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A Scent of Blood in the Philippines : Unless Aquino Can Turn Quickly, Rumors May Become Fact

October 01, 1987|RICHARD J. KESSLER | Richard J. Kessler is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Capital cities are centers of intrigue, where rumor often substitutes for fact and reality is woven out of lies. In this respect Manila is like Washington--except that in Manila the knife in the back isn't figurative, and intrigue may cause a fledgling democracy to once again become a dictatorship.

Philippine President Corazon Aquino's enemies scent blood, and are closing in for the kill. Communist rebels are stepping up their attacks, hoping to provoke the military--frustrated by Aquino's policy of national reconciliation--into overthrowing her, further polarizing the nation. Opposition politicians are almost visibly salivating at the prospect of Aquino's downfall and the possibility of bringing back Ferdinand Marcos; former Labor Minister Blas Ople boasts that he is already forming a shadow cabinet.

An example of the intriguers' deviousness is the spate of stories that the CIA or conservative Americans like retired Gen. John Singlaub orchestrated August's coup attempt. By making it appear that American support has been withdrawn, Aquino's enemies hope that more friends will desert her.

Such psych-war techniques have been elevated to high art in the Philippines. Years of newspaper censorship under Marcos created an underground of information. Even with press freedom the underground remains, and the Manila press, rather than chasing fact, often prefers to print the more exciting fiction.

In Washington, rumors are a common device for bringing policy disputes to the surface, forcing opponents to give ground. In the Philippines the process is even more ingrained as the culture discourages direct interpersonal conflict. Attacks tend to be made indirectly, even symbolically. Thus during the August coup attempt the army's discontent with the leadership of Military Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos was powerfully conveyed in the news that his headquarters had been destroyed while there was little damage to the building, only a few hundred yards away, where respected former general Rafael Ileto serves as the secretary of defense.

One reason for the Philippines' continued political instability is the indication that these symbolic messages are not being heard by the president. Her recent cabinet shake-up was a disturbing sign: Her executive assistant, Joker Arroyo, had long been a target of the military and the business community. But after she fired Arroyo, the next to go were his severest critic in the cabinet, Finance Secretary Jaime Ongpin, and her appointments secretary, Ching Escaler, who once worked for Ongpin. Replacing Arroyo was his deputy and former classmate, Catalino Macaraig.

The implicit message was that Arroyo is still in charge. Whether he really is will be seen in the actions that the government now takes to show that it has heard the military's other signals: Will Gen. Ramos be replaced by his deputy, Renato de Villa? He and Ramos both were drawn from the ranks of the constabulary, not the army. If a chief is chosen from the army, will it be a respected general?

The initial signs are not good. Ever since coming to power, the civilian leaders have sought to divide and conquer the military by building up a presidential security guard and promoting officers for loyalty, not competence. After the coup attempt, when only the police obeyed orders to attack the army rebels, talk began of supplying the police with scarce military hardware like armored personnel carriers.

Aquino claims that she has heard the military's voice, listened to their grievances, moved for reforms. But leadership is the central issue, not salary or shoes. The military, after years of having Marcos tell it how to place one foot in front of the other, is not used to a president who asks the people to pull together but doesn't tell them how. An army will fight not for pay or privileges but because the troops are motivated by their leaders--as the Communist insurgents have shown. And leaders motivate their soldiers by showing that they care about them and their families. This the government has not yet done.

One way the government could demonstrate its concern is if it were to ask for more economic and less military assistance from the United States, and then transfer more funds into the defense budget to provide improved medical and dental care, and insurance for the soldiers' families.

After the coup effort, Arroyo was asked whether the root causes of the military's dissatisfaction had been eliminated. His facile reply: "Never mind the root causes." Continuation of this attitude will ensure the government's downfall. A year ago senior military commanders issued a "statement of concern" in which the "paramount" goal was "the stability and the security of the nation" (not the government). That goal still stands.

The situation is disturbingly like that in late 1985, when Marcos resigned and the military, the business sector and Manila's elite pragmatically, if not wholeheartedly, shifted their support to Aquino. She is still widely popular, and no other leader can challenge her the way she challenged Marcos. But discontent is a disease that spreads with rumors in the streets. If there is another coup attempt, the people may not turn out to attack her; the danger is that they may not turn out to support her, either.

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