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Filipinos Lighthearted in Crisis as Real Colonel Goes on Air : Surprise 'Gringo' Brings Down the House at Manila Forum

September 15, 1987|MARK FINEMAN | Times Staff Writer

MANILA — At 9:45 a.m. Monday, as the usual politicians were droning on about the current political crisis and pending Cabinet shake-up at Manila's premier breakfast forum in the posh Manila Hotel, moderator Neal Cruz made a stunning announcement:

"We should wind this all up because we have Col. Gringo Honasan coming in right now," Cruz declared, referring to the renegade combat veteran Gregorio Honasan, nicknamed "Gringo," who p1818324590attempt against President Corazon Aquino's government. For more than two weeks he has eluded a nationwide dragnet fielded by Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, Aquino's armed forces chief.

Suddenly, eight "soldiers" in combat gear and carrying M-16 rifles marched into the room behind a Philippine flag mounted upside down, the symbol of last month's mutineers, and began to sing a revolutionary song.

And finally. . . . Well, it was almost as good as the real thing.

Lighthearted Approach

Wearing combat fatigues and a "Gringo for President" T-shirt, and looking every bit the renegade colonel, top Filipino impressionist-comic Willie Nepumoceno appeared.

The next 15 minutes of comedy brought tears to the eyes of politicians and breakfast patrons alike and demonstrated how lightheartedly the Filipinos are taking the current crisis.

"Aren't you afraid of all the generals and soldiers who are after you?" moderator Cruz asked Nepumoceno. "After all, there's a 1-million-peso ($50,000) price on your head."

"I'm not afraid of the generals and other officers because they are our brother soldiers," Nepumoceno replied in a perfect imitation of Honasan's voice. "I am afraid, however, of the movie producers. They're offering me $1 million, and they won't leave me alone. I can't get any sleep."

And so the fake Honasan entertained Manila's elite, on a day when the real Honasan dominated Manila's airwaves and front pages.

On Sunday night, Honasan had been the lead story on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes." He is the subject of the cover story in the Asia-Pacific edition of Newsweek magazine today. And DZRH, Manila's No. 1 radio station, aired another interview with the renegade colonel several times Monday, the transcript of which appeared on four full pages of the right-wing Manila daily, The Independent.

There was little new in any of the interviews. Largely, they were the newest installment of Honasan's psychological war against the embattled Aquino government, which is in the midst of a Cabinet crisis after the coup attempt.

Among the more important points stressed by Honasan during the battery of "exclusive" interviews were his plans for the future.

Honasan said that he and his supporters within the military, who number in the thousands and may well constitute a majority of the Philippine armed forces, do not plan another "confrontational" challenge to Aquino's 18-month constitutional government.

Secret Plans

"We really do not want a bloody confrontation," he told radio listeners here. But he quickly added that an even more potent attempt to overthrow Aquino may be in the works.

"At this point we can't divulge what we intend to do," he said. "The plans of a more important group than mine would be imperiled."

Honasan, whose hide-out is so secret that Newsweek correspondent Melinda Liu and Dianne Sawyer of "60 Minutes" were both blindfolded for the trip, likened the situation facing Aquino to that of former leader Ferdinand E. Marcos, whom Honasan helped overthrow last year in a similar military mutiny.

"The situation now is the same as that before February, 1986," Honasan said. "Then, both President Marcos and (Chief of Staff) Gen. (Fabian C.) Ver had no inkling how many we were, where we were, and who we were."

Perhaps so, but Ramos and key loyalist military commanders have initiated propaganda offensives of their own this week.

Strike Averted

On Sunday, the regional commander north of Manila averted a planned sit-down strike by thousands of disgruntled soldiers at Camp Aquino, the regional military headquarters in the president's home town of Tarlac. Brig. Gen. Bayani Fabic caught wind of the strike plans, quickly organized a "heart-to-heart dialogue" with his men and prevented the action by promising that changes would come quickly in Aquino's government.

On Monday, Aquino's executive secretary, Joker Arroyo, challenged Honasan to prove he is "man enough" to "appear like a true soldier, an officer and a gentleman, before a court-martial."

Meantime, Ramos told reporters Monday that Honasan's 20-hour mutiny on Aug. 28 "scared away" desperately needed foreign investment and caused at least $1.7 million in property damage--that in a near-destitute nation that already owes $28 billion to foreign creditors. The money, Ramos stressed, could have been used to buy much needed combat boots, uniforms or military housing units.

He also reiterated his charge that Honasan's men had set fire to the now-gutted armed forces general headquarters building on Aug. 28 in a last-ditch effort to smoke out officers still loyal to Aquino.

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