The impotence of the Manila coup

The short-lived revolt in Manila last week, led by a soldier-turned-senator, will be added to the Philippines’ history of dozens of coup attempts since democracy was restored in 1986. All of these military-led attempted coups were crushed.

Unlike the recent soldier-led coup, the uprising that ousted President Joseph Estrada in January 2001, under allegations of massive corruption, was led by the people. Estrada was convicted for plunder earlier this year.

The notion that Estrada’s ouster would eventually put an end to corruption, and that new leadership with high moral ascendancy would take his place, has unfortunately not occurred. Years later, the new leadership has failed to improve the lives of Filipinos and to provide meaningful change.

Many believe that the present administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is even “worse” than Estrada’s, with the current government facing serious allegations of corruption amid a deteriorating human rights record that pushes the Filipino people to the depths of frustration. Some Filipinos living and working abroad even maintain that life was better previously.

However, the country’s long history of military coups and People Power activism undoubtedly demonstrates that deep-rooted and systemic problems cannot be solved merely by a change of leadership. No attempt by soldiers to take power or topple the civilian government can succeed in addressing the problems underlying the coup attempt.

This claim is not a theory but a reality based on years of experience by Filipinos themselves. The call for meaningful change begins from the people who suffer and are directly affected by the country’s depressing conditions — not by soldiers espousing coups and soldiers-turned-politicians who face criminal charges in court. Change is not effected by replacing a condemned leader with a new one, be it because of mere dislike or dissatisfaction with the current leader, nor does it happen overnight.

Meaningful change develops over time by strengthening the basic institutions of the country, including the police, judiciary and other civilian institutions. These institutions have the constitutional right and duty to provide practical solutions to practical problems. Such solutions will not materialize through empty rhetoric by soldiers or coup leaders who claim their actions are based on the “people’s mandate.”

Thinking they can decide the fate of the Filipino people based on their own judgment is not only an insult to the people’s intellect but reflects complete disrespect for the country’s institutions and the people’s right to take part in the country’s affairs. Any attempt to weaken or dismantle the country’s basic institutions through coups, mutinies or other illegal acts, without the consent of the people directly affected by these actions, is a threat to democracy.

It is a fact that there is widespread discontent within the country. However, discontent should be expressed according to the law and by nonviolent means unless there is no space for lawful action and the government is irrationally consuming the people’s lives.

If deep frustrations justify illegal and violent action, then Burma’s democratic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi undoubtedly has the right to resort to violence. Yet after many years of incarceration and tremendous abuses inflicted on her people by the military junta, she remains resilient in pushing her cause, and has earned worldwide sympathy and understanding. Indeed, her detention has become a symbol of both oppression and hope for democracy in Burma.

Demanding drastic change without articulating the reasons will only isolate Filipinos, who are mostly apolitical as they suffer daily and bear the brunt of the government’s neglect and abuse. Their reluctance to support a coup does not mean they are consumed by fear, but rather, it reflects their lack of faith that the coup leaders can make any meaningful change or improve their lives. A coup attempt in fact strengthens the largely unpopular government in justifying its acts.

Neither the public nor the media paid much attention to the fact that the police and military arrested coup leaders and others at the Peninsula Hotel against the rules of warrantless arrest. Arrests should have been made only if the arresting officers or witnesses had personal knowledge that a crime had been committed by the person being arrested. When police and soldiers arrested those involved in the coup, they also arrested civilians and journalists and hauled them off to a police camp where they were subsequently charged.

Police and investigators apparently were on a fishing expedition in arresting suspects and filing cases. This has long been common in the Philippines, where arrests can result in torture, illegal detention and false charges. For example, four people are reportedly in detention after being arrested in the coup aftermath, though their names are not included in the list of those charged by police. Refusing to release them is a blatant violation of their rights.

The soldiers who led this short-lived revolt have themselves experienced delays in the resolution of their own previous court cases in connection with the 2003 Oakwood mutiny and the February 2006 attempted coup. Court delays are endemic in the Philippines, and fair trials can hardly be ensured, particularly for those who cannot afford to employ competent legal counsel.

In the face of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other serious forms of abuse, the Supreme Court has taken action by exercising its limited power to effectively address these serious problems. Following a national consultation in July, the writ of amparo was adopted in October, a move that has already given hope of obtaining justice to victims and their families. Moreover, it has restored confidence in the country’s justice system.

This limited, but thus far effective, response to murders and disappearances that for years have caused deep frustration and suffering was formulated through public participation in a consultation and the assertion of the authority of the country’s highest judicial institution, the Supreme Court. It was not by a coup, not by soldiers and politicians calling for drastic change, but as a practical way of solving a practical problem within the system.

Had the Nov. 29 coup been successful, would the soldiers and others who would have come to power have been able to solve these practical problems? Could a change of leadership end the problems plaguing the country, from allegations of massive corruption to the extrajudicial killings of activists?

Inability to effect meaningful systemic change reflects the impotence of the soldiers’ purportedly tough actions and attempt to grab power. It seems they neglected to adequately reflect on these significant issues. They put the country at great risk in seeking to grab power through extralegal means and then expecting to leave the resolution of practical systemic problems to someone else.

Had the soldiers achieved their goal on Nov. 29, would their leadership be different from the previous administration, and would the country’s institutional defects be magically resolved? There is no rational assurance of this outcome. In reality, it would most likely have led to yet another failure.

Of course, any head of state or other government official who commits a crime should be held accountable. But unless the institutions of justice are allowed to develop and function effectively and independently, there cannot be other lawful and credible institutions that can hold them to account — not the soldiers, soldiers-turned-politicians, coup leaders, politicians or other actors.

Change is not just about replacing a handful of corrupt leaders. Rather, it must aim to correct the systemic defects that make the lives of the entire Filipino population miserable. Without this kind of change, democracy has no meaning, and the Philippines will be no different than other countries in Asia under military rule or dictatorship whose people now suffer the worst forms of atrocities.


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Filed under Laws, Military, Police, Public opinion

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