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Reporter's Notebook : Manila Situation Normal: All Shot Up; Filipinos Like to Laugh During Crisis

September 03, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — At the height of last Friday's failed coup against President Corazon Aquino, the government-run Philippine News Agency was trying desperately to provide evidence that most of the country was normal and under control. In a country rife with violence, it was not an easy task.

At 4:31 p.m. Friday, the agency offered a bit of news from the violence-torn city of Zamboanga on the southernmost Philippine island of Mindanao. It began:

"Except for the usual stabbings and shootings in other parts of the region, the situation here during the coup attempt is normal."

This was one of many incidents that point up not only the problems of the Philippine people but also the fact that they love to laugh, and they tend to laugh the loudest at times of crisis.

Not even President Aquino was immune. On Friday afternoon, when the armed forces chief, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, opened fire with artillery and machine guns on the rebels' stronghold at Camp Aguinaldo, the president telephoned her special counsel, Teodoro Locsin Jr., who was with Ramos at national police headquarters across the street.

Aquino wanted to know if the attack she had ordered on the rebels had begun. Locsin replied that there was a tremendous amount of gunfire but that no one was getting hit.

"It's acoustic warfare," Locsin told the president.

"What is that?" Aquino asked.

"All noise and no casualties, because they are shooting upwards."

"Can't they bring their guns down?" the president wanted to know.

Locsin told the president to hold on. He turned to Ramos and relayed the question.

Moments later, Locsin got back on the line and informed the president that the men had lowered their sights but that still no one was being hit.

"Why?" the president asked.

"Now they're shooting at the ground."

At that point, according to Aquino's executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, even the president laughed.

Filipinos are infatuated with guns and war. On a per capita basis, the Philippines is believed to have more illegal firearms than any nation in the world. Its movie industry is obsessed with warfare.

So it was not surprising that tens of thousands of civilians crowded up to within a few yards of the battle zone on the boulevard separating the two military camps, one held by rebels, the other by loyalist forces, at the peak of the fighting.

Many were killed in the crossfire.

After the uprising had been crushed, every theater in Manila reopened Saturday, generally with more violence on the screen.

In suburban Quezon City, where the worst fighting took place Friday, billboards announced "First Strike," "No Retreat No Surrender," "Wrong Ranger" and "Steele Justice."

"Ready! Aim! Fire!" was to open today at movie houses throughout Manila. Advertisements for the film in Wednesday's newspapers announced that "free toy guns and toy soldiers will be given away to early lucky patrons on the first day of showing."

Movie stars could not be forgotten in the gunfire. The only story on the front page of every daily newspaper in Manila, other than those about the uprising led by Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan, dealt with the divorce of stars Gabby Concepcion and Sharon Cuneta.

Beneath a giant headline in one paper that read, "Rebel Junta: Gringo Forms Provisional Government," was this one, in only slightly smaller type: "Sharon, Gabby Separate; Split Conjugal Properties."

Filipinos also are fond of personalizing their machines. For example, the colorful jeepneys--half-bus, half-jeep vehicles that provide public transportation here--all have boys' names emblazoned on their bumpers.

So the old propeller-driven T-28 trainers that Gen. Ramos used in his rocket attack on rebel positions became heroes of the day. The thousands of people who witnessed the attack applauded loudly, and the planes were proclaimed "airborne heroes."

On Sunday, while searching for rebels, one of the two T-28s crashed. Engine problems were blamed.

On Monday there was a graphic illustration of the lingering indiscipline in the Philippine police and military after 20 years of abuse under the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, who was deposed last year.

Lt. Col. Franco Calida, commander of the southern city of Davao, who is known for creating a right-wing vigilante force that drove the Communists out of the city, received a call informing him that several of his men were drunk and shooting up a local beer hall.

Calida and a handful of men went off to investigate. Calida was shot four times and critically wounded by his own men.

Three weeks ago, in a ceremony in Manila, President Aquino had pinned the military's "commander of the year" medal on Calida's chest.

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