Monday, July 28, 2003

Inside The Crisis in the Philippines

Max Soliven of the Philippine Star wrote a fascinating article on his role as a negotiator between the military mutineers, who had seized part of the Philippine business district, and the government of President Gloria Arroyo. His inclusion on the crisis negotiating team had been requested via a backchannel network, on the strength of his earlier acquaintance with one of the rebels. His selection was probably also due to his status as a non-Leftist newspaper publisher. The rebels wanted a media witness, and he was trusted by everyone.

Several factors immediately stand out in Soliven's account. First, it is clear that Soliven was on one of several "negotiating" panels, nearly all of which contained individuals who were former putchists themselves. An earlier delegation, for example, had the suspected mastermind of the mutiny, one Senator "Gringo" Honasan, in attendance on the government side. Second, Soliven's account makes it clear that the mutineers were awaiting outside support that never materialized.

"By that time, the mutineers had definitely dropped the idea that President Macapagal-Arroyo should "step down". In effect, they disowned Trillanes’ earlier pitch on television as his 'being carried away'. Somehow, I believe that they discarded this as a no-brainer when they saw they weren’t getting any support from outside, or when they realized that outside military 'help' wasn’t on the way, and that other units hadn’t mutinied. This will have to be looked into further."

The third is collateral confirmation of the second: the participating mutineers had converged on the Philippine capital from all over the archipelago, most noteably from the southern island of Mindanao. And when the mutineers were striking a deal for clemency they made it clear that the conspiracy was not confined to those present:

Cimatu and the other officers on the government panel said that all would be dealt with fairly "under the Articles of War". I asked them: "How many men are here with you in the Oakwood?" They replied: "296."  Trillanes inquired: "What about the men and units in the provinces who had expressed their support for us?"  Cimatu replied that they would receive the same deal, but first they had to be informed and identified.

The fourth factor is atmospheric, but suggestive of the most important aspect of the entire affair: neither the government nor the mutineers were playing to any tight command and control. The government, for example, had a plethora of "negotiators", a multiplicity of panels, a moveable deadline that was implicitly ignored because everyone knew it would be. The negotiating sessions themselves consisted of such an extraordinary collection of retired military officers, ex-putchists, personal friends, civilian officials, serving active duty officers from every unit in the islands -- all talking about subjects as diverse in scale as forcing the resignation of the Philippine President and repairing holes in leaking nipa roofs in officer's quarters -- in a shopping mall and residential complex, that it could only have happened in the Philippines. The personalistic and conspiratorial nature of the Philippine state had revealed itself in all its manifold convolutions.

One Australian business analyst, commenting on the crisis, believed that the coup could not sink the Philippines any further than it had already fallen. It was a country, he said, that never enforced its own investment laws, citing the case of a German company whose contract had been rescinded after the fact to suit the convenience of the local elites. He did not understand that constitutions, laws, contracts, oaths and institutions are transient, dispensable things in the Philippines: that it is the network of personal trust -- or suspicion -- that provides the only reality in this most unreal of places. Where but in the Philippines do bystanders rush toward, rather than away from automatic rifle fire? Where but in the Philippines is the former commander in chief of the Communist insurgent army, Victor Corpus, appointed to head government military intelligence? Where but in the Philippines does a blatant traitor like "Gringo" Honasan become elected a Senator and appointed to negotiate on a government panel to end a rebellion of which he is suspected to be the mastermind? Where but in the Philippines does a notorious international terrorist like Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi bend open his cell door with his bare hands and walk past his "sleeping" guards to escape with his prayer mat, suitcase and family portraits? Where but in the Philippines is there a military academy which churns out graduates, who, at regular intervals, make an attempt to overthrow their government?

Dorothy was probably thinking of the Philippines when she said to her dog, Toto, "we're not in Kansas anymore".