ARROYO  PRE-EMPTIVE  STRIKES  UNDERCUT  COUP PLOT, OPPOSITION

MANILA
, February 25, 2006, (STAR) (AP) 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 media knew. Even an 11-year-old boy knew, right down to the date when it was to happen, hearing about it from classmates and sending his brother a cell phone text message: "Coup Friday, Feb. 24. Please pass on."

So it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that 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.

According to the coup plan, gun-toting troops were to have left military camps around Manila on Friday morning and headed to the shrine of the 1986 "people power" revolt, where they were to join crowds commemorating the 20th anniversary of one of the Philippines' proudest moments.

It appears the hope was the defections of junior officers and their followers would have carried enough resonance with supporters of the 1986 uprising _ when the military played a major role by withdrawing their support from dictator Ferdinand 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. Soldiers 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, 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 media, were warned they faced closure if they endangered national security.

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

Efforts by a second group of demonstrators to march on the shrine were dealt with more harshly as riot police waded in, truncheons swinging. With several of their numbers down and bloodied, the protesters were quickly routed.

Arroyo's blunt message: further moves to unseat her would be dealt with harshly.

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 the bad old days.

Arroyo was unrepentant, saying she had been forced into action by treasonous forces threatening the country's very fabric of existence.

The get-tough policy continued with a raid on a virulently anti-Arroyo newspaper and the arrests of several vocal government critics. While other opposition figures claimed they would be happy to be arrested, too, they also 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.

In a separate message to U.S. citizens in the Philippines, the embassy called the situation "unpredictable."

It was unclear how Arroyo, having survived the immediate crisis, would finish playing her hand while coping with the fallout of her move.

Legal challenges to her emergency declaration were being drawn up. Criticism that she overreacted came from all corners including former President Fidel Ramos, whose support was considered vital when Arroyo survived her last political crisis.

The streets Saturday _ which should have been alive with activities marking Marcos' flight into exile 20 years earlier _ were eerily quiet instead. It was expected that the opposition would ensure they don't stay quiet for long.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

© Copyright, 2006  by PHILIPPINE HEADLINE NEWS ONLINE
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