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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 19:09 GMT
Idealism that drives Philippine plotters
By Jonathan Head
South-East Asia correspondent, BBC News

Brigadier General Danilo Lim (L) looks on while Antonio Trillanes (R) announces their surrender
The military in Philippines have often been involved in politics

Armed soldiers milling amid the marble and crystal fittings of a luxury hotel foyer in the commercial heart of Manila.

Aggrieved officers demanding a change of government.

Even more troops with armoured vehicles mounting a siege outside.

A swarm of journalists and cameramen, capturing the entire drama, live on TV.

Finally, an emotional surrender by the renegades, claiming to be acting in the higher interests of the nation.

And then everything is more or less back to normal.

It could only happen in the Philippines.

Carbon-copy mutiny

And it has happened more than once. In fact the leaders of this mutiny had only just walked out of a courtroom where they were on trial for a strikingly similar incident four years ago.

Philippine rebel troops in 2003
A similar mutiny in 2003 also ended without bloodshed

That was known as the "Oakwood Mutiny", after the high-end apartment block and shopping mall they occupied.

Then there were around 300 of them from various military units, and they were able to lay high explosives around the buildings.

The authorities were understandably hesitant to attempt the kind of full-scale assault they mounted this time - instead they negotiated a peaceful end to the siege.

The justification given by the mutineers is also much the same this time.

On their website, they described the country's economy, rule of law and "moral order" as lying in ruins.

As soldiers, they said, their duty was to defend the constitution and the people, not any particular individual.

They had resorted to taking this action, they said, because all other means of holding the Arroyo government to account for its abuses of power and corruption had failed.

Corruption is more or less endemic in the political cultures of most of South-East Asia.

The Philippines exception

And in the two most comparable to the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia, the military is also poorly trained and equipped, with a tradition of meddling in politics.

Soldiers surrounded the Peninsula Hotel
The army intervened swiftly to stifle the attempted coup

But the willingness of disaffected soldiers to take up arms against their government is unique to the Philippines in this region.

There have been around a dozen uprisings or coup attempts since the 1986 "People Power" revolution that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship.

So why is the Philippines different?

Perhaps it can be explained by the romantic idealism that pervades so many aspects of Filipino life.

Politics there is as dirty as anywhere in Asia. Votes and political support are blatantly bought, power is openly abused, corruption flagrantly practiced.

Political positions are passed on to sons, daughters, cousins and friends, as though they are birthrights.

Yet where this has imbued the populations of other South-East Asian societies with cynicism, in the Philippines political debate - and there is an awful lot of it - still invokes the loftiest ideals and principles.


And much of that idealism has infused the armed forces.

Former President, Ferdinand Marcos
The army played a vital role in removing President Marcos in 1986

The military takes great pride in the role it played in the much-romanticised "People Power" uprising of 1986.

But it also takes pride in the endless battles it has to fight against rebel movements, from the communist New People's Army to the militant Islamic insurgents in the south.

This gives many officers a sense that they are literally the guardians of the nation.

Following the People Power revolution, a group calling itself the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, which had led the military defection from Marcos, grew increasingly unhappy with the failure of the Aquino government to address the deep-rooted poverty and inequality in Filipino society.

Led by a dashing young colonel, Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, it was involved in two major uprisings against her government in 1987 and 1989, during the last of which the presidential palace was bombed.

Yet Colonel Honasan was later pardoned, and has gone on to a very successful career as a senator, even though he is still suspected of being involved in later coups and mutinies.

Resentment and showmanship

This lenient approach by the army's top command reflects their awareness of the wider popularity of the demands made by renegade factions in the military, and the risk of a wider uprising if they are dealt with too harshly.

Philippines soldiers in the south of the country
Soldiers are fighting a war against Muslim rebels in the south

One of the units most involved in these various uprisings is the army's most elite, the Scout Rangers.

These are the troops most likely to see battle against the insurgents.

They also see how poorly paid and equipped many soldiers are compared to their most senior officers and most politicians.

The Philippines is the largest recipient of US military aid in the region, but spends less - just 1% of GDP - on defence than most of its neighbours.

In battle the troops are also often poorly commanded.

Earlier this year dozens died, and 10 were beheaded, in clashes with Muslim rebels.

All this leads to lingering resentment of the central government, combined with a sense of duty to intervene.

There is also something of a performance about these uprisings that is in keeping with the rest of political culture in the Philippines.

The mutineers did not appear to expect that their action would actually cause the government's downfall.

They were making a point, albeit dramatically, and of course only when they had made sure there was an army of TV cameras there at the hotel to record the events.

In a country so in love with the cult of celebrity, that kind of showmanship seems somehow quite natural.

Troops storm Manila siege hotel
29 Nov 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: The Philippines
25 Oct 07 |  Country profiles
Arrest over Manila mutiny
28 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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