[PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILSTAR: RANGERS FOR GMA: President Arroyo engages Col. Danilo Lim (left), incoming First Scout Ranger Regiment commander, and his predecessor Gen. Gabriel Ledesma in a ‘boodle fight’ at Camp Tecson in San Miguel, Bulacan yesterday. Lim led mutinous soldiers who took over Makati’s business district in the December 1989 coup attempt. - REVOLI CORTEZ ]

Malacanang, July 25, 2003 By Marichu Villanueva And Jess Diaz (Star) President Arroyo tried to quash rumors of a coup by disgruntled young military officers by telling the public there was no cause for alarm.

She gave the assurance yesterday as Philippine shares ended lower, hampered by a weak peso and coup jitters.

"We call on the public to remain calm amid these rumors of destabilization," the President said in a statement. "The (Armed Forces of the Philippines) chief of staff is on top of the situation and there is no cause for alarm."

The President made her statements as she joined AFP chief of staff Gen. Narciso Abaya and Army commander Lt. Gen. Gregorio Camiling at Camp Tecson in Bulacan to witness the turnover of command of the First Scout Ranger Regiment from Brig. Gen. Gabriel Ledesma to Col. Danilo Lim.

Lim was the spokesman for the former Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) that laid siege to Makati City during the term of former President Corazon Aquino. The Aquino administration survived six attempted coups mounted against it.

For his part, opposition Sen. Rodolfo Biazon accused Malacañang and the Department of National Defense (DND) of fanning coup rumors by making confusing and contradictory statements and taking precautionary measures.

Biazon, a former AFP chief of staff, said that when the story of the rumors came out in media, Palace officials said Mrs. Arroyo was not alarmed, since no troop movement had occurred.

"I don’t think the President was alarmed," Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said. "But the President is concerned about the plight of junior officers, as every commander should be concerned about the status of people serving in the (AFP)."

However, while the Palace was issuing such statements, security around Malacañang was tightened, armored vehicles were deployed and the young military officers accused of plotting a coup were called to the Palace for a meeting with the President, Biazon said.

The movement of four armored personnel carriers to key spots on the Palace grounds was explained by Presidential Security Group (PSG) commander Col. Delfin Bangit as a "fire drill."

"I talked with Colonel Bangit last night and he told me it was a drill," the President said. "He said he was testing the alertness of the PSG."

Despite later reports of "unusual troop movements," officials denied any coup plot and said the heightened alert was part of the normal security preparations for the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.

"When coup rumors persisted, the justification was the Harurot typhoon and when the rumors refused to die down, defense officials labeled the troop movements as standard operating procedure in preparation for the President’s SONA," Biazon said.

He urged the President and military and defense officials to tell the nation the real situation, since their conflicting statements and measures only add to perceptions of instability in the country.

"It is the duty of every commander to look after the welfare of the men and women in uniform and to continue to reform the organization," Mrs. Arroyo said as she acknowledged the existence of "legitimate grievances" by the young military officers of Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Classes 1994 and 1995, whom she met over dinner Wednesday.

The young officers, mostly captains, assured her of their "absolute fealty" to the military chain of command.

Mrs. Arroyo said she does not blame the young officers for pushing for reforms within the AFP and that their grievances are being addressed. "The expression of their grievances has been proper and lawful," she said.

The junior officers had been meeting to discuss their gripes, including low and unequal pay among the different service branches and alleged corruption among senior military officials.

National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the President’s dinner meeting with the young officers was nothing but "socials" organized by one of the President’s military aides, Navy Senior Grade Lt. Christopher Magdangal, a graduate of PMA Class 1994. "It was just a social gathering."

Distraction tactic?

Biazon said that while he believes the young officers have legitimate grievances, they are not planning anything drastic.

He said the Arroyo administration is blowing the officers’ complaints out of proportion to divert attention from the humiliation it has suffered in the aftermath of Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi’s escape last week from the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters in Camp Crame.

Palawan Rep Abraham Mitra, like Biazon, said the Palace is behind the coup rumors as part of an effort to distract the public from Al-Ghozi’s escape.

"It’s the classic diversionary tactic," Mitra said. "Trust government officials to portray a despedida party as a destabilization powwow."

Coup rumors were fueled by reports that 21 Army Scout Rangers and two members of the Navy’s Special Warfare Group (SWAG) were held for questioning by AFP Task Force Panay in Iloilo City as they boarded a ferry for Manila.

These soldiers, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said, were en route to Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija for training.

"This thing has been blown out of proportion. Some people don’t want this government to succeed. But we in the DND and AFP will make sure that their sinister plans are thwarted," he said.

The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) concurred with Reyes, as NBI Director Reynaldo Wycoco said there is no basis for such rumors.

"The Scout Rangers had been fighting the Abu Sayyaf for so long," Wycoco said. "The movements are authorized for rest and recreation and for schooling. They were authorized to bring their firearms."

Wycoco also said the submachine guns carried by the soldiers were "to be turned over for repair. The guns were included with the ammunition because they were bundled in the memorandum receipts."

Lowered alert

The military lowered its alert status from "red" to "white" said AFP vice chief of staff Rodolfo Garcia, adding the alert level has nothing to do with the meeting Wednesday night between the President and junior military officers.

"We are now on white alert. We have downgraded alert status here in Camp Aguinaldo and in other camps. The AFP sees no more need for the declaration of that alert status," Garcia said.

"We have accomplished what we set out to do for the duration of that alert status," he added. "That is to make sure that the (AFP) is on its toes as far as this ‘Harurot’ typhoon is concerned so that we could respond quickly."

Garcia also said, "the red alert is not related to this rumored coup. We don’t base a red alert on a rumor."

Reyes said in a statement the coup rumors that spread like wildfire earlier this week "are grossly exaggerated. The President even had dinner in Malacañang last night with some 100 members of the two PMA classes that are said to be ‘restive.’ You don’t take over Malacañang Palace holding spoons and forks."

"Maintaining political stability is our overriding concern amid the continuing threat of terrorism and armed insurgency," Reyes said. "I can assure you that the DND and AFP stand united in defending the Constitution and the duly constituted authority and in protecting our people and our democratic institutions from any harm," he said.

Hurting economy

Trade and Industry Secretary Manuel Roxas II cautioned that restiveness in the military and rumors of destabilization plots could jeopardize the country’s political system and hinder much-needed socio-economic reforms.

"It’s imperative that the military adhere to the principle of civilian supremacy as enshrined in our Constitution," Roxas said in a statement. "Our economy cannot tolerate military adventurism. This is a major consideration among investors in their decision to choose to locate and remain in the Philippines."

"We have been able to generate thousands of jobs by convincing multinational companies to locate their call center and business process outsourcing operations (here)," Roxas said, particularly in Metro Manila and key regional cities like Cebu.

"We have gained significant inroads in supporting the development of our small and medium enterprises," he said, adding that the government has released over P11 billion in loans to small and medium-scale enterprises, as well as to micro-enterprises.

However, Roxas said, "all of these efforts to uplift the economic conditions of our people will remain meaningless if we cannot hold our society together." Investors locating in the Philippines would want to make sure that peace and security are in place and that is something we have to constantly work for."

Such bickering, he said, will "have (a) long-term effect on our economy and society. We should not lose sight of the fact that such short-term political maneuverings could jeopardize even the future of our children."

Senate President Franklin Drilon asked all sectors to put a stop to the rumors, which, he said, have "already hurt the economy, causing a further deterioration in the peso-dollar exchange rate."

"For the sake of our nation, let us now forget all about this and get on with our national life," he said.

The Senate president has sought an explanation from Reyes regarding the matter and Reyes assured him that "there was nothing to it and I do not doubt his assurance."

Drilon said he does not believe the junior officers in question would take extra-legal measures to air their grievances.

"They have legitimate complaints and there is a process to resolve these grievances. They should observe and stick to that process," he said, even as he advised the AFP leadership not to take these complaints for granted.

House defense committee chairman Rep. Prospero Pichay also issued a call to stop coup rumors — both about a military takeover by disgruntled young officers and a coup in the House against Speaker Jose de Venecia by disgruntled lawmakers.

"In both cases, constructive dialogue and feedback and action on legitimate grievances are all that is needed. If these are in place, then both President Arroyo and Speaker de Venecia will truly be coup-proof."

Pichay attributed the military coup rumors to flaws in the feedback mechanism of the AFP high command to heed the legitimate complaints aired by its soldiers. He has also asked the disgruntled young officers to refrain from airing their grievances in media.

By the same token, Pichay asked disillusioned legislators in the House to refrain from providing grist for the rumor mill so Congress can attend to its crucial agendas.

"It’s normal of the opposition to agitate against the House leadership and the administration when the opening of Congress is approaching. But, maybe it’s time to go beyond these intramurals and intrigues," Pichay said.

"We have already seen the peso-dollar rate and stock market adversely affected by all this coup talk," Pichay said. "Let’s bury these baseless rumors ... so we are not distracted from the real problems of the nation."

Damage control

In Legazpi City, Brig. Gen. John Bolhayan, one of the top Army commanders in the Bicol region, asked his men not to listen to coup rumors.

"Don’t even entertain the thought of a new coup, because all military uprisings against the government were (un)successful," Bolhayan said during a talk with officers of the 901st Infantry Battalion at their headquarters in Barangay Villahermosa, Daraga town, Albay province yesterday morning.

Bolhayan is the commanding general of the 9th Infantry Brigade, which supervises the overall military operation of the 901st and the 22nd infantry battalions. He had recently assumed the position of commanding general of the 9th Infantry "Orgullo" Brigade after the retirement of Brig. Gen. Santiago Prejido.

Bolhayan recalled that soldiers who joined the failed coups during the Aquino administration "were discharged from the military service and their families suffered a lot."

He added that the officers who were part of the coup attempts but later pardoned, were eventually demoted.

"Our soldiers of the 21st century are different from the common soldiers of the AFP 10 years ago," 901st Infantry Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Pedro Magsino said.

Besides being technologically oriented, the new Filipino soldier must also be socially oriented, Magsino added. "When they enter the military service, they expect low pay, continuous dislocation and separation from their families and a lot of sacrifices," he said.

Some of the reforms sought by the junior officers when they met with the President are in the pipeline, Bolhayan said.

He added that the top positions in the AFP have been increased from 86 to 118 slots with the full implementation of the AFP modernization law and the last round of pay hikes for military personnel is forthcoming in January 2004. — With reports from Mike Frialde, Jess Diaz, Paolo Romero, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Celso Amo, AFP, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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