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Botched Manila coup a warning to would-be plotters

MANILA (Reuters) - President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assured Filipinos on Friday that the leaders of yet another botched coup would be punished, as public apathy and a show of force sent a strong message to the serial seditionists.

Senator Antonio Trillanes, one of the nation’s best-known coup plotters and a former navy lieutenant, apparently believed opposition politicians and the public would flock to Manila’s Peninsula Hotel after he and a small group of soldiers declared mutiny from one of its plush conference rooms on Thursday.

But no one came.

“The Filipinos want to hear hope, not anxiety and restless voices talking nonsense,” Arroyo said in a televised address ahead of her departure on Saturday night for an 8-day trip to Europe.

“We cannot allow those guilty to show disrespect to our country.”

Despite its deep dislike of Arroyo, the Philippine middle class, instrumental in two previous “people power” revolts, is weary of political upheaval after more than a dozen coup attempts since the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

“I think the public is as much disgusted with the opposition as with the government,” said Scott Harrison, managing director of risk consultants Pacific Strategies and Assessments Ltd.

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“There is total regime change fatigue in the country. People don’t have the stomach for it.”

In a televised hearing from Manila’s main police camp late on Friday the Philippine state prosecutor told Trillanes, more than a dozen renegade soldiers, and 35 civilians that they stood accused of rebellion.

A battery of human rights lawyers was on hand to represent the accused, who sat glum-faced on plastic chairs.

The sentence for rebellion is life imprisonment but erring soldiers have never been subject to such harsh punishment. Rebel troops have typically been dismissed, sometimes promoted and in one case in 1986, given 40 push-ups.

Analysts said Arroyo would be tougher on Trillanes’s group this time around but they did not expect the leadership to impose draconian punishment for fear of upsetting the rank and file.

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In Thursday’s drama, bizarre even by the soap opera world of Philippine politics, Trillanes simply walked out of the courthouse where he was on trial for a previous coup in 2003.

Then he, his co-accused and the guards supposed to prevent them from escaping marched to the Peninsula in the heart of Manila’s financial district.

But after such an embarrassingly easy start, Arroyo, breaking a long tradition for administrations to go soft on renegade soldiers, ordered elite troops to storm the five-star hostelry.

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An armored personnel carrier battered down a grand glass door, and troops sprayed tear gas and bullets into the lobby.

There were no casualties but the heavy-handed tactics shocked the plotters who, as in previous mutinies, chose a plush hotel because they thought the location gave them protection.

“It’s a pretty significant development,” said Harrison.

“I think the government have probably learned the lesson that if they don’t tighten things up they are going to encourage more of these bushfires.”

The Peninsula, which had to billet its 400 or so guests in other hotels and will not reopen until Monday at the earliest, was aghast at the damage to its newly renovated lobby.

“We are quite unhappy about that. Heartbroken to be exact,” said spokesman Mariano Andres Garchitorena.

Although continually plagued by corruption allegations, Arroyo is seen as secure because of the jaded electorate, a growing economy and her strong majority in the lower house.

Like other disgruntled officers who try to take on the political establishment, the articulate and telegenic Trillanes was viewed as a folk hero.

But while the public rewarded his previous adventurism with a Senate seat in this year’s congressional election, they did not want a repeat performance.

“The majority do not want any more trouble. It affects the economy. We want to change the government in a peaceful way,” said Andrew Cruz, a call centre worker in Manila.

Reporting by Carmel Crimmins and Manny Mogato; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Jerry Norton