Philippine army warned against 'meddling' as coup rumors swirl

(Reuters) - Philippine soldiers should keep clear of politics, the military's new chief said on Wednesday, as rumors of a possible coup swirled in the capital after the Supreme Court declared President Benigno Aquino's economic stimulus fund illegal.

The 120,000-member armed forces has a history of coups and attempted coups. Last month, rumors sprang up of a plot against the Aquino administration because of the fund scandal.

"We should be reminded that as members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, we should remain professional and non-partisan," military chief Lieutenant-General Pio Gregorio Catapang told troops at an air base in Pampanga province, north of Manila.

"The DAP (Disbursement Acceleration Program) has become a political issue. We should allow the democratic process to take its course and let the judicial, the executive and legislative branches of government deal with this," he said. "We should not meddle (but) concentrate on our mission."

Aquino, the only son of the country's democracy icon, former president Corazon Aquino, is facing the biggest challenge to his four-year rule after his popularity ratings dropped to the lowest levels last month.

His Disbursement Allocation Program was a 145-billion-peso ($3.34-billion) fund to boost public spending, but some of the money went to allies in Congress in violation of the constitution, the Supreme Court ruled.

Aquino has become politically vulnerable to his opponents who have mobilized street protests ahead of his State of the Nation Address before a joint session of Congress next week.

"You cannot discount the range of possible scenarios in which the plotters would resort to extra-constitutional measures," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, an independent advocacy group.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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