Reacting to President Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that The Hague ruling favoring the Philippines over China in the dispute over the West Philippine Sea is “just a scrap of paper to be thrown away in a waste basket,” retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio quipped, “He (President Rodrigo Duterte) honestly believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping will protect him should the military stage a coup d’état against him.”
Indeed, President Duterte revealed in May 2018 that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised to protect him from any plan to remove him from office. “The assurances of Xi Jinping were very encouraging. ‘We will not allow you to be taken out from your office,’” the president of China was supposed to have told him.
Mr. Duterte has reason to bear in mind always the possibility of elements of the Armed Forces staging a coup d’état. Two presidents — his own idol Ferdinand Marcos and the darling of the masa Joseph Estrada — were overthrown by uprisings in which elements of the military were involved.
He should be sensitive to the sentiments of the military with regard to the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China. Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana’s statements and actions with regard to the presence of Chinese maritime vessels in the West Philippine Sea run counter to President Duterte’s accommodating policy towards Chinese incursions into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Graduates of the Philippine Military Academy have thrown their support behind Secretary Lorenzana’s firm stand against the encroachment of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters. After all, the basic mission of the military is the defense of the country against foreign aggression.
Cognizant of the crucial role the military establishment plays in the stability of his administration, Mr. Duterte has tried to win the goodwill of the military personnel from the time he ran for the presidency in 2016. He promised during the campaign to increase the pay of the uniformed and armed personnel of the government if elected.
He visits military camps regularly. In his first few months as president, he visited 14 camps. No past president had done anything close to what he has done. He spoke before scout rangers, marines, Navy men, medical staff, telling them of his campaign promise to double their pay. He fulfilled that promise in January 2018 when he authorized the increase in the base pay of soldiers and police.
He appointed more than 50 retired military generals, police directors, admirals, and colonels to the Cabinet and other agencies, including government-owned corporations. Many of them have personal ties with him. They are either from Davao or were assigned to Davao City where he was mayor for 22 years.
At present, there are eight retired generals in the Cabinet. They are: Lorenzana (Defense), Hermogenes Esperon (National Security), Roy Cimatu (Environment and Natural Resources), Eduardo Año (Interior and Local Government), Rolando Bautista (Social Welfare), Eduardo del Rosario (Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development), and Carlito Galvez (Peace Process). Secretary of Information and Communications Gregorio Honasan, the glamor boy of many coups, may have retired as colonel but only Cimatu among PMA alumni in the Cabinet graduated ahead (by one year) of him. Galvez was with Honasan in the 1987 coup attempt. There are many participants in past coup attempts among other sub-Cabinet rank appointees.
Mr. Duterte most probably learned from his study of coup attempts in the Philippines that pleasing the leaders and personnel of the Armed forces is no guarantee that there will be no coup attempts. President Marcos pampered the top brass of the Armed Forces during his reign. Still, a segment of the officer corps, mostly from the ranks of lieutenant colonels and commanders, plotted to assault Malacañang Palace and arrest Marcos.
From November 1986 to July 1987, there were six coups plotted by various elements of the Armed Forces to overthrow President Corazon Aquino. Two were nipped in the bud and four were repelled with little or no violence. But the August 1987 and December 1989 coup attempts were violent and might have succeeded were it not for the intervention of America.
In the August 1987 coup attempt, rebel soldiers attacked Malacañang Palace, seized part of Camp Aguinaldo and a building in Villamor Air Base, the government television and radio complex, and gained control of parts of the capital city. The mutinous officers, broadcasting from a seized Channel 13, said, “We expect to have the entire country under control by the end of the day.”
But US President Ronald Reagan declared from Los Angeles, “The United States condemns this attempt at extra-constitutional action. I wish to make it absolutely clear America’s unqualified support of President Aquino.” Shortly after that expression of support by Reagan, the tide of battle turned in favor of government forces.
In the December 1989 coup attempt, about 1,000 rebel soldiers from Army and Marine units fanned out across the city, hundreds marching to Camp Aguinaldo. Three rebel trainer aircraft strafed Malacañang Palace with rockets and gunfire. The rebel soldiers gained air superiority when they disabled most of the F-5s and trapped their pilots in the Philippine Air Force Base in Mactan, preventing them from disrupting the rebels’ operations.
But the tide in the fighting shifted toward the government forces after US President George H.W. Bush granted President Corazon Aquino’s request for support. Bush authorized F-4 fighter planes from the US Air Base in Clark, Angeles City to shoot down any rebel aircraft that might attack the government ground forces.
Perhaps that is the reason President Duterte has been cocky about his hold on his position. Reagan and Bush came to the support of President Aquino when she was close to being overthrown by mutineers. Xi Jinping, with whom President Duterte has a close personal relationship, expressed support for him even before any rebel soldier could clamber up the wall of the presidential palace.
But the President should not be oblivious to the way Marcos fell. Marcos and Reagan also had close personal ties. When Marcos was about to be overthrown by the people, he asked Reagan for support. US Senator Paul Laxalt, speaking for Reagan, told Marcos to “cut cleanly.”
Maybe the difference in the coup d’état attempts against Marcos and Aquino lies in the support of the people. The attempt against Marcos had been foiled but the people took up the cudgels for the rebels’ cause which was ousting a ruthless and corrupt dictator. The coup plotters in the case of Aquino didn’t have the people’s support. That is what Reagan and Bush saw.
Would the people support a coup attempt against President Duterte? Would Xi Jinping protect him regardless of how the people see the military rebellion?
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.