Why the Trillanes caper failed

MANILA, Philippines — The forceful takeover of the Manila Peninsula Hotel by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim and their supporters ended in six hours after lawmen crashed an armored personnel carrier into the front entrance and lobbed tear gas into the foyer. General Lim said the rebels wanted to “remove Ms Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from the presidency and form a new government.”

Swift police-military action. Why did the caper fail? First, the police and the military acted swiftly. They stormed the make-do bastion with superior, some say “ruthless,” force. They did not give the stunned nation any chance to assess the situation. Former Presidents Corazon C. Aquino, Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph E. Estrada were still “monitoring the situation.” The Black and White Movement and the militants were caught flat-footed. Before they could react, the “situation” was over.

Second, many people may be disenchanted with GMA but they were not about ready to plunge into an unknown future. When asked who would lead the new government, General Lim answered with a noncommittal, “They will surface in due time.” In contrast, Edsa I had Cory Aquino and Edsa II, GMA.

Besides, unlike in 1986 and 2001, the economy now is on the rise and the business community will not accept an uncertain answer. If there is anything that business abhors, it is unpredictability. It would rather tolerate a known evil than venture into uncertainty. That the business community did not take the latest Trillanes adventure seriously is shown by the stable stock market and peso-dollar exchange rate that were concluded at noon, long before the standoff ended at past 5 p.m.

Absence of Cardinal Sin. Third, with Jaime Cardinal Sin already in the Great Beyond, there is really no one with clout, daring and stature to lead a non-violent revolution. An Edsa I or Edsa II uprising is possible only if a critical mass of people got together to protect Trillanes and Lim, as they did Juan Ponce Enrile and Fidel Ramos in 1986. Or to show their outrage over the refusal of the Senate to open the second envelope during Erap’s impeachment trial. A purely military takeover is unacceptable.

During the incumbency of Cardinal Sin, the Archdiocese of Manila was composed of more than 300 parishes and 70 parochial schools directly under his sway. At his call, each of these parishes and schools could easily produce 500 warm bodies, or a total of nearly 200,000, who could stay in rallies indefinitely without much logistical problems (they brought their own provisions), and who were so organized they marched to the beat of a single drummer. Indeed, he produced the critical mass, who were joined by many, many others.

After his death, the archdiocese was chopped into six groups, the Dioceses of Caloocan, Cubao, Novaliches, Parañaque, Pasig and, of course, Manila (composed of Manila proper, Makati, Mandaluyong, Pasay and San Juan). As a result, the archdiocese now holds direct jurisdiction over only about a fourth of its original size. Equally important, the shepherds of the six new dioceses have different priorities, and political action is not always their topmost.

Wait for 2010. Fourth, many people believe in the rule of law, the primacy of our Constitution and the strengthening of our democratic institutions, and would rather wait for 2010 to replace GMA. Our constitutional brinkmanship in both Edsas is enough. In fact, Edsa I is regarded as an “extra-constitutional” exercise because the leadership change was not consistent with the then existing Constitution.

But the condition sine qua non for this democratic process of changing presidents in 2010 is a credible Commission on Elections. No more “Hello Garci” and no more fraudulent election automation! That is why the appointment of an independent and competent Comelec chair come Feb. 2, 2008 is essential in ensuring the viability of this alternative, and in restoring the trust of our people in GMA.

As I warned in an earlier column (Oct. 21, 2007), if she does not appoint a credible Comelec chair (and other critical officials like the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Commission on Audit chair) by February next year, “she will sink so deeply in self-gratification that even the patient people of goodwill—those of us who are still willing to give her a last chance at good governance—will lose all hope in her redemption.”

New initiative. Another danger in waiting for 2010 is a constitutional change. Though struck down by the Supreme Court in 2006 during my term as chief justice, nothing prevents the partisans of GMA from making another try to keep her in power. This time, they will have the advantage of hindsight to avoid the pitfalls of the failed “Sigaw” initiative.

After February next year, three of the eight Supreme Court justices who thumbed down “Sigaw” would have retired. In 2009, six incumbents would also hang their black robes and could be replaced by GMA with “friendly” magistrates. That is why, vigilance in the selection of justices of integrity, independence, probity, competence and courage is so essential if our democracy must survive.

In closing, let me stress that I do not belittle Trillanes’ goals for change. Reforms, indeed, our nation urgently needs. But, as I said in another column (July 8, 2007), “means are as important as ends.” Our people elected Trillanes so he could pursue reforms in accordance with constitutional methods, no longer with military brawns.

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