MANILA — Twenty-four hours into the siege by rebel soldiers at a key Manila television station Tuesday night, a longtime military observer in the Philippines surveyed the scene around the complex and shook his head.
The streets were filled with hundreds of reporters, photographers and foreign television crews--far more, it seemed, than the 200 heavily armed troops occupying the broadcast station and the hundreds more civilians loyal to Ferdinand E. Marcos who tried to form a human barricade around it.
Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, the observer said, "Never before have so many covered so few."
It was a moment of levity in an evening of tear gas, street melees and heightened fears that the military under President Corazon Aquino may once again have to use force against her people.
But the comment highlighted what may be the most serious impact of the so-far-unsuccessful attempt by Aquino's opponents within the Philippine armed forces to take over key military and media facilities here in the capital.
For Aquino, the most critical week of her young presidency has become more a war of images than a battle of bullets.
"What Mrs. Aquino must realize is that a government created by a media event can be destroyed by one," said Sylvestre Afable, a key aide to ousted Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, referring to the now-legendary "people's power" revolution that brought Aquino to power last Feb. 25.
Amid concerted efforts by the political left and right to destabilize Aquino's government before next Monday's crucial constitutional referendum, both sides have staged highly visual events almost daily. And the domestic and foreign media have recorded and transmitted each stark image.
The past week has added up to the most serious crisis to face Aquino since she took power. Tear-gassing, charges by riot troops, protesters burning tires and denouncing Aquino in the streets and the president's own statement threatening to take a hard line against the rebel troops--all were relayed to a world and a nation that once viewed the 54-year-old former housewife as a woman of peace who rescued her nation from a brutal dictator.
What was worse, Tuesday's attempt by troops loyal to Marcos to take over two key military bases in Manila and the Channel 7 television complex came just five days after a routine police action ended in a massacre. Aquino's military opened fire Thursday on 10,000 leftist peasant demonstrators, killing 19 and wounding more than 100.
The images of those killings, which happened only after the peasant marchers deliberately provoked the military, also were broadcast in chilling detail worldwide.
Aquino's advisers insist that the president is not concerned about image.
Teodoro Locsin Jr., special counsel to Aquino and one of her top personal aides, insisted that she has no fears that her nationally broadcast statement Tuesday afternoon vowing a military assault on the TV complex would shift her image radically to the right in the eyes of her people and the world.
'She's Tired of All This'
"She's not worried," Locsin said. "She just wants it done. I don't think the president worries about her image or the image of her government. She's just tired of all this."
In interviews with more than a dozen Philippine and foreign military sources here, though, it is clear that the recent series of attacks on the Aquino government are part of a well-planned strategy targeted specifically at the president's image--an effort, they said, to create at least the impression that her government is unstable, if not to actually destabilize it.
Even Aquino's military commanders conceded that they had to prevail upon the president during Tuesday's drama to conduct lengthy negotiations with the rebels Tuesday night rather than quickly ordering troops to storm the complex. Such restraint, the commanders said, was needed to protect the military's image and keep the armed forces unified.
"We had a recent experience," said Deputy Chief of Staff Eduardo Ermita, who led the negotiations from the government side, in a clear reference to last Thursday's shootings. "And we were afraid that lives will be lost."
Ramos Appeals for Unity
Aquino's trusted military chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, announced early today, "There is a bigger scenario than just these attempted takeovers." And Ramos issued a televised appeal through the night for unity in the armed forces and for the support of the Filipino people.
"This is just a sideshow to the main event," said one Western military analyst with ties to the intelligence community. "There will be more things that go bump in the night this week as we approach the (constitutional) plebiscite. And you can bet the TV cameras will be there."