Within days of the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of Philippine autocrat Ferdinand Marcos, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (see photo in previous column) declared a state of emergency in the wake of a threatened coup and anticipated mass public demonstrations. Her reluctance to institute martial law acknowledges the Marcos legacy and is a conscious choice to avert comparisons between the two regimes. The balance between strong arm tactics within a pluralist democracy has been difficult for the Philippines to achieve over the past two decades. Since Corazon Aquino rode the “people power” revolt against Marcos in February 2006 into political power, the country has suffered at least a dozen coup attempts and military-backed popular uprisings that toppled sitting presidents in 1996 and 2001. Despite such chronic political instability, the civil authorities have been loath to declare national emergencies. Only twice before has such a decision been made, including when former sitting President Aquino was facing down coup attempts in 1989 and then again in 1993 as a response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic outbreak.
The concern, thus, is whether Arroyo’s declaration is an overreaction to a steady state of political instability or a measured response to a significantly different security environment. To gain some insight, it is instructive to look beyond the immediate threat posed by the alleged cabal formed of military personnel and political opponents. First, authorities are battling at least four significant rebel movements: the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) , the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) , the communist New People’s Army (NPA) , and the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) , which is linked regionally to the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiya and globally to al-Qaeda . The MNLF is the least active, and government negotiations with the MILF are going well enough for optimists to suggest a formal peace agreement might be in place for Ramadan, which starts in September. Nonetheless, the NPA remains active as is evident recently in clashes with security forces on January 31, 2006 that left 18 rebels dead . Finally, elements of ASG have been forging ties over recent years with JI bomb-makers and tacticians and with MILF factions dissatisfied with the peace process .
Second, Valentines Day (February 14) has become a significant date of sorts for ASG militants suspected of elaborate coordinated attacks in that timeframe in 2004 and 2005 . In response, police and military forces were already on a heightened alert status called “Task Force Valentine” especially in Manila where extra police patrolled, 10 mobile checkpoints were deployed, and the coast guard was placed on high alert.
Third, there is a significant presence of US armed forces across the country this winter as the two countries enter their 22nd round of war games and training exercises provided for in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. Some 5,500 American troops have joined over 3,000 Philippine security forces for activities from February 20 to March 5, 2006. American troops were thought to be the intended target of militants who bombed a Karaoke bar on the southern Muslim-majority island of Jolo on February 18, 2006 .
In the wider picture, then, it becomes apparent that Arroyo’s actions to secure tighter control on the military and limit avenues for widespread public protest and disruption seem at least more understandable if not necessarily prudent. Yet, despite recent polls suggesting Arroyo is losing political support, many more support her efforts to restructure the constitution and government toward a parliamentary system. Though wary of her personally, there is a growing recognition regarding the wisdom of the steps the Harvard-trained economist is taking to decentralize power, fast-track law-making, strengthen institutions, and shepherd together a proliferation of vested interests and factional political parties into a manageable few. Additionally, the impact of the state of emergency has been less than perhaps one would think. Public anti-government demonstrations prior to this declaration were significantly smaller than protests in years past; this led to previous regime changes. Conversely, ignoring the ban on rallies, Aquino and some 5,000 protesters felt safe enough to congregate publicly in Manila on February 24 and even called for Arroyo’s resignation. Thus, non-violent “people power” is still tolerable in the heightened state of emergency, boding well for the Philippine democracy in its transition from presidency to parliament governments.