MANILA, SEPT. 3 -- Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, the cigar-chomping chief of staff of the Philippine armed forces, has now saved President Corazon Aquino from at least five coup attempts. He is one of the remaining heroes of the revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. And he is often mentioned as the man to beat for president of the Philippines when Aquino's term expires in 1992.
If there were any such thing as a scientific popularity poll in this country, "Eddie" Ramos probably would be the runner-up, behind only Aquino herself. The public perceives him as a commander intensely loyal to the president and dedicated to upholding civilian rule as he starts revamping the politicized and poorly equipped military.
That is the public perception.
Within the military organization he leads, however, Ramos is the subject of intense criticism. Many of his officers consider him a weak and indecisive leader, a technocrat with little battlefield experience, a relic of the Marcos era, an unimaginative commander unable or unwilling to articulate the military's grievances to the civilian political leadership. Even some respected retired generals have called for his replacement by a more vigorous, creative commander better able to combat a tenacious communist insurgency.
Last week's military rebellion by hundreds of soldiers -- who seized military camps and Air Force bases here and in several provinces -- has thus presented Aquino with a painful if familiar dilemma: After every failed military mutiny and coup attempt, Aquino has become more beholden to Ramos. But each new mutiny and coup attempt also demonstrates Ramos' lack of control over large segments of his own military, and the depth of dislike he evokes from many of his troops.
"He's the hero of the day, but I think he's going to wake up one Monday morning with a headquarters that's been burned out, an armed forces that's badly divided and a public that will start to ask if he's such a great leader then why are his troops always rebelling," said one well-informed military analyst.
One of the many paradoxes of Philippine politics is that every time Ramos saves the country's shaky democracy from another military takeover, the demands for his ouster seem to increase.
Ramos' ouster was the rebel leaders' principal demand. While the rebellion has been widely characterized as a military coup aimed at removing Aquino from power, several political and military analysts have asserted that the rebels' primary target was Ramos and an overhaul of the military leadership.
Most analysts agree that a sizeable majority of the armed forces -- even among those who sided with the government -- probably supported the rebel demands.
Aquino said in a speech last Sunday that she was the primary target of the revolt, and that the rebels intended to kill her and her family. That view seems supported by the fact that the revolt began with a predawn assault on Malacanang, the presidential palace.
Several well-informed Filipino and foreign analysts have suggested, however, that the attack on the palace may not have been aimed at seizure of the government, even though capture of the symbolic seat of government would have been a major propaganda victory. They said the relatively small size of the rebel force at the palace suggests that the rebels may have wanted to stage a symbolic demonstration, or perhaps to create a diversion to draw progovernment troops away from strategic military camps and television stations.
One officer closely linked to the coup leaders, but not himself implicated, said that in attacking the palace the rebel leader, Col. Gregorio (Gringo) Honasan, "wanted to leave his calling card, and let Cory know that he was there."
Various military analysts who closely monitor affairs in the Philippine armed forces said the rebels wanted to demonstrate that Ramos did not have the support of the majority of his troops. They hoped that by seizing the armed forces General Headquarters building, and holding it for several days if possible, they could convince more and more troops to defect from Ramos and join them.
Ramos surprised his detractors by ordering an early military assault to dislodge the rebels from their stronghold at the General Headquarters building on the grounds of Camp Aguinaldo.
This decisiveness was a far cry from Ramos' apparent reluctance to attack mutinous soldiers who seized a suburban television station in January. For more than two days that revolt was a standoff, as Ramos tried to negotiate a peaceful surrender despite Aquino's public order to crush the mutiny quickly.
The takeover ended when Ramos, in a bizarre and embarrassing moment for a military staff chief, appeared at a predawn press conference with the rebel leader, applauded the rebels and announced that he would invite them for "a hot breakfast." None of the soldiers who participated in that television station takeover has been punished.
Many analysts predicted that Ramos would be fired after that humiliation, and some palace aides asked whether Ramos' reluctance to attack the rebels suggested that his loyalties were divided.
Ramos, however, once again demonstrated his knack for survival. He fired back at his critics, saying his negotiating tactic had saved lives and preserved the unity of the armed forces. After a few days' silence, Aquino reaffirmed her commitment to keep Ramos on for the rest of his three-year term.
Most political and military analysts here said the rebel soldiers who staged last week's revolt probably believed Ramos would show similar indecisiveness and be reluctant to launch an assault to dislodge them.
"Ramos may be part of the problem of unrest in the military," wrote Amando Doronila, columnist for the Manila Chronicle. "But early in the morning of the coup, he lost no time declaring his loyalty to the constitutional government and took visible command of the operation to crush the coup.
"While it is true that grievances continue to fester within the military, the successful operations against the coup now make it unlikely that he will be changed in a military purge."
Still, while Ramos has once again consolidated his hold on his job, the nearly day-long delay in launching a counterattack against the rebels has raised once again -- as has happened after other such revolts -- questions about the loyalties of large segments in the armed forces. Many here are asking whether Ramos can count on his troops to obey orders and break their longstanding tradition of esprit de corps when told to fire on fellow soldiers.
Ramos apparently hesitated to attack earlier because he was not sure how many troops he could count on. He was waiting for reinforcements to be flown to Manila from Zamboanga City, on Mindanao island, more than 600 miles from Manila. The chief of staff had to rely on untrained Manila police officers -- "pot-bellied cops," one palace aide called them -- to retake the government-controlled television station from the rebels.
Even when the final assault began -- dramatically including two World War II-vintage propeller-driven planes firing rockets -- it appeared that the soldiers involved in the assault were reluctant to shoot at each other. One government official dubbed it "an acoustic war," meaning that many rounds were fired from automatic weapons, but most were fired into the air. Reliable military sources said the two planes did not attack the armed forces headquarters building until the rebel forces had retreated and set it on fire.
With troops reluctant to shoot at fellow soldiers in rebellion, and with the loyalties of many soldiers in doubt, Ramos finds his authority undercut by conflicting allegiances arising from various sources, including a bonding tradition among classmates at the Philippine Military Academy, family ties, political alliances, and relationships built through military fraternal organizations like the Guardians. Some regional commanders have built their personal fiefdoms in the provinces and are only nominally accountable to the commander in chief.
Many analysts here believe that while Ramos may have survived once again to command the armed forces, he may be unable to lead them. Ramos' leadership dilemma was illustrated in the latest crisis when he ordered the replacement of Col. Rodolfo Aguinaldo, the military provincial commander in Cagayan Valley. Aguinaldo endorsed the revolt, led by his longtime friend Col. Honasan, and some sources suspect that Honasan may have fled to Cagayan to continue to wage war against the government.
Despite the order for his removal, Aguinaldo remains in Cagayan, insisting he will continue to lead his men in fighting communists, according to reports reaching here. He has built his own semiprivate army of more than 2,000 men, consisting of ex-communists who have surrendered, Negrito Indian tribesmen whom he has armed and trained, and vigilantes from the region's villages.
In an interview last year, Aguinaldo made it clear that he alone reigned over his unorthodox army. "Their instruction is clear," he said then. "I am the only one who can disarm them. Nobody else can disarm them . . . . They in Manila might say they've created a monster here, but I follow instructions -- from the right person."