Inside the Philippines Coup Plot
A TIME reporter witnesses a meeting of opponents
of Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
BY Bryan Walsh
Friday, Feb. 24, 2006Twenty years ago tomorrow, Filipinos took to the streets and brought down a president. Could it happen again? Capping a week of tension and coup rumors, Philippines President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo proclaimed a state of national emergency late Friday morning, announcing on television that she had crushed a coup attempt by several prominent military officers. Arroyo appealed for calm, even as security was tightened further at the presidential palace and at military bases around Manila. Earlier in the day, the army detained three high-level officers—Brigadier General Danilo Lim, the commander of the élite Scout Rangers, Marine brigade commander Ariel Querubin and police superintendent Narzalino Franco—for allegedly conspiring against Arroyo. Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor told reporters that at least eight military and civilian figures were still being sought for involvement in the plot.
No official details have been released about the nature of the alleged coup, but on Thursday evening a TIME reporter witnessed a meeting held at the home of Jose Cojuangco, brother of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino, where plans were being hatched for what one of the ringleaders called a "withdrawal of support" from President Arroyo. More than a dozen middle-level officials and businessmen were at the meeting, which went well past one in the morning. While Cojuangco's daughter Mikee kept the buffet table piled high with chicken sandwiches, macaroni salad, corn and cookies, Pastor Saycon, a businessman and longtime Arroyo critic, planned for a new government. As the others listened, Saycon spoke over the phone to a person he identified as an American official in Washington, assuring him that the post-coup regime would still be friendly to the U.S. "You will still be our friend, not China," he said. Then, Saycon phoned a man whom he addressed as "Delta" and identified as General Lim. Over the speaker phone, Lim confirmed that it was "all systems go" for the planned movement against Arroyo. According to Saycon, a military component was to march on Friday morning to the EDSA Shrine in Manila, where the 20th anniversary of the People Power revolution was to be celebrated. At the shrine they would be met by a contingent of Catholic bishops, and a Marine general would read a statement withdrawing support from Arroyo's government. The bishops, according to Saycon, had one request: that the coup be bloodless.
General Lim, however, was arrested by the army early Friday morning, and the planned coup appears aborted for the moment. (Neither Saycon nor anyone else at the meeting had been arrested as of Friday afternoon.) Though massive protests had been planned for Friday, including one led by former President Aquino, the police have banned all street rallies and are out in force throughout Manila. Defying the ban, 5,000 protesters marched to the EDSA shrine Friday afternoon, where they were dispersed with water cannons by riot police. But the real hinge remains the military—Arroyo cannot remain in power without their support. Though top army leaders have repeatedly pledged their allegiance to Arroyo's administration, the military announced on Wednesday that 14 junior officers had been briefly detained for allegedly plotting a separate coup, and rumors of unrest among the armed forces have become common. In her televised address this morning, Arroyo told the nation: "As commander-in-chief, I control the situation."
That remains to be seen.