LAOAG, Philippines — Here in the birthplace of exiled ruler Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Philippine military set up something of a homecoming present last week for the deposed dictator.
It wasn't the welcome wagon.
At the end of the only runway at Laoag International Airport, a showcase built with some of the tens of millions of dollars that Marcos funneled to his home province, stood two full-sized army tanks and an armored personnel carrier. All three had their guns pointed straight down the runway.
It was just a precaution, local military leaders said, in case the rumors are true--rumors that Marcos, who ruled the Philippines with an iron fist for two decades before his people overthrew him a year ago, actually plans to sneak back into his homeland sometime within the next week or so and challenge the government of President Corazon Aquino.
But the artillery positioned in this provincial capital, 300 miles north of Manila, is also a symbol of the last-minute jitters shaking the nation's capital as it counts down to a Feb. 2 constitutional referendum. The vote, Philippine political experts say, will do more to stabilize Aquino's young government than any other event since she took power a year ago.
In the last two weeks, Manila residents have been bombarded every day with rumors of yet another coup plot against Aquino, whose government has been battered by such rumors every few months since she took office.
Nerves were stretched even tighter Thursday when about 10,000 farmers demonstrating for land reform were met with gunfire from troops guarding Malacanang Palace, the president's office. Fifteen were killed and 94 were wounded in the shooting, which deepened immeasurably the administration's problems.
The most recent rumors focus not only on disgruntled military officers and supporters of ousted Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, but also on a possible return by Marcos and an armed move by the ragtag remnants of his supporters to grab power before Aquino finally consolidates her rule.
The theory behind the rumors is based on the proposed new constitution itself, which defines Aquino's term as running until June, 1992.
The new charter, drafted by 48 men and women appointed by Aquino, would give her enemies less legal standing to challenge her right to rule, many Filipino political analysts have said.
If a coup comes before the constitution is ratified, the rebel force could justify it by saying Aquino's was a revolutionary government that dissolved the country's old constitution last March and substituted for it a temporary charter that has no basis in law.
In a nation of 30,000 lawyers, political and diplomatic observers say, such logic is compelling.
Even though Aquino laughed off persistent rumors that a coup would be staged last weekend, declaring Jan. 18 through her press secretary that "the mere fact I was not wakened up means there was really nothing to call my attention to," her military leaders clearly are taking the rumors of coup plots, and a Marcos homecoming, far more seriously.
Catalyst for Countercoup
Many Filipinos are actually beginning to suspect that, one year after he fled a presidential palace under siege for exile in Honolulu, Marcos actually may return to the Philippines before Feb. 2 to serve as a catalyst for a counterrevolution against the woman primarily responsible for his ouster.
Defense Minister Rafael Ileto, explaining the military's decision to place metropolitan Manila under "red alert" last weekend and station tanks at Laoag International Airport, told reporters: "It was only a rumor. The only thing is, we reacted since we cannot afford not to react."
Military Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos went further, actually confirming that yet another coup was, indeed, in the offing last weekend.
The military "took precautionary measures to forestall an alleged (Marcos) loyalist and Muslim rebel plot to sow violence in the city," said Gen. Ramos, who sided with Aquino last November in preempting an earlier alleged plot against her government by military forces loyal to Enrile.
'Abduct or Liquidate'
A detailed version of last weekend's rumored coup plot was contained in a confidential military report obtained by several journalists. The report states that five brigadier generals and a colonel have been meeting secretly with Marcos loyalists, recruiting military personnel and plotting to "abduct or liquidate" Ramos and, eventually, overthrow Aquino.
Enrile has not been linked directly with the most recent plot. However, the 62-year-old, articulate former defense minister, who was instrumental in driving Marcos from power last year, has been condemning Aquino's government and her constitution in almost daily speeches throughout the country.
In searching for an explanation for the Aquino government's vulnerability to plots, both rumored and real, the nation's prestigious daily, the Manila Chronicle, declared in an editorial last week that the blame lies with Aquino herself.