Friday, August 01, 2003

State of Play in the Philippine Power Struggle

Suppose your car had run out of gas without the gas gauge showing it; suppose you lost all the crankcase oil without a single warning light going on. Suppose, by some miracle, you stopped the car before any serious damage was done and refilled the oil and gas to their proper levels. Now you are driving along again on a long stretch of road through a swamp and all the instruments are reading nominal. Then a dashboard light goes on, and off again. And you thought you saw a monstrous shape keeping up with the car off to your left. Time to relax yet? Yes, if you are Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo "mopping up" the coup plotters.

"It is true that the plot is far from over, but it is being contained and will soon be completely under control," President Gloria Arroyo said in a statement. "We are engaged in pre-emptive measures - administratively, operationally and politically."

Just last weekend, it was military mutineers who had preemptively seized the Manila business district, festooning a shopping center with explosive devices and briefly capturing the Australian ambassador to the Philippines. Neither the Philippine Government nor local Australian intelligence saw it coming. By implication, neither did United States intelligence assets, or they would have probably seen fit to tip off the Australians.

What else didn't register on the dashboard? Philippine national security adviser Roilo Golez now says that "The (renegade) group has a very credible sniper capability,"  remarking that the mutineers had recruited the head of the military's sniper training school. The school's weapons, now identified as .50 caliber Barretts, were taken by the mutineers. The Barretts are capable of taking shots at nearly a mile (1,500 meters) and can punch through most VIP vehicle armor. Not to worr: former Philippine military intelligence chief Victor Corpus now says he was onto the plot all along. Among the movements he monitored without doing beans were:

• On July 23 a 24-man platoon of Army Scout Rangers from the 1st and 10th companies, a Marine platoon and two men from the Navy Special Warfare Action Group (SWAG) boarded SuperFerry 2 from Zamboanga. Only 14 of the Rangers have orders for retraining (in Luzon).

• On the morning of July 25, two units of Rangers totaling 28 men led Lts. Jose Dingle and Warren Dagupon (of the 4th and 12 companies, respectively) boarded a Cebu Pacific flight to Manila. The group was picked up by private vehicles and proceeded to Virra Mall in Greenhills, San Juan.

• Also on July 25, several Scout Rangers in civvies were monitored to be surveying areas in Makati’s central business district and Greenhills in San Juan.

• On the evening of July 25, Lt. Lawrence San Juan of the Army Light Reconnaissance Company and two men stole out of their Fort Magsaysay headquarters in Nueva Ecija with two M240 machine guns and two M24 sniper rifles. Another two officers and nine men of the Sniper Class left their Fort Magsaysay training area without permission, bringing with them four Barret and three Crowbar sniper rifles. Their whereabouts could not be determined at that time.

Which brings us to the question of whose side Victor Corpus was on. The laundry list he provides is akin to elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment, SEAL Team Six, Delta and the the 2nd ACR all going AWOL and then being seen surveilling Wall Street and the White House. Whose side, for that matter, was anyone on? The dilemma running through the whole situation is that Arroyo may be relying on the perpetrators to capture themselves.

The key, in similar cases, is to begin with a single known safe point and validate the rest in relation to that. Arroyo has to start with a unit of undoubted loyalty and roll up the conspirators from that assured vantage. For United States and Australian policy makers, the task now at hand is similar. They must create alternative early warning networks within the Philippine military based on individuals of proven loyalty -- to the United States. The official Philippine channels can no longer be trusted, until further notice, as the Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi episode has shown. The Armed Forces of the Philippines, and possibly the Philippine Senate as well, have been "Pakistanized", untrustworthy until proven otherwise.