MANILA — Long criticized as weak and feckless, President Corazon Aquino has demonstrated unexpected toughness against her foes in recent days and appears to have gained much-needed sympathy after a failed mini-rebellion Sunday in northern Luzon left a popular general dead.
But diplomats and analysts here say the beleaguered Philippine leader may pay a heavy political price for her sudden boldness against alleged coup plotters. They say the next few days could be crucial if Aquino's government is to avoid a potential public relations disaster.
One reason is that 1,500 government troops failed for a second straight day Monday to capture suspended Gov. Rodolfo Aguinaldo, who escaped in an ambulance after his troops apparently killed armed forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Oscar Florendo during a short-lived Sunday revolt in Cagayan province, about 250 miles north of Manila. The day's death toll was unclear, with conflicting reports of 8 to 20 killed.
"I think the next several days will be very, very critical," said a Western diplomat. "If she is unable to deal with the situation--to get Aguinaldo, put him in jail, and keep him there--it contributes to the image that her government is just not in charge."
Also, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments this morning on a petition to free jailed Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who was arrested last week on criminal charges that his lawyers insist are invalid. Many expect the controversial charges to be reduced or thrown out.
"She's sending out mixed signals," said an Asian diplomat. "On one hand, she says all the mollycoddling of coup plotters is over. On the other hand, her heavy-handed behavior is giving the bad guys a good name."
He said the government would be better served by arresting prominent politicians and civilians for the graft and corruption that pervades much of the country's bureaucracy, judiciary and police. "They've got the evidence to get a 'big fish,' " he said. "But they're afraid to move.
"Instead, the government has decided to move in an area where the results are uncertain," he added. "That is always dangerous."
Both Enrile and Aguinaldo were indicted last week on a charge of rebellion with murder stemming from last December's failed coup, the sixth and bloodiest military uprising since Aquino came to power in 1986. Both men argue that the charge does not exist on statute books and therefore is invalid.
"In order to keep Enrile in jail, they had to invent a case that does not exist," the tired-looking Senate opposition leader, talking about himself in the third person, said Monday afternoon, flanked by 20 friends, family and staff members in the two-room, air-conditioned police office where he is being detained.
Enrile denied backing the December uprising and insisted that his arrest was politically motivated. "I never plotted with them," he said. "I never conspired with them. I did not in any manner support them."
But the continuing drama up north took top billing for many Manila residents. Aquino's staff and top military officials went on a public relations blitz to focus public attention on Florendo, the first high-ranking military officer killed while opposing rebel soldiers.
Florendo, 51, was widely known and widely liked by both his colleagues and the nation's press. Aquino aides hope his death will blunt public sympathy for the rebels, who are often portrayed in the press as Robin Hood-like figures guided by altruistic concern for the poor.
A diplomat for another Western embassy insisted that the crisis has become a "net plus" for Aquino. "The armed forces could not be made a fool of any longer. Really, the final determination is if the rebellion spreads. If it stays in Cagayan province, she's OK."