redeployed” in provincial areas well away from army headquarters in Manila. Said Ileto: “You might say that

we are assigning them to parts of the country where their skills can be well used.” Ileto also disclosed that the government would allow Enrile to retain “several of his boys” as a personal security force. “He has done so much for the service. But he had antagonized some quarters of our society, and he

just cannot be left alone,” Ileto said.

Enrile himself spent most of the week entertaining friends and political supporters at the luxurious suburban compound where he lives with his wife, Cristina, and his daughter, Katrina. Armed security guards patrolled the lawns behind plaster walls and a massive set of wooden gates, which they unlocked only for known associates of the former defence minister. Inside, Enrile—known to his friends as Johnny-greeted visitors in tennis whites and reminisced about his 20 years in office under Marcos. Said one visitor: “It was just like a funeral. I think it’s a terrible loss for the country.” Another guest, Col. Honesto Isleta, said that Enrile sipped brandy while discussing the period of martial law, which Marcos kept in force from 1972 until 1981. “Johnny said that when martial law was declared he was really happy because it gave us a chance to change our society,” Isleta recalled. “But after a couple of years a new oligarchy rose up—the corrupt Marcos cronies. They influenced the mind of the president, and the whole thing became a circus. Even the military became tainted.”

Enrile also told friends that for several months he had been expecting Aquino to dismiss him because of his long association with Marcos. “She never really trusted me,” a visitor quoted the former minister as saying. According to reliable sources, Enrile will soon accept the leadership of the opposition Nacionalista party and will tour the country urging Filipinos to reject the government-proposed constitution, which would strengthen the powers of the presidency and extend Aquino’s term until 1992. A national referendum on the constitution is scheduled for Feb. 2, 1987, at which time, the sources said, Enrile believes “the people will decide” whether his recent criticisms of Aquino’s administration were justified.

Enrile’s campaign against the new constitution seems almost certain to fail. But he still commands a sizable following among the Filipino middle classes and among residents of his home province of Cagayan, 300 km northeast of the capital. For that reason, analysts say, Aquino wisely planned to balance her dismissal of Enrile with that of several left-of-centre ministers as well. Said one Aquino supporter: “No one can say that she hasn’t been fair.”

At week’s end, Aquino announced the dismissal of two more cabinet members, Natural Resources Minister Ernesto Maceda and Public Works Minister Rogaciano Mercado. A close friend of Vice-President Salvador Laurel and a onetime ally of Marcos, Maceda has recently come under fire over

allegations that he distributed lucrative logging concessions to friends and supporters. As well, newspaper reports in Manila have accused both Maceda and Mercado of giving government jobs to friends and family members. In announcing her decision, Aquino said that she was “compelled by the national interest” to rid her administration of the two men.

Aquino also confirmed widespread speculation that she plans to make several more changes to her cabinet in the coming days. Privately, officials hinted that two leftists, Labor Minister Augusto Sanchez and Local Government Minister Aquilino Pimentel, were about to lose their positions. Pimentel, who was once imprisoned by Marcos for allegedly aiding Communist rebels, has been responsible for one of the Aquino administration’s most decisive acts: the appointment

by government decree of “officers in charge” to replace 75 provincial governors and almost 1,600 mayors elected or appointed under Marcos.

Pimentel’s critics, including members of Laurel’s United Nationalist Democratic Organization, have complained that too many of the new posts have gone to members of Pimentel’s own party, a leftist coalition known as PDP-Laban.

Still, last week’s calm may not last long. Many people doubt that the 60-day ceasefire between government troops and the approximately 20,000-member National People’s Army will hold. A provincial army commander commented: “If the government tells us to stay in our camps, who will tell the rebels to stay in their camps? No one. They will continue to roam around and harass people. And as soon as they start shooting, we’ll shoot back.” Other observers argued that the military will be hard-pressed to control the thousands of government-supported civilian defence units that the government has enlisted in the fight against the rebels. During the Marcos years, those paramilitary units were responsible for countless human-rights violations, and analysts

say that many of them still lack any semblance of military discipline.

As well, violence has traditionally been an inseparable part of politics in the Philippines, and few expect that to change now. Indeed, a recent rash of politically inspired bombings and assassinations of prominent figures on both the left and the right has created a siege mentality. Said a military spokesman: “Guns are everywhere.

The politicians have guns, the local officials have guns, the leftists have

guns. It is an explosive mixture.”

While arms sales are booming, private security guards are much in demand. Richard Gordon, a former right-wing mayor of Olongapo, north of Manila, told Maclean's that he rarely left his house without the protection of four full-time bodyguards, each armed with a .45-calibre handgun. He added that he kept an Uzi submachinegun in his living room and a loaded shotgun in his car “in case of ambushes.” Three months ago Gordon received a letter from the nearby U.S.

naval base at Subic Bay informing him that U.S. officials had received “very reliable information” that left-wing extremists were plotting to assassinate him. The letter, signed by Daniel A. McBride of the U.S. Naval Investigative Service, ended with the warning, “Be careful.”

At the same time, Aquino has not been able to significantly revive the country’s economy. The national debt still exceeds $34 billion, unemployment is estimated at 40 per cent and annual per-capita income is a scant $600. The human consequences of those statistics are evident in the number of beggars and prostitutes thronging Manila’s grimy streets. Said Rev. Joe Dizon, 37, leader of a two-million-member leftist political coalition, Bayan: “As long as peasants remain landless, laborers do not receive just wages and we channel more money to the military than to basic social services, there will be no genuine peace.”

Aquino’s advisers admit that until now the president has been so preoccupied by internal problems in her government that she has had almost no time for other pressing concerns. Those include land reform and regional development. Said Saguisag: “We’ve been looking backward when we should have been moving ahead.” Now, observers say that she may begin to outline some of her economic policies and attempt to satisfy the public clamor for reform.

But Aquino faces a difficult task. Her husband, Benigno—whose murder in 1983 sparked the opposition unrest that ultimately brought her to power—once said that whoever succeeded Marcos would be so overwhelmed by the problems he inherited that he too would soon be left “smelling of horse manure.” Corazon Aquino’s reputation for personal honesty and integrity has so far spared her from that fate, but time may be running out.