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Armageddon Averted: People Power 2001

January 2001

Index to Pearl of the Orient Seas by Clarence Henderson The last week in Manila has been one for the books. Events have moved in real time and at warp speed. If you blinked or went to the comfort room at the wrong time you probably missed something important. Although I just wrote a Pearl the other day, it's already outdated (yesterday's paper is used for wrapping fish, I believe).

Herewith an impressionistic, off-the-cuff commentary on a few of the many compelling images of this incredible five days in mid-January, 2001.

Exodus of the Stars

One thing Erap always thought he could count on was the support of the movie stars. After all, they were his compadres, they had campaigned for him in 1998, and had always backed him up before. And he knew just how important they were as symbols of appeal to the masa.

So what a blow it must have been to Robin Hood when he looked at his TV screen Thursday afternoon and saw none other than Superstar Nora Aunor on the EDSA stage, wearing mourning black t-shirt and denim pants, imploring the people to withdraw their support from the administration. One of his old time leading ladies and amours, she had campaigned long and hard for him. But not only did she issue her appeal of abandonment to the masses, she told a sordid tale of how Erap had battered her, leaving her "black and blue" on more than one occasion.

To add insult to injury, she was joined by Cavite Governor Bong Revilla and his wife, actress Lani Mercado. Bong's dad was one of the "Dirty Eleven," and Erap was Bong's godfather. Within 48 hours, the array of stars calling for Erap to resign included "Megastar" Vilma Santos, Edu Manzano (ex-action star and now Makati Vice Mayor), Kris Aquino, Rosanna Roces, Aiko Melendez, Maila Gumila, and Vivian Fox. Basically a who's who of big time movie stars, all previous Presidential buddies. The only missing figure was Erap's reported best pal Fernando Poe, Jr. Startling and apocalyptic for the leading man.

Class Polarization in Action: White Collars vs. Tank Tops

I have often written in these Pearls about the class structure and the polarization between rich and poor in the Philippines. This entire experience has highlighted these dynamics, with the anti-Erap forces being led by the Makati Business Club and financial élites, while the pro-administration forces were drawn 99% from the masses.

I saw this firsthand Friday afternoon, when I had a close call while white collars and tank tops collided. I had made the mistake of keeping an appointment in Makati Commercial Center against the wishes of my dear wife (I'm still hearing about it).

A group of 300 or so pro-Erap rallyists, mostly headbanded teenagers in raggedy shorts, tank tops, and the ubiquitous flip-flop slippers of the Filipino working class, had assembled on Ayala Avenue to have a little demonstration. Many looked pretty drunk and more than a few were carrying pointed sticks, but initially they pretty much minded their own business. (I was observing unobtrusively by the fountain in front of Ayala Triangle, having just finished my meeting).

However, when the white collars (mostly from the Philippine Stock Exchange) started coming out for lunch, things quickly turned nasty. Most were dressed in black, and several carried "Erap Resign" streamers. The only thing separating the two groups was the median island of Ayala Avenue and a small squad of cops. Perhaps predictably, the white collars couldn't resist taunting the tank tops. Equally predictably, the tank tops reacted with angry, obscene gestures. The white collars responded with more taunting and chants of "Erap Resign!" Back and forth it went.

Chaos soon ensued - flying rocks, screaming curses and more obscene gestures, scurrying white collars (including me). Once safely back inside, a fair number of the white collars ascended to the roofs of their buildings, from whence they showered the tank tops with plastic water bottles, rocks, and miscellaneous building materials. An ugly scene, indeed, and one illustrating just how huge the class gap is. Poverty is the country's biggest problem, and that's sure to be one of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's biggest challenges as she launches her great experiment.

Wired Revolution

Unlike the last time (1986), People Power II was wired, playing out in real time with the world and nation hanging on every word and event. Live TV, radio coverage everywhere you went, dedicated web pages, and millions of text messages. Indeed, the rapidity with which the rallies were mobilized was primarily due to the Filipino love of texting.

One of the better texts, which got wide distribution, featured a wonderful mnemonic device for remembering just who spurred the crisis: JOE'S COHORTS: Jaworski, Oreta, Enrile, Santiago, Coseting, Osmena, Honasan, Ople, Revilla, Tatad, Sotto. Formerly respected Senators, they are now prostitutes and traitors in the eyes of most Filipinos. And the fact that four of Joe's Cohorts (Tatad, Ople, Jaworski, Honasan) changed their tune yesterday was obviously too late the hero. Those guys blew it, and the country is now the beneficiary big time.

Love a Guy in Uniform

In the end, it was the military (the Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP) and police (the Philippine National Police, PNP) that determined the outcome. Everybody knew that the retired generals carried weight with the officer corps, but nobody knew quite how much. Of course there's FVR, but the real machinations were apparently led by a coalition of retired military generals led by Fortunato Abat and the rightist Rebolusyo-naryong Alyansang Makabansa (RAM). Inspired by the retired generals and their own consciences, at least nine groups of AFP and PNP officers started meeting around town as soon as the constitutional crisis began Tuesday night. The key difference from 1986, however, was that the army has become professionalized and is not as interested in adventurism as previous generations.

From the beginning, the AFP was relatively solid in the opposition corner. However, there was considerable trepidation about what Ping Lacson, PNP chief, would do. He's long been a diehard Erap loyalist, and those who knew him best feared that he would not hesitate to order his men to fire on the growing crowds at EDSA, who were scheduled to march to the Palace at any time.

To preclude blood in the streets, the original plan was for Southern Tagalog troops, led by Colonel Jimmy Caringal, to take over Camp Crame (PNP headquarter) at high noon on Saturday, then arrest Lacson. But things were moving too fast.

By early Friday afternoon, AFP Chief General Angelo Reyes and his major service commanders defected and headed for EDSA, meeting Defense Secretary Orly Mercado for their triumphant appearance on the EDSA stage. As luck (or God) would have it, Lacson was meeting with Erap at Malacaņang at the time, oblivious to what was transpiring within the military.

While General Reyes headed to EDSA, PNP Deputy Director General Leandro Mendoza made a surgical strike by occupying Lacson's main Camp Crame office. Simultaneously, a group from the Southern Tagalog police command stormed Lacson's other offices at the Presidential Antiorganized Crime Task Force HQ, also at Crame. Lacson's men offered no resistance, and most quickly joined Mendoza's cause.

However, Ping was on the way, and they feared the worst. They proceeded to arm themselves with high-powered weapons and pinned red, white, and yellow ribbons on their chests, expecting a probable onslaught. Guns were cocked and tensions were high when Lacson pulled up with his motorcade.

However, after a tense hour-long meeting between Lacson and Mendoza, Ping realized that he had no constituency. His men were not with him, and General Reyes and Defense Secretary Mercado were already wading through the huge crowd at the Shrine to make their historical appearance. 'Twas a fait accompli. Being ultimately a realist, Lacson took a deep breath and went before the cameras to state (apparently sincerely and earnestly): "This is the hardest and most painful decision in my entire life." Bottom line was he had no choice in the matter.

Image of the day: The military brass being introduced one by one to the roar of the crowd, as reported in real time by my barkada Raoul, who was huddled up under the EDSA stage furiously clicking away at his trusty lap top, sending real time dispatches to the Asia Pacific Management Forum's Chao Phraya River Rat. The officers were uniformly stoic and even heroic, with no overt displays of emotion or histrionics, yet clearly smiling and relieved. They had not engineered a coup in the classic sense, they just made a strategic decision to withdraw their support from a hopelessly corrupt administration.

Imploding Buildings

The whole thing reminded me of a video of one of those old Vegas hotels coming tumbling down. The venerable Sands Hotel (or was it the Desert Inn?) comes to mind. When the engineering firm finally pushes the plunger on the detonator, the building elegantly implodes. Of course it is in reality a huge feat, with a lot of pre-planning, modeling, and meticulous placement of explosive charges of various intensities at key structural points. Highly experienced engineers must manage the endeavor carefully to ensure that the edifice comes down just so, that adjacent buildings aren't harmed, and that no odd beams or floors are left hanging around. If all goes well, there's nothing left but a pile of rubble and a pile of dust.

And that's about all that's left of the Estrada administration.

However, in contrast to a Vegas demolition job, none of this week's saga was preordained or scripted. Indeed, things went so smoothly in the face of so many confounding circumstances that, had it been an opera or movie, critics would have deemed the denouement an unbelievable deux es machina and panned it mercilessly.

But this was real, and boy was it ever amazing. The fact that the demolition job turned out to be aesthetic and symmetrical, and that no blood was shed, makes one wonder if Cardinal Jaime Sin maybe does have Jesus on the mainline after all.

...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas

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Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines

Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo. Clarence Henderson: Manila, Philippines Index - Sources - About Clarence - Other Columnists

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