- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

MANILA — The plan to oust President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had one major flaw: Everyone knew it was coming.

The presidential palace knew. The military knew. The press knew. Even an 11-year-old boy knew, right down to the date when it was to happen.

“Coup Friday, Feb. 24. Please pass on,” he said in a cell phone text message to his brother.

So it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that Mrs. Arroyo, who has battled through crisis after crisis during five tumultuous years in office, didn’t just wait for it to happen.

First, she called in her military chiefs and persuaded them to remain loyal.

Details of the coup plan were leaked out over the past week and widely reported by the local press. Armed troops were to have left military camps around Manila on Friday morning and joined crowds commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 “people power” revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, one of the Philippines’ proudest moments.

It appears the hope was that the defections of junior officers and their followers would carry enough resonance with those marking the 1986 uprising — when the military played a major role by withdrawing its support from Marcos — that a critical mass would be reached to give birth to another round of “people power.”

Instead, the would-be defectors found their camp entrances sealed by troops loyal to the government, including a column of eight armored personnel carriers loaded with soldiers, that descended on the main military headquarters in a clear show of force. An army general, reputed to be heavily involved in the coup plot, was arrested.

The troops got to watch the rest of the day unfold from their barracks.

After emergency pre-dawn meetings with her national security council and her closest advisers, Mrs. Arroyo decided on a dangerous gamble, to declare a state of emergency.

Permits for rallies marking “people power” were canceled. Security forces were given powers of arrest without warrants. Organizations, including the press, were warned they faced closure if they endangered national security.

A few thousand people tried to defy the rally ban, showing up at a shrine to the 1989 revolt, clearly aiming to hijack the commemorations and turn them into an anti-Arroyo demonstration. Riot police quickly dispersed them with high-pressure water hoses.

The riot police, truncheons swinging, then waded into a second group of demonstrators trying to march on the shrine. With several of their crowd down and bloodied, the protesters were quickly routed.

Mrs. Arroyo’s blunt message: She would respond harshly with further moves to unseat her.

Her opponents were quick to cry foul, drawing comparisons between the state of emergency and the martial-law decrees that Marcos used to entrench his power. On what should have been a day of celebration of democracy, they claimed, the country had just been taken back to darker days.

Criticism that she overreacted came from all sides, including former President Fidel Ramos, whose support was considered vital when Mrs. Arroyo survived an impeachment bid last year. Mr. Ramos denounced the emergency declaration, noting that no coup attempt actually occurred.

Mrs. Arroyo, unrepentant, said she had been forced into action.

The get-tough policy continued yesterday with a raid on a virulently anti-Arroyo newspaper and the arrests of several vocal government critics. Though other opposition figures claimed they would be happy to be arrested, too, they seemed unsettled by the sudden developments.

The U.S. Embassy issued a statement that didn’t support either side, saying only it was monitoring the situation closely and urging both the government and the people to respect the rule of law, protect civil liberties and human rights, and reject violence.

The streets, which should have been alive with activities marking Marcos’ flight into exile 20 years earlier, were eerily quiet yesterday.

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