The 1986 People Power revolution that brought down the Marcos Dictatorship was instigated by the foiled coup attempt of a group of soldiers called the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) led by an ambitious young colonel named Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan. Although the RAM coup attempt failed, the government’s subsequent move to crush it resulted in the People Power overthrow of the Marcos Dictatorship.
Because the Philippines is a nation of copycats, young “idealistic” military officers have since sought to copy the RAM example. Including the last one on November 29, 2007, there have been at least thirteen abortive coups since 1986: nine against President Cory Aquino from 1986 to 1989 and four (so far) against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo since 2001.
The most serious coup attempt was the one that nearly toppled Aquino in December of 1989 and it involved the military occupation of several hotels in Makati’s financial district. Led by Col. Honasan, who has been involved in virtually every coup attempt against the government, it included then Major (now General) Danilo Lim.
In 2003, a group of young junior officers and soldiers led by Lt. Antonio V. Trillanes IV mounted what has been called the “Oakwood Mutiny” after the plush hotel they occupied with high-powered weapons and explosives. The 60 “Magdalo” rebels, as they called themselves, surrendered after their 4-day siege failed to garner support from the Philippine military. The mutineers were charged with rebellion and are still going through legal proceedings.
What all these coup plotters forgot is that the 1986 RAM coup attempt against Marcos was effectively crushed before it could get started. In that ironic sense, though, all the 13 military coup attempts that sought to emulate the RAM example succeeded because they all failed.
In that ironic sense then, the latest coup attempt of Lt. Trillanes and Gen. Lim, staged at the Manila Peninsula Hotel last week, was a roaring success.
It was not intended to be a spontaneous coup, however, as it was seriously pre-planned. Both Trillanes and Lim had criminal hearings scheduled for November 29 at a courtroom in Makati when they left the courtroom, along with most of their guards, and marched on to the Manila Peninsula Hotel a few blocks away. While they were still en route to the hotel, their Magdalo group’s website, SUNDALO, was already announcing news of their “constitutional rescue” of the country and of their call on the people to rally behind them. Gen. Lim informed the press that other officers and soldiers from military camps all over the Philippines would soon join them as planned.
But they knew they could not succeed militarily, that much they learned from Trillanes’ disastrous 2003 Oakwood Mutiny and from Lim’s 1989 putschist adventure. They could only succeed politically but only if they were able to replicate and recreate the 1986 People Power revolution. In place of the charismatic Cardinal Jaime Sin, they had Bishop Antonio Tobias from Novaliches and Bishop Julio Labayen from Quezon. Instead of Cory Aquino, they had former Vice President Teofisto Guingona. To represent civil society, they had former UP President Francisco Nemenzo. And they had the entire Philippine media covering their grievances against the “corrupt”, “vicious” and “illegitimate” government of President Arroyo.
If they could just hold on for another day, then the massive rallies already scheduled for Bonifacio Day, November 30, would surely converge at the Manila Peninsula Hotel to support them and People Power 3 would be on its way, with military commanders from all over the Philippines announcing their withdrawal of allegiance to the Arroyo government and political leaders pledging their support for the new government.
While Trillanes and Lim learned something from history, so did the government. Marcos and Estrada were ousted by People Power because they waited too long to crush the rebellion. This time, there would be no such hesitation and there would be no negotiations as were held during the Oakwood Mutiny. A Marine battalion was quickly dispatched to the Manila Peninsula Hotel with orders to quash the Magdalo rebellion immediately, which they accomplished with no loss of life.
In staging their rebellion, Trillanes and Lim presented themselves as the new Bonifacios of the Philippines while strangely invoking the name of a group with a dubious historical legacy. In his senatorial campaign literature, Trillanes explained that "the name 'Magdalo' is homage to Emilio Aguinaldo’s faction of the Katipunan Chapter in Cavite that supported and pushed for a revolutionary government as a replacement for the Katipunan.”
The Katipunan was the revolutionary organization founded by Supremo Andres Bonifacio which launched the revolution against Spain in 1896. In the course of that revolution, two Katipunan factions emerged in Cavite province, the Magdiwang, which was loyal to Bonifacio, and the Magdalo of Gen. Aguinaldo, which believed that the Katipunan was obsolete and needed to be replaced by a revolutionary government.
To unite the warring factions, a reconciliation meeting was held in Tejeros, Cavite but the meeting soon turned into a presidential convention with snap elections. While the Katipunan had chapters in at least eight provinces, the voters at the Tejeros convention were mostly Cavitenos, like Aguinaldo.
Gen. Aguinaldo was predictably elected president of the new revolutionary government that replaced the Katipunan and Bonifacio was elected Secretary of the Interior, perhaps as a gesture of unity. But one of Aguinaldo’s men, Daniel Tirona, questioned Bonifacio’s credentials because he was not a lawyer. This brazen insult to Bonifacio caused him to walk out of the convention and to declare the elections null and void because they were "fraudulent".
Before Bonifacio and his men could leave Cavite, however, “President” Aguinaldo ordered their arrest for treason. After a mock trial, Bonifacio and his brother were found guilty and sentenced to death. They were executed in Mt. Buntis by Gen. Lazaro Makapagal (another irony).
After Bonifacio’s execution, the tide of the revolution turned against Aguinaldo, who then negotiated his surrender to the Spaniards in the Pact of Biak-na-Bato. In exchange for P200,000 pesos, Aguinaldo and his men agreed to go into exile in Hongkong in December of 1897.
While George Santayana is famous for his line that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, he also wrote that “the world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be.”
Pretending to be the new Bonifacio of the Philippines, Trillanes emulates the name of the very group that executed his hero and that sold out the Philippine revolution, a mockery and contradiction all in one.