Both Sides Resorting to Old Scripts
by Manuel L. Quezon III
Enough time has passed since the ill-fated attempt by Philippine Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV to take over the Manila Peninsula Hotel, to figure out whether it was just a pointless adventure, or a sign of things to come. This isn’t to say that both Trillanes’ objectives and those of the government in nipping his efforts in the bud, don’t remain murky — they do.
Trillanes walked out of a trial, and, unmolested by his guards (who ended up accompanying him) holed up in a luxury hotel and called for the soldiery and the public to withdraw their support from the Arroyo administration.
Whether he genuinely believed people would come out in the streets to answer his call, or whether it was a ploy, with his real objective (and expectation) being that his call would trigger defections in the armed forces, remains a hotly-debated topic.
It’s been argued that Trillanes had an agreement with the Arroyo administration’s former economic planning chief, Romulo Neri, who made the administration’s knees buckle earlier this year by revealing a controversial deal with China had been accompanied by bribe-taking and giving by Filipino officials, including the country’s elections chief (who subsequently resigned).
He stopped short, however, of repeating under oath what he supposedly told confidantes: that President Arroyo, upon being informed of the bribery, had told him to ignore it and then pressured Neri to approve the deal as she was due to go to China to sign it.
Trillanes, according to this version of events, was expecting Neri to join him in the hotel and finally state what he’d so far refused to say in public. The motivation for Neri being that he resisted pressure to make his revelations before the Senate, because he didn’t want the government brought down, only for it land in the laps of opposition politicians.
But if that was truly the case, Neri did to Trillanes what he did to those who’d counted on his telling all before the Senate: he betrayed those expecting him to spill the beans.
Instead, it seemed for a time that what would happen is that Trillanes’ brains would end up splattered on the walls of the hotel. However, defiance on the part of members of the Philippine media meant the government’s police forces were unable to move with impunity. It was, however a pyrrhic victory for the media, even if it assumed it had not only asserted press freedom, but prevented a bloodbath. Public opinion firmly condemned the uncooperative media. Just as public opinion was generally hostile to Trillanes, and provoked serious disagreements on his conduct even within opposition circles.
Readers will recall that two years ago in this column (“Who Will Use the Filipino Soldiers First?” December 14, 2005), I pointed out, “But one thing is sure: Months into the ongoing political crisis in the Philippines, the specter of a resolution through military intervention won’t go away. It seems a race is on to see who will get to use the soldiers first, and is not even a question of who can achieve a resolution without bringing out the bayonets.”
It came to pass in February, 2006 and came to pass again last November 29.
In an opinion piece, the economist Filomeno Sta. Ana III took exception to those who condemned the Trillanes adventure and thundered for “the rule of law.”
Sta. Ana reacted by writing, “My fear is that the ideas [such critics] disseminate can be more dangerous to democracy and its institutions than the action taken by Mssrs, Trillanes and Lim and their civilian supporters.” The reason, according to him is that “The action taken by the Peninsula actors cannot be separated from the stark fact that GMA has broken the rule of law”. Of course President Arroyo herself sees things otherwise, and took the opportunity of her recent trip to Spain, the UK and to Kuwait where she successfully lobbied for clemency for an imprisoned Overseas Filipino Worker, to insist crushing the hotel takeover was not only a victory achieved by force of arms, but also represented public support for her rule.
It certainly indicates that swift action minimized the fallout from the Trillanes adventure: so far, it seems, according to businessmen, that the takeover had no effect whatsoever on the economy aside from losses due to damage and lost bookings to the hotel itself.
As it is, too much focus has been placed on what the failed hotel adventure means, in terms of Trillanes and the anti-Arroyo opposition.
It may well be that not only was Trillanes bamboozled by Neri (who, if he did that might then have tipped off the authorities), but that he overestimated public antipathy to Mrs. Arroyo and support for his sentiments within the armed forces. Or it may have been the socialist company Trillanes decided to keep.
As Vicente Romano III, an oppositionist, observed, “Days after the standoff, there were news reports that there was possibly some unit commanders who were poised to leave their barracks to join Trillanes and Lim. They were perhaps waiting for Neri’s defection as their signal to move. Instead, they saw Argee Guevarra and JV Bautista beside Trillanes at the Pen. To the military, these are the poster boys of Communism. Seeing them would have planted seeds of doubt in their rightist hearts. ‘Are we risking everything, just to turn it over to commies?’ they probably asked. The man in the wig was the clincher, turning the whole exercise into a farce.”
Ramon Casiple, as sober a political analyst as one is likely to find, prefers to put the Peninsula adventure in the context of Mrs. Arroyo’s frustrations when it comes to expand her political options, including amending the constitution.
Three days, he wrote, “The Manila Pen incident underscored this uncertainty with both sides in the military and police stand-off engaged in a complicated [ritualized dance]. Whatever its other nuances, the ultimate message of the affair is the complete dependence of the political leadership on military support and the military’s choosing its own rules.”
He went on to point out that “The options for the president is narrowing. Compromise with the broad political opposition is almost gone and her maintaining the option for term extension is riling all presidentiables-whether from the opposition or from her own coalition.”
Yet by force or bluff, keeping those options from narrowing permanently remains the key to continued political relevance and survival.
Reports flew thick and fast that the President’s 200-person entourage during her European trip, included a couple of dozen members of the House, to discuss reviving constitutional amendments efforts.
This week, it became official. The effort to amend the constitution will be revived.