There he was again, in the middle of rumors of coup attempts. This time, though, he wasn’t the subject of speculation, but the speculator. Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV thought it wise the day after President Aquino’s well-received State of the Nation Address to air his suspicions that retired generals associated with the previous administration were recruiting officers on active duty for a military coup.
If the two bizarre attempts to seize or use military power in which Trillanes took a leading part (the so-called Oakwood Mutiny in 2003 and the Manila Peninsula incident in 2007) are any gauge, the officer-turned-politician does not in fact know what it takes to oust a president. So his words should be taken at a discount: not that a military strike might be effective, but only that it might be imminent.
Trillanes, however, backtracked the following day. “There were retired military officials who were out to recruit, but fortunately the active members did not bite. That’s why it didn’t progress into something serious,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
In that case, why did he bother to announce the information in the first place? Former military officials, including the ones who served under Gloria Arroyo and felt alluded to, openly ridiculed his amateurishness. The general critique went this way: If the information was raw, the responsible thing to do was to process it, not disclose it to the media.
Perhaps, to grant Trillanes his due, he was only trying to preempt any such attempt, by exposing the potential plotters to the spotlight’s glare. But he did not name names, just a blanket suggestion that the retired generals were close to Arroyo. If in fact the ex-generals had progressed from talking about the current state of affairs (not only not illegal but expected) to planning a coup, then the better course of action would have been to seize those former officials in the act of planning. Thus, even if we grant that Trillanes’ preemptive strike worked, the larger problem would remain: The alleged plotters remain unidentified and at large.
Instead of panicking, or going solo, Trillanes should have taken a deep breath and reviewed the lessons of history. Military coups do not succeed in the Philippines. The two that are often presented as successes are problematic examples: Juan Ponce Enrile’s plot in 1986 was in fact discovered by Ferdinand Marcos, and it was only people power that saved him. Angelo Reyes did not surround Malacañang with tanks in 2001; there was no plot to speak of, only the decision to withdraw support from Joseph Estrada. But they had two crucial factors in common. Both were in positions of command; their actions were both made possible by people power.
Now if Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, whom President Aquino trusts with his life, or the new Armed Forces chief of staff he has just appointed, Lt. Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, are in on a plot, then perhaps Trillanes should start talking. Otherwise, he is engaged in mere and reckless rumor-mongering.
It may be that the best reminder that the death of Corazon Aquino five short years ago today continues to have an impact on Philippine politics was an inadvertent and, according to most accounts, unscripted highlight of the State of the Nation Address last Monday. We are referring to President Aquino’s emotional reference to both his parents, toward the end of his speech. The official English version reads: “If I had turned my back on the opportunity [to serve by running for President], then I might as well have turned my back on my father and mother, and all the sacrifices they made for all of us; that will not happen.”
Columnist Randy David was the first to direct public attention to what may be the true significance of that reference. “[Mr. Aquino] said he has not forgotten that, four years ago, they made him president purely on the basis of a trust that flowed from the recognition of his parents’ intrinsic patriotism and goodness. He assured them that he would never do anything to betray his parents’ memory.”
We do not know if the President will put it in such unequivocal terms himself, but it is true that for many people, the root source of his legitimacy as leader lies “purely” in his parents’ example. It is no exaggeration, but also no slight, to say that, if his mother’s very public last days had not reminded the nation of their family’s sacrifices, he wouldn’t have been addressing the nation from the front of the Batasan last Monday.
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