Government News Analysis

Echoes from the past

coup d'état Philippine National Police (PNP)

The first tangible sign of a split – revealing a faction opposed to Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte – has just appeared within the country’s military establishment. It involves a group which calls itself the Patriotic and Democratic Movement (PADEM). It claims there’s growing discontent within the ranks of both the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) and has called on Duterte to step down. The reason he should relinquish the presidency, the PADEM says, is “for betraying public interest”. This then is a clear attempt by this group to gain support for a coup d’état to topple the administration and remove Duterte from power.

A statement released by the PADEM said this: “We call on our fellow officers and members of the AFP and the PNP to join the people in demanding the resignation or ouster of Duterte and his administration”. It went on to charge Duterte with treating both uniformed services as his own “private army” – alluding to the practice by which powerful clans in the Philippines keep armed gangs to enforce their personal business.

It further charged the president with corrupting the military and law enforcement by offering financial rewards to soldiers and police officers for killing both drug dealers and suspected members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA).

The statement was made public by the group’s spokesman, Antonio Bonifacio, on Sunday.

We have no way of authenticating Antonio Bonifacio – that may be his real name; it may not. We also have no way of knowing the size of the PADEM; nor the calibre of its membership – whether they’re from the rank-and-file or officers. What we do know is that the Army has taken Bonifacio’s statement seriously enough to issue one of its own.

That statement, released by military spokesman, Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, said this: “The Armed Forces of the Philippines categorically denies the recent statement issued by a group that pretends to be representative of the men and women of the AFP and the Philippine National Police and [who] called themselves the Patriotic and Democratic Movement”.

Padilla underscored that both the military and law enforcement were fully supportive of Duterte and the administration. He added: “The accusations and issues cited by the group are unfounded and uncalled for. Such issues are clearly politically motivated and a matter that the AFP does not and will not subscribe to”. Padilla maintained that the group’s purpose was to create divisions within the two uniformed services.

The timing of this is unlikely to be coincidental, coming as it does when Duterte and his law-and-order chiefs are under considerable pressure following the killing of a 17-year-old high school student in an anti-drugs operation in Caloocan City, Metro Manila a week ago.

Public condemnation of the boy’s death came thick and fast and remains the main topic on social media. It’s virtually polarised the country. Murder charges are being prepared against three police officers who are believed responsible but that has done little to quell the anger.

And it’s that anger which the PADEM is likely intending to harness to its cause. Padilla believes the group wants to take advantage of the student’s death by playing in to the public mood and piggy-backing on the anti-police sentiment. That would make sense – coups, even military coups – have a much greater chance of success if they can galvanise widespread popular support among the civilian population.

In an effort to calm passions, Padilla added in his statement: “We appeal for sobriety, reason and patience as we await the results of these processes [the judicial proceedings concerning the three police officers]. We are the constitutionally mandated protectors of the people and will stand by our law-abiding citizens whenever and wherever we are needed. The AFP appeals to the public and the various political groups to respect the apolitical stance of the AFP and help bring unity and healing instead of fomenting divisiveness and collapse”.

The tenor of that statement makes two things clear: first, that the PADEM is not being seen as some wild card; it’s being treated as a serious entity, and secondly, that there’s real concern within the military command over the statement issued by this group.

But this is, by any definition, an act of treason – an extremely serious crime which carries a penalty of life imprisonment under the country’s Revised Penal Code (Article 114). Prior to the suspension of capital punishment it carried the death penalty. This then says something about the group’s commitment.

These are high stakes; the question is, who else might be involved? Unlike other Southeast Asian states, the Philippines doesn’t have a history of military juntas – Thailand’s had 10 since 1933 and is presently run by one; Myanmar has had two which if combined would span 27 years; military rule in Indonesia lasted from 1967 to 1998.

By comparison, the Philippines had eight years of martial law under former president Ferdinand Marcos which was ended by a People Power Revolution in 1986 which brought Corazon Aquino to power. As with the killing of the young student, it was the assassination of Aquino’s husband on the tarmac of Manila Airport that stirred the public to mass in protest.

The point is, the likelihood of the generals running the Philippines is extremely remote. The chances of them backing a political entity, however, would be less so – Padilla’s affirmations of the Army’s loyalty to Duterte and the administration notwithstanding.

Over the past year, there’s been regular talk and rumours of coups to topple Duterte; but none of them have had any real credence. This one – given the Army’s response; the fact that it wasn’t simply dismissive of the PADEM – seems a little more relevant.

As to who might be behind it, the likes of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV – a participant in two previous coups, albeit failed ones – would be an obvious possibility, as would fellow party list Magdalo Group member, Gary Alejano, in the House of Representatives. That’s to say they’d be among the first names that would spring to mind for many people. Certainly, there are a number of retired AFP and PNP figures among Magdalo’s core support base.

And something else – that curious reference which Bonifacio made to the NPA. This is the Army’s foremost sworn enemy; why would one of its serving soldiers (if Bonifacio is such), be defending the rights of the NPA? And if Magdalo is involved, how could that be? These groups are polar opposites: the NPA is a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist organisation committed to proletarian revolution; Magdalo is Right Wing Filipino nationalist and vehemently anti-communist.

Well, as Shakespeare observed, “Adversity makes strange bedfellows”. In July 2006, three years after the Oakwood Mutiny – Magdalo’s attempted coup against then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – one of the mutineers, 1st Lieutenant Lawrence San Juan, admitted that Magdalo had formed a tactical alliance with the NPA to bring about Arroyo’s overthrow.

Quite separately, one year later, Defence Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane Jr claimed that the NPA was campaigning in its rebel strongholds for the election of fellow Oakwood mutineer, Antonio Trillanes. So, given all that, they have history.

But while Trillanes and Alejano may stand out as possibles, given their effusive criticism of Duterte – not to mention their regular efforts to have him impeached and removed from power – they are not the only ones. Former Liberal Party (LP) standard bearer, Mar Roxas, who failed in his bid for the presidency in May last year, will certainly be viewed as someone who might benefit from Duterte’s ousting.

Roxas, the ‘man who would be king’ – former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s chosen heir to the throne of Malacañang – lost face when he failed to secure the crown of state in the May 2016 race. For him and his supporters it was a bitter defeat and the taste of it still lingers.

Vice President Leni Robredo – another forceful critic of Duterte – might be regarded as a possible plot collaborator in some quarters, too. It’s not difficult to see a scenario where the widow Robredo steps centre stage if such a coup unfolds and looks successful, as the widow Aquino did as Marcos’s power drained to nothing 31 years ago.

And there are slight echoes of that time in what’s been taking place in Manila during the past week. There are parallels between the large street demonstrations which heralded Marcos’s fall from grace and his ultimate overthrow, with those of today. For one thing, in both, it’s the voice of the Roman Catholic Church that led the chorus of protest; that stirred the masses.

Back in 1986, it came from the throat of the late Jaime Lachica Cardinal Sin, then the Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila and de facto Primate of the Philippines. Today, the voice is that of Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the all-powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines – the episcopal hierarchy of the Church.

The style of these two powerful, highly political clerics is very similar, which is not surprising – Villegas was very much Sin’s understudy having served the cardinal for 18 years as his private secretary. Sin’s way of doing things – taking on a president by exhorting the people and calling them to the streets – is very much Villegas’s way. Villegas fits comfortably into Sin’s mantle.

He’s now proclaimed that church bells should be rung for 15 minutes each night in his Pangasinan diocese to jolt a citizenry which, in his words, has “become a coward in expressing anger against evil”. Unrestrained and combative where Duterte’s concerned, today Villegas sounds like Sin.

So, in both cases, the political scenery is eerily similar – a single death, the catalyst of an uprising; a powerful Church leader at centre stage; a restless people egged on by the cleric’s oratory; political players on and off the stage; and additional impetus from the chorus of anti-president crowds in the wings.

But though there may be similarities between the Philippine of 1986 and the Philippines of today, there are some very large differences also. For one thing, Marcos was extremely unpopular with his people while Duterte is loved and adored. There was no trust rating for the late president while Duterte’s is in the high 70%-sphere. Reversing that statistic while the political opposition is in utter disarray would be a labour even Hercules wouldn’t want to attempt.

Furthermore, the Church had the people’s ear back then, while over the intervening three decades it’s become increasingly regarded as out of touch, corrupt and hypocritical and in the process has squandered much of its authority.

It’s possible that the Church – or at least Villegas – believes that the people’s trust and ultimate compliance can be won back. If is can draw them in numbers to a popular cause, maybe it can reverse its fortunes; be seen once more as the true and rightful shepherd of the flock. And restore that flock’s obedience.

If that’s the blueprint its working with, it’s a huge gamble. It may have the power of the pulpit behind it as it did in the late Marcos era, but that pulpit is far from strong in the new cathedral of the masses, social media. There was no Facebook and Twitter in 1986. These are very different times and require very different strategies. The bombast of the past is hollow to today’s ears.

Furthermore, the Church hierarchy’s handling of the online congregations – seeking to drown out or remove any and all who dare to question them – inevitably has hardened that opposition to the Church’s self-proclaimed authority. It has made it look even more autocratic and out of touch. Through those actions it has shown that this is a Church that refuses to listen to its flock; that it holds that flock in contempt for daring to question the omniscience in which it believes it should glory. By continuing to tread this path with its customary disregard for dissenting voices, the Church stands to isolate itself even more. As in all battles, hearts and minds must be won; not silenced.

Whether the PADEM is able to build any sort of realistic support within the ranks of the armed services and law enforcement remains to be seen. It would be odd though, to show its hand if it didn’t have some sort of base already. Alternatively, by issuing its statement the PADEM may simply be testing the waters; flying a kite, a way of gauging the appetite for such an action – both within the AFP and PNP and among the civilian population.

Analysis is not an exact science – and particularly in cases such as this where subterfuge is the prime element. But what is clear from the sketches so far is that within the AFP and the PNP, a seed has been sown which, if it ever has the chance to germinate, could spread its root system across the security establishment.

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