President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in the Philippines today as she struggled with a reported coup plot and a possible repeat of the popular revolts that ousted two of her predecessors.
Clashes erupted as police used water cannons to disperse about 5,000 protesters defying a ban on rallying at a shrine to the 1986 “people power” uprising that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The military barricaded its camps to keep troops from joining the demonstrations and detained an army general allegedly involved in the takeover plot.
Commemorations of the 20th anniversary of “people power” were cancelled, presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye said, adding that the military had been ordered ”to prevent and suppress lawless violence”.
Arroyo, who survived two earlier coup attempts, said the political opposition, along with both the extreme left and the extreme right, was determined to bring down the elected government.
“I am declaring a state of emergency because of the clear threat to the nation,” a defiant Arroyo said in a taped, nationally-televised statement.
“This is my warning against those who threaten the government: the whole weight of the law will fall on your treason. You are unhinging the economy from its strengthening pillars.”
She claimed the military had quashed a coup plot by some military officers and their men. The military has played strong roles in the two “people power” revolts and has a recent history of restiveness.
“There were a few who tried to break from the armed forces chain of command, to fight the civilian government and establish a regime outside the constitution. We crushed this attempt.
“As commander in chief, I control the situation,” said Arroyo, who held a pre-dawn emergency meeting of her national security council as the crisis threatened to spiral out of control. “My countrymen, I ask all of you to remain calm.”
She stopped short of declaring martial law, a sensitive issue in a country where Marcos used it to rule by decree.
Her chief of staff, Mike Defensor, said the declaration would not include a curfew but banned rallies, allowed arrest without a warrant, permitted the president to call in the military to intervene and let her take over facilities - including media outlets – that might affect national security.
The opposition railed against the declaration, saying it showed the government’s desperation.
“It could result in more political haemorrhage and security risk,” said Roilo Golez, Arroyo’s former national security adviser who withdrew his support. “This could get out of control ... if her crisis team doesn’t manage this well.”
Teodoro Casino, a left-wing leader, called the declaration “draconian” and said it was evidence that the government was headed towards “iron-handed rule”.
“This could lead to a crackdown ... against the opposition forces even if they’re not engaged in any illegal activity,” said Casino, who said anti-Arroyo protests would not end.
The Philippine stock market and the peso both plunged after the declaration.
US State Department spokeswoman Janelle Hironimus said: “We are monitoring the situation carefully. We firmly support the rule of law and constitutional government. Violence should be avoided.”
Military chiefs said they backed Arroyo. They arrested an army general, who leads an elite special forces unit, for alleged involvement in a coup plot and ensured that a marine colonel was in his barracks.
An unspecified number of other people also were taken into custody, and police were seeking more, said Defensor.
Already-tight security was bolstered in the capital. The government cancelled rally permits and told schools to cancel classes, aiming to keep the opposition from exploiting the scheduled demonstrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of the peaceful revolt that ousted Marcos.
Extra barbed wire and shipping containers were set up on roads leading to Malacanang, the presidential palace, and only essential staff were allowed in.
Checkpoints appeared around the capital. The media was barred from the main military headquarters, Camp Aguinaldo, where reinforcements arrived in eight armoured personnel carriers. An armoured carrier sat outsidethe marines’ camp, with a truckload of marines in full battle gear nearby.
Army chief Lt Gen Hermogenes Esperon has said 14 junior officers were identified as being involved in a plot that included establishing a revolutionary government after Arroyo was forcibly removed and abolishing “democratic institutions”.
Arroyo – who succeeded Estrada in January 2001 – survived three impeachment bids in September, when her dominant allies in the House of Representatives used a technicality to block complaints of alleged massive corruption and vote-rigging. Opposition groups have continued to call for her resignation.