Erle Frayne Argonza
Kapayapaan! Paz! Pax! Peace!
Oil price hike or OPH can be a precipitating factor behind military coups d etat. Since OPH is among the world’s focal issues today, we may as well reflect on a country case to examine how the OPH precipitated the launching of military coups: the Philippine case.
Before everything else, I hope the difference between military coup and mutiny is clear to the readers. A military coup is an offensive action aimed at a seizure of state power (coup d’etat). A mutiny is a defensive action, sometimes not sufficiently planned but a reaction against perceived injustices, often localized, and isn’t necessarily aimed at a seizure of state power.
In Manila’s experience, there never was a case of a mutiny that was precipitated by the OPH issue. But couples of military coups were launched that began with the OPH issue, and moved on to well organized assaults by an equally well equipped and fairly quantitatively endowed ‘warm bodies’ of an insurgent force within the national army that is backed up by its fraternal cadres within the national police.
The coup events took place in the 1980s yet, and were waged by the RAM-YOU-SFP coalition of army + police officers and enlisted men. RAM stands for Reform the Armed Forces Union, a reformist group of middle officers; YOU, Young Officers Union, a group of militant, radical nationalist junior officers; and, SFP, Soldiers of the Filipino People, a group of officers and personnel professing loyalty to the deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The same coalition signed a peace pact with the Ramos regime in the 1990s, its top leader Col. Honasan had been elected senator of the republic, and is among the insurgent groups that signed a negotiated settlement with the Philippine state.
OPH-precipitated coups have been confined to the 1980s events since then, the recent attempts at seizures of power being anchored on a different set of issues. However, it should be noted that the strategic issues raised by the military insurgents then till now have always been the 3 Cs: corruption, criminality, and communism. With the decline of the Cold War and the decriminalization of membership in communist parties (repeal of Republic Act 1700 or Anti-Subversion Law), communism has become a less palatable factor in the coup formulas.
The event often ran this way (simplified timeline):
• An OPH is officially announced, automatically raising the prices of gasoline, kerosene, diesel, lubricants, and an assorted list of fossil fuel-based downstream commodities. This will then lead to a spiraling of OPHs within days to weeks.
• Perceiving the erosive impact of OPH on the purchasing power of laborers, the Left forces would then wage coordinated trade union protest to bring down oil prices. Middle forces and transport groups join the actions, and major cities become paralyzed. The popular actions would culminate in boycotts and calls for ‘general strike’ orchestrated particularly by the Maoists (e.g BAYAN, KMU).
• The ‘general strike’ option is perceived as a take-over by the Communists of the state. As a pre-emptive strike to save the Philippine state from totalitarian downslide, the military insurgents launch a coup that ought to be as wide-scale in scope as possible. Certain establishments (e.g. state media) are seized, select military camps are bombed and captured, aerial assaults provide air cover, until some event will put a stop to the actions. (e.g. in the 1989 coup, the US Air Force provided ‘persuasion flights’ support to Corazon Aquino to scare away the Tora-Tora planes of the insurgents).
Sadly for the insurgents, and fortunately for the middle classes who would never again support any authoritarian regime in the Philippines, no coup attempt ever succeeded at all. However, this is not to present a fixed idea that no military coup will ever succeed in the future, this is another matter altogether.
Since the coup option has never faded in the minds of the army officers here, analysts and forecasters have to re-open the possibility of the OPH becoming again a precipitating factor in launching one general assault soon. The same thing holds for other countries as well, such as those 40+ countries that saw urban riots took place as protest reactions to ‘grains price hikes’ or GPH. A confluence of OPH-GPH would serve as a very powerful precipitating impetus for waging a coup assault for that matter.
The tall order than is to nip the bud by presenting well-blended policy mixtures and institutional adjustments to the consumers. Incidentally, this is easier said than done. Since the magnitude of OPH is indubitably global, and the causal global factors are so complex, the forced option is to use populist welfare tools such as massive subsidies to food, tax cuts, taking off oil value-added tax or VAT, trimming down import duties, and so on.
Whether such actions will not redound to hyper-inflation and fiscal catastrophe in the short run is something worth observing. In which case, spiraling hyper-inflation can be the precipitating factor, with OPH serving as one factor precipitating it (hyper-inflation). Let us see how the various states, both developed and emerging markets, will respond to the OPH and downward economic spiral of the moment. Meantime, our jittered state officials will have sleepless nights forthcoming as army insurgents on the loose are busy organizing for their next ‘golpe de estado’ adventure.
[Writ 24 June 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]