The fear of coups

Who’s afraid of coups?  People who invoke the law to defend privilege, those who justify power by pointing at institutions, and those who oppose all change except that which they can manage.  They are afraid of coups.

But those who measure their rights by the norms of substantive justice, those who affirm their power by pointing at results, and those who have the fatal courage to pursue change at any cost – they are not afraid of coups.  The wrong response to rumors of an impending coup is to pronounce that coups are passe, or that they will not succeed, or worse, that they are unconstitutional.  It is enough to say, “Let the people decide.”

Like revolutions and people power uprisings, military coups are extraconstitutional routes to political change.  They express a belief in the primacy of politics and the fragility of institutions.  With a history of martial law, three people power explosions, and seven coup attempts in a period of 30 years, it will not be easy for Filipinos to go back to a naïve faith in constitutional order.  Our reliance on extra-constitutional means of effecting change will grow in proportion to our disenchantment with our flawed institutions and with the very leaders we thrust into power.

Coup rumors flourish especially in the afterglow of momentous political events.  The energy from these events crystallizes into a storm of impatient expectations demanding to be appeased. The new leaders ride on the enthusiasm of the moment.  Instead of presenting a candid picture of the situation and the sustained and disciplined effort required to reverse it, they pledge unrealistic solutions to problems accumulated over successive periods of misgovernment. Very soon, they run up against their own limitations.

Their failure provides the occasion for new forces to emerge or for old ones to reassemble.  The Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo government, which was brought to power by Edsa II, tried to protect itself against the threat of coups by co-opting key military leaders through appointments to cushy positions in government agencies and corporations.  This strategy silenced a few officers, but it also added to the dissension within the military.

It is immaterial whether the original Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) and the Young Officers Union (YOU) still exist or have vanished.  When idealistic officers see their elders behave like corrupt politicians, they are released from the compulsions of command. If they are intelligent and have the boldness of their convictions, they will imagine themselves as being called upon to save the nation.  They will form new organizations.

This is not to say that there are not an equal number of opportunists in uniform who encourage rumors of a coup for no higher reason than to secure political or economic benefits for themselves.  Professional soldiers know who they are, and they don’t trust them.  Serious coup plotters do not talk about their plans; they avoid media resolutely, preferring to remain anonymous until the moment of seizure of power.

In today’s world, military coups are becoming less and less the preferred means for effecting social change.  The problems of governance in a globalized environment have become so complex that even the most adventurous military officers would have to think twice before they dare assume responsibility for a whole nation. Things have to be truly bad and hopeless under civilian leadership for the general public to cooperate with military rulers.  Given today’s communications technology, civil society movements can mobilize popular resistance against a military dictatorship before it is able to secure control of communication channels.

Yet, for all this, a growing number of Filipinos who have become cynical and contemptuous of politicians seem ready to welcome a willful authoritarian leadership that can instill discipline and inject ethical conduct into our public affairs.  Two historic problems seem to lie at the root of this growing national despair. The first is persistent mass poverty, and the second is pervasive corruption.

It is now clear that the degrading poverty in which more than half of our people are forced to live is not a simple function of insufficient economic growth.  It is rather the composite product of gross disparities in wealth, power, and opportunity in our society.  The state can no longer afford to assign to market mechanisms the task that constitutes its very reason for being — to look after the essential needs of its people.   Philippine poverty is not an issue of scarcity but of distribution, yet successive administrations continue to ignore this.

Corruption feeds upon this state of affairs even as it reproduces it. Instead of being an instrument for equalizing opportunity and serving the general interest, government is hijacked in the name of narrow interests.  Public office goes to big spenders, who get elected precisely because their money and connections permit them to respond to the short-term needs of the impoverished, the ignorant, and the powerless.  Once in power, these political entrepreneurs try to recover a hundred-fold what they spend during elections.   And so the cycle of patronage and plunder continues, drawing new generations of players into its vicious ways.  It is the thought of finally breaking up this cycle that makes coups seductive.

We should not fear coups.  We should instead try to harness the “energy of will” that seems to fuel them — the will to adjust to new circumstances, to grow out of a social order that no longer serves our people.


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