MALACANANG, August 29, 2003  (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva and Christina Mendez  - President Arroyo accused "disgruntled and disenfranchised politicians" yesterday of trying to destabilize her government, but maintained she has the backing of security forces in the wake of last month’s mutiny.

"We are prepared to throw the book at those who cross the line between legitimacy and lawlessness," she said.

The Philippine National Police (PNP), meanwhile, vowed to do its best to stop all efforts to destabilize the Arroyo administration amid talk of anti-government forces’ continuing efforts to recruit policemen and soldiers.

The President denounced "a confluence of conspiracies to erode the foundations of our democratic system" and said those behind the attempts had launched "a combined assault consisting of overt acts and propaganda tirades."

But she said the "desperate efforts" will not succeed. The military and police remain loyal to her government and will "not hesitate to do their work," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s warning came a day after opposition leaders called a press conference to demand that she step down from office because of her administration’s alleged failure to govern the country.

Among those present in the press conference were politicians closely identified with deposed President Joseph Estrada, such as former senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Francisco Tatad and Eva Estrada Kalaw, Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen, former agrarian reform secretary Horacio Morales, former immigration commissioner Rufus Rodriguez, and San Juan Mayor Jose Victor "JV" Ejercito, a son of Estrada.

Stopping short of mentioning any names, Mrs. Arroyo said "there are disgruntled and disenfranchised politicians who are increasingly becoming disloyal to democracy and the rule of law."

"Their efforts are desperate and obviously futile and they will never prevail over our people," she said.

The President said she is confident that a majority of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the PNP remain loyal to the flag and their sworn duties under the Constitution.

"The loyalty of all the uniformed services is total and unsullied," she said.

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, however, said the President is not contemplating any crackdown on the political opposition.

"For as long as their activities are within the bounds of the law, they will certainly be not only tolerated, but they will be permitted," he said.

Bunye clarified that Mrs. Arroyo’s warning should not be taken to mean there is a looming crackdown on the political opposition.

"The President said she would like to warn those who would overstep the bounds of law that while we have freedom of speech, there are things we cannot do. Freedom of speech is not unlimited," he said.

Bunye added, "I think we can take the President’s words there literally… Anyway, I believe it’s just fair to remind them (politicians) that we have laws that have to be observed and there are some activities that may be outside the bounds of law."

While calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s resignation is not a violation of the law or a criminal offense by itself, Bunye noted that "if aside from opening your mouths, you do some other related activities which tend to incite people into action, that might already be treading into questionable legal ground."

He did not elaborate.

When asked if calling people to march to the EDSA Shrine could be considered as "inciting" people to action, Bunye said, "We’ll have to treat everything on a case-to-case basis."

"There are legal nuances that have to be observed. When you define a violation of the law, there are elements that are present and if these elements of offense are present, then you’re already overstepping your bounds," he explained.

Bunye, however, said there is no basis for the political opposition to suggest that "snap" presidential elections be held instead of waiting for May 2004.

"We don’t think it’s called for. The President enjoys wide support from the people as borne (out) by the recent surveys," he said.

Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez told the Senate that authorities had prevented a planned anti-government rally from being held at the EDSA Shrine this week "so that it would not deteriorate into something that could become a threat to the security of the country,"

The EDSA Shrine has immense symbolic significance in Philippine politics. It was the site of the February 1986 people power revolt that ousted late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Demonstrations there also helped force then President Estrada from office in January 2001 in favor of Mrs. Arroyo. Estrada is now detained while on trial for massive corruption.

Golez alleged that this week’s rally had been planned by Morales, Estrada’s agrarian reform secretary.

Golez also alleged that Morales had tried to organize a march of about 50,000 people to occupy the shrine at the height of the failed mutiny last July 27.

Morales, however, denied the accusations, according to a report aired by ANC.

On Tuesday night, troops and police guarded the shrine and nearby areas to prevent the gathering of thousands of pro-Estrada supporters from the People’s Movement Against Poverty (PMAP).

The same group was among those who allegedly helped organize EDSA III, an attempt to storm Malacañang in 2001 after Estrada was arrested on graft charges.

PMAP national leader Ronald Lumbao said the "fear of the government that we are out to grab power is baseless," adding that destabilization plots attributed to his group are a figment of the President’s imagination.

Lumbao noted that PMAP does not need to go to the EDSA Shrine, and that they prefer to go to Mendiola instead.

Though the PMAP is calling for Mrs. Arroyo’s ouster, "we are not contemplating EDSA IV," he said.

The PMAP is urging Mrs. Arroyo to call for snap elections to "end the turbulence in the country," Lumbao said, adding that they plan to stage a noise barrage today in Timog, Quezon City and at Mendiola Bridge in Manila, which leads to Malacañang.

He said the noise barrage and other protest activities they plan to hold should not be mistaken as part of a destabilization plot.

"We are just exercising our right to voice opinions and the right to launch a protest movement," Lumbao said.

Bunye strongly refuted charges made by PMAP that the President must resign because she has supposedly lost moral grounds to lead the nation when she intervened to protect her husband, who was accused of opening secret bank accounts for his alleged money-laundering activities.

"We believe these calls (for her resignation) are not warranted at this time. As far as the case is concerned, this will be dealt with in the proper forum," he said.

Bunye noted that the Senate investigation of Mr. Arroyo’s alleged money-laundering activities will start next week and that Mrs. Arroyo said "she respects the independence" of the Senate.

Mr. Arroyo has also filed libel charges against Lacson, who had accused him of engaging in money-laundering activities in a recent privileged speech.

"The Palace is standing aside from these developments. The courts will resolve these cases one way or the other and the truth will emerge," Bunye said.

The Philippine stock market and the peso have been taking a beating amid the security jitters.

National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) director-general Romulo Neri warned the political environment is beginning to generate risks increasingly unacceptable to investors.

He said some ambitious politicians "have turned the political maneuvering that normally precedes an election into a life-and-death struggle" against the government, referring to slurs against the Arroyo administration.

Police, Soldiers Ready

PNP spokesman Senior Superintendent Leopoldo Bataoil said the police are closely working with the AFP to crush efforts by anti-government forces to grab power from the Arroyo administration.

"We are working closely with the AFP. We are supportive of their ongoing operations. The PNP is also making our presence felt in the vital installations," Bataoil said.

The PNP leadership threw its full support anew behind Mrs. Arroyo yesterday amid calls by the political opposition for her to step down.

"The PNP is very definite on this. Under the leadership of (PNP chief Director General Hermogenes) Ebdane, every member of our organization is strongly supportive of the chain of command and the present government of President Arroyo," Bataoil said.

He added that the deployment of Special Action Force (SAF) personnel in Metro Manila, in "areas which are probable targets," is part of preemptive measures being undertaken by authorities.

The PNP is continuously monitoring movements of anti-government groups, including members of PMAP, Bataoil said.

SAF commander Chief Superintendent Servando Hizon said his unit is ready to thwart any destabilization efforts by anti-government groups.

He is confident that SAF personnel have not been affected by the alleged recruitment efforts for policemen and soldiers to join a possible coup against the President or support anti-government causes.

"There is none. Traditionally and historically, the SAF always stands squarely behind the administration," Hizon said, citing that during the coup attempts against then President Corazon Aquino in 1987 and 1989, "the SAF always (sided) with the administration."

Politics In The Backburner

At the same time, the League of Governors thumbed down the proposal of the political opposition for the President to step down, and vowed to fight any attempt to destabilize the government.

The governors also appealed to their fellow politicians to "put politics in the backburner" and focus their efforts on the delivery of basic services to the public.

The league issued their declaration in a resolution signed by all the governors who attended the league’s 12th general assembly.

The resolution was prepared after Nueva Ecija Gov. Tomas Joson III proposed that the league condemn destabilization efforts against the Arroyo administration as it helps bring the economy back on its feet.

"We should resist all efforts that would weaken the economy and the stability of government," Joson said.

Bohol Gov. Erico Aumentado, for his part, said the governors should dissuade "misguided elements" from pursuing their destabilization efforts.

The league’s national president, Davao del Norte Gov. Rodolfo del Rosario, said the governors share the belief that only through national unity can the country move forward.

Batangas Gov. Hermilando Mandanas, on the other hand, said the governors also "support the President’s call for less politics and more service to our people."

 ‘Act Of Treason’

House Deputy Speaker Raul Gonzalez said there are reports that the political opposition’s strategy to prevent Mrs. Arroyo from running in the 2004 elections is to inflict maximum political and economic instability that would weaken the peso and the stock market, sap investor confidence and create business uncertainty.

"This is tantamount to an act of treason in times of war. We are faced with a spectacle of a few people stunting economic growth and destroying the political stability of our nation so many had labored to achieve merely because of personal ambition," he said.

Gonzalez said once these strategies are implemented, "the opposition can easily step into the void and proclaim themselves the saviors of a ruined institution."

He said that should the opposition succeed, they would never be able to enjoy "the fruits of their treason" since the economic breakthroughs accomplished over the years would have been effectively reversed. It would take decades before any prospect of recovery can be seen.

"Beyond the bounds of morality and fairness, the opposition becomes a liability to our country’s progress, slaves to their selfish ambition. In the end, the opposition will become victims of their own folly," Gonzalez said. — With Pamela Samia, Paolo Romero, AP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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