Jewish World Review August 12, 2003/ 14 Menachem-Av, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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A crushed coup and a second chance | Democracy is the fragile flower, and nowhere more fragile than in the places that need it most. You could ask almost anyone in the Philippines (or maybe even in California, if you could get a word in edgewise).

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo yesterday proclaimed that she had finally put down a nasty military mutiny that threatened her presidency in Manila, and if this is so, it could be good news for the rest of the world. Corruption and poverty are not unknown in the Philippines, and if that were not enough, the islands nation is riven with Muslim and communist insurrection that makes governance difficult and occasionally impossible.

The optimism — and the enthusiasm for democracy — that followed in the wake of the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the "people power" revolution in Burma two years later, and the dislodging of the Vietnamese from Cambodia in 1993, spread across Southeast Asia like a morning calm. Only yesterday (well, five years ago) a people-power insurrection threw out the corrupt generals in Indonesia. But that was then, and this is now.

"A failed military mutiny in the Philippines last month showed the precarious state of a country where corruption, poverty and ongoing Muslim and communist rebellions still give those with big guns a motive to challenge elected leaders," the Christian Science Monitor observed the other day.

Whether she can succeed is important to the rest of the world, and particularly to the United States. President Bush offered a toast to Mrs. Arroyo when she was a guest at the White House, only three months ago, as an ally in the struggle against worldwide terrorism. More important, since money talks and moonshine walks, Washington promises to increase its military aid to Manila from $2 million to $356 million. That kind of money buys a lot of leverage.

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This presents Mrs. Arroyo the kind of second opportunity that most Third World leaders rarely get.

She put down the July coup attempt — the eighth attempted coup since the Philippines gained its independence from the United States at the end of World War II — within 24 hours. The damage to the economy, and to important investor confidence, was not as great as it could have been, given the history of coups and attempted coups that followed the Marcos era.

Mrs. Arroyo owes her position to the generals, who like everyone else in the islands were fed up with the corruption and cronyism of President Joseph Estrada. She assumed office with considerable good wishes, and she has had some success in nursing the economy back to health. The Philippines, observes Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, even after the latest coup attempt "is still on track to meet the government's growth target of 4.2 to 5.2 percent this year."

The generals have always been a source of trouble for Philippine presidents. The ideal of civilian control of the military has never appealed to many of the senior officers over the half-century of independence. Some of them have been vulnerable to financial and ideological manipulation by out-of-office pols, businessmen looking for someone on the scout for a sugar daddy, and radical religious fanatics.

Mrs. Arroyo's terror headache is a familiar one. The region where the Muslim terrorists thrive was never quite subdued by the Spanish and certainly not by the Americans (there from 1898 until 1946), and not by successive independent Philippine governments. Airline passengers departing Manila for Mindanao are routinely offered tea with sympathy: "Why would you want to go to such an awful place?"

After World War II, successive Manila governments encouraged Christians to settle in Mindanao, which had been a Muslim enclave, and now the Muslim-Christian ratio is about even. The native Muslims want an Islamic society, mandated by the government, with Islamic schools and courts, imposing Islamic law. Mindanao is rich in resources, with fertile soil and even gold mines; definitely worth fighting over.

Fighting over it has become a way of life, and it is to this region that George W. Bush dispatched 1,700 American troops. The Manila government calls these troops "trainers," but nobody is in any doubt as to why they are in Mindanao. Neither is anyone in any doubt as to the difficulty of the job ahead of the Filipino armed forces — and of course the American trainers.

Mrs. Arroyo must decide soon how to deal with her chief opponent, Panfilo Lacson, a former general and chief of the national police. He is no Thomas Jefferson, either, and in Manila stories swirl about some of his friends in high places, or in what they hope will soon be high places. Nobody says it will be easy. The Philippines, as an astute American observer once remarked, is marooned somewhere between New Jersey and Louisiana.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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