Arroyo on the Brink

— Sonny Melencio

PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT GLORIA Macapagal-Arroyo has so far survived two attempts to oust her from office. The first constituted the so-called “opposition salvo” in July 2005. This was followed by the aborted “military uprising” in February.

The first attempt was staged by bourgeois opposition groups composed of rival electoral parties opposed to Arroyo, top officials who left Arroyo’s executive cabinet, the Makati Business Club (a prominent capitalist group), and former president Corazon Aquino. The second was mounted by rebel groups within the Armed Forces of the Philippines, mainly junior officers and soldiers of the elite army force.

Civil society groups, mainly the organized forces belonging to various militant formations, participated in both. Chief among these are forces grouped around Laban ng Masa,(1) a newly formed coalition of the Left that has persistently called for the establishment of a transitional revolutionary government as the alternative to the Arroyo regime.

Such a transitional government (or TRG as it is popularly called) would be a coalition government to bring together all the representatives of the major forces responsible for Arroyo’s ouster. The TRG is also envisioned as a reforming government that will carry out in its 1,000 days of rule a program of economic relief and political reform, aimed at reversing the tide of neoliberal economic onslaught and dismantling the reign of elite politics in the country.

The Political Crisis

The political crisis racking the Arroyo presidency blew up in June last year, when the elite opposition parties released fresh evidence of cheating in the 2004 presidential elections. The “Garci tape,” a secret recording of various conversations between President Arroyo and election chief Virgilio Garcillano, during the height of the elections, provided damning evidence of how Arroyo herself had ordered Garcillano to tilt votes in her favor.

But electoral cheating was not the only issue that made people troop to the streets. They protested around a number of issues, including the regime’s neoliberal economic policies that have brought increased poverty and misery. If for the elite opposition the main focus of the attack against the regime was election cheating, for the popular sectors it was the failure of the government to provide for the needs of the poor.

Ranged against the Arroyo regime today are opposition groups belonging to the elite and the Left. The regime has been very much isolated from the people; recent surveys showed that 65% of the population wants Arroyo out of the palace, either by resigning or by being forced out of office.(2)

The elite opposition is headed by groups such as the United Opposition or UNO, a grouping of mostly traditional politicians including former president Joseph Estrada and his forces, local government leaders, and former cabinet secretaries. Other groupings are composed of former Cabinet members who left the Arroyo administration on July 8, presidential candidates victimized by election irregularities, and rivals such as the Liberal Party.

Left forces, on the other hand, are represented by two main groupings composed of the Bayan forces (mainly the organizations associated with the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines) and the Laban ng Masa. These have joined together in several rallies and activities already, although they are very much independent from each other.

As for an alternative to the Arroyo regime, a part of the elite opposition has been calling for a regime change through constitutional means, such as an impeachment by Congress or a snap presidential election.

An impeachment case against Arroyo, however, was thrown out of Congress in September. There are reports that the opposition representatives may try to file a new impeachment case this year. But a snap election seems difficult, as it requires the resignation of both Arroyo and Vice-President Noli de Castro.

The failure of constitutional means to resolve the presidential crisis led to a group of elite opposition calling for extra-constitutional methods such as another “Edsa,” or “people’s power” uprising staged by the military with civilian support.

The Left sees a window of opportunity in the current political crisis. Laban ng Masa campaigns for a TRG premised on the establishment of a coalition government with substantial Left participation. This proposal envisions a platform of people’s demands to be implemented during the TRG’s term, a period when the Left will have enough space to politically maneuver, strengthen its ranks, and mobilize the people towards new upsurges.

Despite the failure of the July and the February attempts to bring down Arroyo, the tempo of the people’s mobilization against the Arroyo regime has continuously grown both in terms of quantity and quality since July — in the number of its participants, frequency of mass actions, and the heightened mood of the masses.

As an active participant in the street actions, this author has seen how our mobilization grew from a few thousand in May to tens of thousands in February. Street actions have a regularity that used to be once a month; it graduated to twice, then three times, a month, and, by December, into a weekly pace. By February the actions were almost daily. The mobilization in the streets has largely been called by organized forces, but those joining them come from base areas in several factories and communities in Metro Manila. We found out how it is possible to organize quick mobilizations.

What follows is a first-hand account of the July and February attempts to oust President Arroyo.

The July 8 Opposition Salvo

The first salvo was launched Friday morning, last July 8, by 10 members of the presidential cabinet and an economic team who declared in a hastily organized media conference that they were resigning from office, daring President Arroyo to do the same. This group was tagged by media as the “Hyatt 10,” a reference to the hotel where they held the conference.

Next came a news report that Senate President Franklin Drilon was reading a statement from his party, the Liberal Party, calling on the president to resign.

This was followed by former president Cory Aquino calling on Arroyo to “make the supreme sacrifice” if she wanted to “heal” the country. In a seperate media conference the Makati Business Club — a topnotch business group based in the country’s financial district — reiterated the same call.

These political salvos came in rapid-fire succession. People believed Arroyo would be forced to resign before the day was over. That afternoon, a few thousand Laban ng Masa activists assembled in front of Channel 7 TV station and held an impromptu program. One by one, leaders took to the microphone and while lauding the opposition salvo, cautioned the crowd that the unfolding event should not end up as “another Edsa,” where a new crop of traditional politicians (trapos in popular language(3)) would simply take over from the old ones. They called instead for the establishment of a transitional revolutionary government.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people started to gather at Ayala,(4) the country’s Wall Street district, to cheer Arroyo’s awaited downfall. This crowd was a mishmash of groups mainly belonging to the elite-led UNO and the Bayan group.

Laban ng Masa activists decided to link up with the gathering and started to march along Edsa Avenue, shouting “People’s Power Now!” At around six in the evening, there were radio reports that President Arroyo was at Sulo Hotel conferring with former president Fidel Ramos. A call was made that the march should instead proceed to the hotel. The marchers hesitated, then made a U-turn and proceeded to the site. A few minutes later, radio reports blared that the Arroyo-Ramos meeting had ended.

At the meeting, Ramos, who is also a former military general, assured Arroyo of support from himself and other generals. He advised Arroyo to form a junta (calling it a High Commission) to oversee the drafting of a new constitution that would transform the country’s bicameral system into a parliamentary one.

For Ramos, this was the formula to end the political crisis, as it would stall the bid for Arroyo’s resignation and unify elite opposition under a “stable” parliamentary setup. According to Ramos, the parliamentary system would resolve a crisis in governance by simply declaring “loss of confidence” in the head of state. Moreover, he claimed that the existing constitution must be altered because it encouraged people’s power uprisings as the main mode of changing presidents.

What really saved the day for Arroyo was not Ramos’ convoluted formula but the neutralization of the army generals. It bolstered her confidence that she could weather the storm. Acting firmly, Arroyo called on the police and the military to disperse the crowd gathered at Ayala. The elite opposition leading the Ayala gathering hesitated, then called on the crowd to disperse before the police came. (Upon hearing of that the Ayala gathering had dispersed, the Laban ng Masa contingent decided to call it a day.)

The February Days

The second grand attempt to oust Arroyo occurred in this February, launched by the military forces sworn to protect her. As early as December 2005 there were reports that some military groups were out to get Arroyo. On December 14, Captain Nick Faeldon, one of the more than 90 Magdalo officers and soldiers arrested over charges of coup d‘ etat in 2003 — in what was popularly known as the Oakwood mutiny — escaped during a court hearing.(5)

Faeldon’s escape was followed by the escape of four more Magdalo officers detained at a military camp on the same charges. The Magdalo 4 who escaped said they wanted not a mere “regime change” but a change in the system of elite rule.

Aside from Faeldon and the Magdalo 4, there were two other junior officers who left their camps, circulating a letter to the media saying that they were joining the fugitives.(6)

The military rebels were actually composed of two major groups operating within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Magdalo members are mostly junior officers and soldiers from the marines and air force units. Magdalo’s leaders are mostly in jail, but it was reported that they have thousands of officers still in active service. The other group is the Young Officers Union for the New Generation (YOUng), mostly junior officers with some senior officers commanding battalion and company units.

YOUng reportedly includes the Scout Rangers and other special units of the AFP. Both Magdalo and YOUng are talking with the Left and progressive forces regarding the formation of a transition council and a common program or platform in the post-Arroyo period. In early February, it was reported that the two groups, together with some smaller groupings, had formed a Unified Command to stage the mutiny.

The February events coincided with the twentieth anniversary of the first people’s power uprising (the 1986 overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos) at Edsa Avenue.(7) The anniversary days were from February 22-25; on the 22nd a 30,000-strong demonstration organized by Laban ng Masa marched to the People’s Power Monument. The monument was situated near the two military camps in Edsa where millions of people rose in support of the military rebels in 1986.

This time around, the demonstrators shouted their support to the Magdalo escapees and called for a transitional revolutionary government composed of representatives of workers, farmers and soldiers. On February 23, upon hearing of the plan by military rebels to stage a mutiny the next day, Laban ng Masa leaders decided to move the planned February 25 rally a day ahead of schedule.

On the early morning of Friday, February 24, the radio aired a report that Brig. Gen. Danny Lim, a young general heading the elite force of the Scout Rangers, had been put under the custody of AFP chief Generoso Senga. This was to prevent Lim and his forces from joining the opposition rallies that day. It was also reported that the People’s Power Monument had been taken over by the police and the military. No rally was going to be allowed at that site.

A 5,000-strong contingent led by the Bayan forces tried to hold a demonstration at the Edsa Shrine, a kilometer away from the monument.(8) They were hosed down and violently dispersed by the police.

The Confrontation

Earlier that morning, Laban ng Masa forces assembled at Quezon City Memorial Park and at noontime started to march towards the People’s Power Monument. The march started with a small contingent of 6,000, but grew in number along the five-kilometer stretch. On the junction leading to Edsa Avenue, the radio blared an announcement from President Arroyo that she was imposing a “state of emergency” to quell the rebellion and “lawless violence” on the streets.

Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017, which called on the entire AFP and the police to use all its forces and resources to quash the rebellion. This announcement merely agitated the marchers, who egged on the crowds along the sidewalk to join them Some continually shouted at the top of their lungs, Laban ng Masa, Patalsikin si Gloria! (“People’s Fight, Oust Gloria!”)

People lined up in the streets and cheered the marchers. Many followed, distributing biscuits and bottled water to the marchers. Buses and cars slowed down as drivers honked their horns in support. Three truckloads of police, SWAT and special action forces quickly made their way to Edsa and blockaded the road. By the time the marchers caught sight of the blockade, their number had grown to at least 15,000 strong, not counting the cheering onlookers.

Upon hearing a report that platoons of rebel soldiers were preparing to join the marchers, rally marshals ordered the marchers to stop a few meters away from the police barricade. “We’ll wait for the rebel soldiers here” was the whisper circulating through the crowd. After a while, the marshals announced that we could not wait any longer and should continue the march to the monument. The march surged ahead and came face-to-face with the riot police.

A fire truck positioned itself in front of the marchers, hosing down the front line. Police charged, using their sticks against the demonstrators. Those who fell were clubbed repeatedly. A few defended themselves by throwing rocks at the “rioting” police. Within a minute, a couple of marchers lay bloodied on the street. Around 60 demonstrators were arrested and taken to jail.

A call was issued for the demonstrators to regroup in front of Channel 7 station, about five kilometers away. Those who managed to regroup decided to join the rally in Ayala. By the afternoon a crowd of 20,000 kept vigil.

By seven in the evening, a sizeable crowd of 5,000 still remained to keep vigil. The scene was reminiscent of the Edsa vigils, where a fresh batch of people would trickle in, replacing those who were leaving.

A little past eight, a 1,000-strong police force in full anti-riot gear descended on the rally and with clubs swinging dispersed the crowd. It was clear that the police were ready to maim anyone who would refuse to leave. The crowd retreated. In a few minutes the whole stretch of Ayala Avenue appeared deserted, amid the litter of leaflets, flags, banners, broken sandals and empty water bottles.

February 24 was a “black Friday.” Three separate street mobilizations were all viciously dispersed by the police. The rebels had pinned their tactic on convincing the AFP hierarchy to withdraw its support to Arroyo. Instead of bringing the hierarchy to their side, the rebel soldiers were the ones neutralized and their leader, General Lim, placed under house arrest. The military rebellion fizzled out.

Time and again, the rebel soldiers would be compromised by this tactic of “winning over the generals” to their side. It should have been clear by now that this tactic is fraught with disaster. The events of February 26 would deliver this lesson once more.

February 26 “Marine Standoff”

On February 26 a special TV news report announced thaat Marine Col. Ariel Querubin was calling for people’s power to defend his unit’s resistance to the sacking of a Marine commandant who was a rebel officer. (Querubin was himself a rebel military leader who almost lost his life during an attempted coup d’ etat against Cory Aquino in 1989.)

Querubin’s men left their barracks and were seen on TV in full battle gear standing outside the Marine headquarters at Fort Bonifacio. After dark, other Marine units came and positioned themselves in the area. Three tanks rolled in and took positions near the Marine headquarters. TV reporters excitedly talked about an ongoing Marine standoff. Mobile text messages were circulating widely about unit after unit of the AFP preparing to join the resistance.

There were also reports that some military rebels were ready to take over the Ayala district. Others said that the situation was very unstable, and that there could be a shooting war between the Marines, so it was wise to converge outside the perimeters of the two areas and wait until the situation cleared up. Laban ng Masa called on its forces to assemble at the University of the Philippines campus, while personalities of the elite opposition trooped to Fort Bonifacio and the Bayan forces went to Ayala.

The Marine standoff at Fort Bonifacio was a dud. Various Marine units consulted with their generals, agreed to abide by the official order and went back to their barracks as if nothing had happened. This ended the vigil led by the bourgeois opposition personalities at Fort Bonifacio.  The Bayan forces at Ayala dispersed when they found out that the rebels plan to take over the financial district had been abandoned.

Meanwhile, only the vigil at the UP campus stayed on until early morning, energized by forces who kept arriving. Randy David, a UP professor and leader of Laban ng Masa, declared the university a sanctuary for those beaten and persecuted by the regime, especially under the recently imposed Proclamation 1017. David said that the campus would host teach-ins and alternative classes to keep the resistance going.

February 26 had started with a bang. Activists were expecting that, at last, the AFP would break apart and a large portion would lead the people’s forces in finally ousting Arroyo. In the evening, dismay set in. Some were angry that the military rebels did not deliver on what they had promised; most were disheartened that the rebellion had fizzled out once again.

In fact, the rebels should have declared a clear break from the military hierarchy, severed their links to its chain of command, and pinned their plans mainly on the actions of the junior officers and soldiers.

Victory Against Proclamation 1017

While the military rebellion fizzled out, the mass movement kept up the struggle against Presidential Proclamation (PP) 1017.  The proclamation was Arroyo’s panicked response to the threat against her regime that supposedly came from the “Right to the Left.” (She referred to the military rebels as forces from the Right.)

This might have been correct 17 years ago, when military rebels staged seven successive coup attempts against the Cory Aquino regime in 1987-89. Those rebels were led by forces out to reverse the tide of liberal democracy that Aquino sought to restore after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. But this could not be said of the military rebels who have attempted to oust President Arroyo since 2003.

Arroyo is the chief representative of the ultra-right forces in today’s political spectrum. Forces ranged against her are somewhere from the Center to Left of the spectrum. The rebels constitute a new force of young officers and soldiers who have opened their eyes to the bankruptcy of the neoliberal agenda and of elite rule.

PP 1017 was seen by many as a prelude to martial law. Its implementation resurrected a number of martial law impositions, including arrest without warrant, government takeover of media institutions, and the ban on rallies and demonstrations. On the day of the proclamation, the regime issued a list of more than 50 persons to be arrested on charges of rebellion. The list included six representatives from militant party-list groups in Congress. Crispin Beltran, longtime labor leader and representative of the Anakpawis Party, was nabbed during the proclamation and remains in jail today. Five representatives have eluded arrest so far by barricading themselves in the halls of Congress.

Because of escalating protests from the public, human rights groups, and sections of the Church and the business sector, PP 1017 was eventually lifted on March 3, a week after its imposition. An hour before it was lifted, around 200 lawyers assembled in front of the headquarters of the Lawyers Bar Association in Pasig and lambasted the proclamation. The lawyers marched down the streets and almost clashed with the police when they took over the Edsa Shrine to defy a “no-rally” policy.

Lawyers are in fact not the first ones who dared defy Arroyo’s proclamation. During the first few days of emergency rule, three universities in Metro Manila broke new ground when their faculty and students staged a walkout of classes and held day-long campus rallies. Before the lifting of PP 1017, some labor unions were already preparing for factory walkouts to protest the proclamation.

President Arroyo defused the tension by lifting PP 1017. However, restrictions remain. Warrantless arrest can still be carried out through other draconian measures such as the anti-rebellion law. Media guidelines have been imposed to gag reporters from airing “slanderous news,” and a ban on rallies is carried out through a “no permit-no rally” policy.

Up to now, to stage a rally against the Arroyo regime in the capital city is to incur police dispersal. Permits are not usually granted even if applied for from the authorities weeks in advance.

Lull Before the Storm

A period of lull in the political scene set in after the lifting of emergency rule. But this is merely the proverbial lull before the storm. The contending forces are gathering strength and gearing up for a new confrontation.

The military rebels said that although their leaders are being hunted with a bounty of millions of pesos, their forces are intact and ready to do battle. The elite opposition groups are trying to bounce back by mounting a new Congressional impeachment or by continuing with their conspiracies against the regime.

Meanwhile, the Arroyo regime has been desperately pushing for a constitutional change that will give it a new lease on life. On March 26, Arroyo mobilized her minions at the barangay (village) level to start a signature campaign that would amend the Constitution and adopt a parliamentary system. Local government officials and local ward leaders received wads of money and loads of goods to carry out the campaign.

The militant forces, on the other hand, are preparing for an upsurge. They are building strength at the base and expanding the ranks by recruiting new forces, especially those who have joined the series of protests against emergency rule.

Soon there will be a new clash: Leaders of the mass movement believe that the movement must prepare itself for a conflagration of mass struggles not only in the city centers but in the various municipalities and communities in the country.

The mass movement will have to draw the broadest united front against the Arroyo regime, while maintaining its links with the rebel soldiers who constitute its main ally in the establishment of a transitional revolutionary regime.

— March 28, 2006

Notes

  1. Laban ng Masa literally means Fight of the Masses. It started as a coalition of ten Left political blocs outside the ambit of the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines.  Most of the blocs belonged to the so- called Rejectionist forces which split from the Maoist CPP in 1993 onwards.
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  2. Pulse Asia, February 18-March 4, 2006 survey.
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  3. Trapo in Philippine language also means a dirty rag.
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  4. The streets of Ayala had been a haven for opposition rallies because the district was in a municipality headed by an opposition politician.
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  5. The so-called coup d’ etat was in fact a military mutiny that involved over 300 junior officers and soldiers who took over the Oakwood Hotel after an aborted capture of the Malacanang Palace. These soldiers called themselves Magdalo, in reference to a wing of a revolutionary group that launched the Philippines war of independence against Spain in 1890s. For 18 hours, under the glare of most TV stations, they stayed put at a four-star tourist hotel in Ayala while demanding the resignation of President Arroyo.  They were eventually persuaded to surrender in a deal that would release the soldiers and imprison only the junior officers.
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  6. Faeldon and Lt. Lawrence San Juan, one of the four Magdalo escapees, were subsequently rearrested by the government in January and February 2006 respectively.
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  7. This was called the first Edsa or Edsa I in February 1986.  The trigger was a military rebellion that encamped at the two military camps along Edsa avenue. For four days from February 22-25, millions of people mobilized and kept a vigil in front of the two camps, effectively shielding the military rebels from the attacks of the Marcos military minions. Edsa I led to the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship and the installation into power of Corazon Aquino.
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  8. Edsa Shrine was a memorial site erected at the intersection of Edsa avenue and Ortigas avenue in honor of Edsa I. The site became the main venue of a people’s power uprising on January 16-20, 2001, which came to be known as Edsa II. The uprising led to the downfall of President Joseph Estrada and the assumption to power of then Vice-President Gloria Arroyo.
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ATC 122, May-June 2006