by Alan Robles
originally published in Asian Dragon Sep-Oct 2014
On May 2014, Thailand's military took over the country, shoving politicians aside, grabbing control of government agencies, rounding up people it considered threats and suppressing free speech.
Could it happen here? Yes.
Wait, you say, aren't Philippine coups a thing of the past? Isn't the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) now a disciplined, well-behaved group that obeys the Constitution and assures the public that it respects civilian authority?
The answer is...perhaps.
To begin with, it's worth remembering how in the past, military officers had a habit of declaring their respect for civilian authority and fealty to the Constitution -- just before gearing up and driving off in assorted trucks and /or armored amphibious vehicles to stage a power grab.
Then consider this: the Thai military have staged 19 coups d'etat (12 of them successful) in eight decades, a putsch roughly every four years. The Philippine military have mounted at least 13 coup attempts (all of them failures) in 21 years -- a coup every year and a half. From 1986 to 1989 violent coup attempts in the Philippines killed dozens and inflicted billions of pesos in catastrophic damage to the economy.
You might want also want to recall that the last putsch attempt in the Philippines didn't take place in the late 80s, it happened just eight years ago. Granted, that affair consisted of two dozen armed soldiers holing up in a five-star hotel and calling for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's ouster. Taking mere hours to break up (government forces, which included the elite Special Action Force, fired tear gas then sent an armored personnel carrier smashing through the plate glass of the lobby), it was a pale and farcical shadow of the bloody and murderous attempts of the late 1980s. But it showed that groups of soldiers were still ready for adventurism.
And why not? The AFP, despite the reassurances of its commanders, remains politicized. Its history has largely consisted of of fighting (and oppressing) fellow FIlipinos. For this, we can thank the purulent Ferdinand Marcos, who let the genie out of the bottle by using the armed forces to prop up his dictatorship. He showered lackey generals with positions and riches but in the end that didn't help him. When he was chased out of the country because the military deserted him to join the People Power uprising in 1986, the lesson wasn't lost on the officers: the AFP is the ultimate arbiter of power.
Every president since Marcos has lived with the knowledge that he or she is the commander-in-chief only through the sufferance of the military. Three of the five heads of state since 1986 faced coup plots. One of the three, Joseph "Erap" Estrada, was evicted from office when the AFP left him high and dry in 2001. Each president has had to find a way to keep the military quiet and behaved. During her long term, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tried to buy the loyalty of the brass by handing out plum positions, possibly involving some in corrupt dealings. For his part, Benigno Aquino, according to the Bertelsmann Foundation's 2014 country report, "is trying to bring the military more squarely under civilian control" by modernizing the armed forces and reorienting it to external defense.
The Philippines might look stable now, but by no means has it said farewell to military conspiracies. In 2012, senators Gringo Honasan and Antonio Trillanes said coup plots against Aquino would not succeed -- which was as much as saying they were ongoing.
Why would the military revolt? Over in Thailand, the generals claim they took over to head off a breakdown caused by a confrontation between government and its opponents. Neither side was backing down or compromising and the face-off threatened the country's stability.
Here, military takeovers have used one of two justifications. During Cory Aquino's time it was to save the country from an alleged Communist takeover. When that preposterous excuse wore thin to the point of transparency, plotters grabbed another: they were revolting to rid the country of corrupt politicians. It's a motherhood statement good for all occasions - after all, graft and corruption are constant, massive and entrenched in the Philippines. But here's the irony: the plots are probably thickest now BECAUSE of the Aquino administration's drive against graft. With high-profile, powerful politicians and government officials facing prosecution and billions of pesos of ill-gotten wealth at stake it's a safe bet that shady characters are doing the rounds meeting colonels and generals.
The fact is, military plotters will ride on any occasion when things look shaky. In a book about the presidency of Joseph Estrada, Aprodicio and Eleanor Laquian wrote how "the body politic may hold elections, pass legislation, formulate policies or implement programs under the tolerant gaze of the military establishment...but if instability and turmoil erupt, things will be decided by the armed forces."
And if we go by history, adventurers have little to fear if they fail. In theory, a coup is a military mutiny, which is punishable by death. But can you remember any rebel officer or soldier ever being executed? Instead the participants in one attempt were given pushups, while some of the commanders were imprisoned for a few years. Plotters such as Honasan and Trillanes even went on to become senators.
Thankfully, the military aren't as openly interventionist or monolithic as its Thai counterpart. It's the main reason coups have always failed: enough officers and units stayed loyal to defeat the putschists. Coup trouble here has never started with the rank and file, but fermented at the level of colonels and generals. The biggest and bloodiest attempt, in 1989, was a close-run thing: officers subverted detachments from the elite Marines and the Scout Rangers, as well as air force units - the very detachments that were supposed to quell coup attempts. Refusing to admit defeat, Cory Aquino rallied the government, got some air support from the US, and quashed the revolt.
Another thing to be thankful for is that there hasn't been any violent power grab since 1989. Instead, military plotters (probably egged on and financed by politicians) now depend heavily on massive public discontent and use the passive-aggressive "withdrawal of support." The one time this technique succeeded -- when Estrada was evicted in "People Power 2" -- it wasn't instigated by agitating renegade officers or crazed psychotic colonels, but by a decision of the generals to abandon Erap. The result wasn't a junta, because the generals deferred to civilian authority, for which we should be relieved.
What would it be like if the military DO grab power for themselves? Two words: Not nice.
Trillanes, himself a failed military rebel, mounted an uprising in 2003 claiming to represent a radical faction of junior officers with a "revolutionary" program. The contents of that program can be extracted from a document going around at that time. With the sinister title "The New Order - Restoring Democracy in the Philippines", it was allegedly written by a Scout Ranger. Among the things it advocates under a junta: compulsory military service; military immunity to civilian law; media censorship (with content restricted to "responsible reporting" and "positive comentaries") and the death penalty through a firing squad.
In the 1990s, some officers reportedly said they were swearing off coups because they realized they were out of their depth in politics. But subsequent events indicated they didn't speak for everyone. One other thing: a new generation of officers has since emerged who don't remember the coup failures of the 1980s. They'll be assuming key posts in a force that is being built up and modernized and made stronger by the Aquino government. Do we really know what's going on in their minds? The chances of a coup might be negligible, but they're not zero.