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Volume 3,  Number 28              August 17 - 23, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines

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Reforming the Military

By Luis Teodoro
Columnist, Today and abs-cbnNEWS.com
Former Dean, UP College of Mass Communication

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The Filipino people have problems with the military that’s not limited to the putschist tendencies of, it seems, many of its officers and men.

There are also the problems of corruption which not only Sunday’s mutineers exposed, and which investigation by journalists’ groups like the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the magazine Newsbreak have validated. It is also generally conceded that the Philippine military has an extremely limited capacity to defend the country from external threats.

While it may not even serve as a credible deterrent to any possible affront on Philippine sovereignty, of even greater concern should be the military’s service as an instrument of repression and the protection of vested interests.

Lost in the furor over last Sunday’s mutiny was the lengthening list of human rights abuses that military units have been committing with nary a pause during the Arroyo as well as previous administrations.

The killing of suspected guerillas and sympathizers as well as of human rights activists in Mindoro Oriental and Central Luzon, or the raids and warrantless arrests in Pikit and other communities were certainly not among the concerns of the “idealistic” officers and men of the so-called Magdalo Group—and neither were they of any concern to the Arroyo generals “defending democracy” in Malacañang.

(The defenders of Trillanes and company, including their relatives who decry public criticism of them because these soldiers “endure mosquito bites and monsoon rains” in the battlefield, could do worse than to ask what exactly it is they have been fighting for, who they have been fighting, and whether they have ever protested military atrocities and outright terrorism. At least we know who and what the generals who daily “defend democracy” by funneling intelligence funds into their bank accounts, and boots and uniforms into their private warehouses, have been fighting for: themselves and for that mansion in Greenhills.)

The putschist tendencies among the more recent graduates of the Philippine Military Academy are of recent vintage. But while mostly generated and encouraged by the martial-law period and the events of 1986 onward, there was at least one period before martial-law when the threat of a coup caused a government to back down. This was during the latter part of the term of President Carlos P. Garcia in the late ’50s, when certain generals thought Garcia’s Filipino First policy to be sufficiently anti-American to merit a power grab.

Nothing was heard of that policy again once the coup rumors began. Whether a coup during that time could have succeeded, no one can now tell. What is clear from that obscure episode, however, is how deeply pro-American (and antinationalist, nationalism then being equated with communism) the military was: enough for its highest-ranking generals to entertain a coup against a duly elected government to protect US interests.

It was only logical. Although it now claims to be the successor of the Katipunan, the Philippine military was on the contrary a creation of the US colonial government. The first officers of the Philippine Constabulary were both American as well as drawn from the Spanish-era Guardia Civil. Its mandate was to hunt down the remnants of the Revolution, one of its signal achievements being the hanging of the last of its generals, Macario Sakay. In the manner of the US forces now in Iraq and the Iraqi police that serve as their junior partners, what we know as the Philippine military was, from its inception, a force meant to quell resistance to US occupation.

During the American period, the inevitable result of its genealogy, training and orientation was the military’s use to quell the rebellions fueled by the inequities of Philippine society US occupation never quite addressed. This role was emphasized to the detriment of the military’s capacity to defend the country. It resulted in the debacles of Bataan and Corregidor, despite foreknowledge by US military planners of Japanese ambitions in the Pacific.

The same orientation was dominant after the Second World War and upon formal independence, with the military being directed inward to quell social unrest—and incidentally commit the human rights atrocities that later became all too common during the martial-law period—while the defense of the country was entrusted to the US “security umbrella.”

The military did rise to prominence as a necessary partner, together with US support, of the Marcos dictatorship. But Marcos only tapped into a tradition of suppression in the military that went back to the US occupation. What was new during the martial-law period was Marcos’ total reliance on the (US-supported) military—but which eventually provoked those thoughts of removing him from power which in 1986 it did translate into practice with the help of two million citizens massed at EDSA.

Its success at EDSA has resulted in the preeminence of a coup mindset, which has replaced the myth of civilian supremacy shattered by the martial-law period. It is a mindset founded on the realization that the gun, more than the law or the consent of the citizenry, is the ultimate arbiter in politics.

A remnant of its indoctrination in civilian supremacy has persisted in all the coup attempts by military officers since 1986. It is these officers’ reliance on the patronage of the worst of politicians, in whose behalf, though they may claim otherwise, they have always acted. Lt.(senior grade) Antonio Trillanes and his co-officers are not exceptions.

Throughout the volatile post-World War II period, one other characteristic has remained intact and dominant in the Philippine military: its pro-US outlook, and together with it, its virulent anti-communism and anti-Muslim bias. This has driven the military to oppose peace talks with insurgent groups whether Moro or Christian, while pursuing a course of ever closer relations with its US counterpart.

This has been evident since independence, but the attempt to return to purely military solutions in addressing insurgency, and to restore US-Philippine military relations to Cold War heights, has been specially pronounced during the Arroyo administration. In apparent fear of military opposition, this government has repeatedly given way to the military’s preference for all-out war against social movements, and for re-engagement and realignment with US strategic interests.

This is to say that the problems of the military are intertwined in a Gordian knot that will take more than rhetoric, combat boots, or higher salaries to unravel.

Higher salaries and a promise to look into their grievances are at best temporary remedies to military restiveness. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is correct in identifying the training and orientation of military officers as a critical factor in the long-term process of ending military adventurism. But a reexamination of officer education will require more than an emphasis on constitutional obedience and civilian supremacy.

What is of even greater importance is the reorientation of the military toward serving rather than oppressing and terrorizing the people they are supposed to protect, and its being weaned from its culture of dependency on, and identification with, the interests of a foreign power (which is what the United States is).

The question, however, is whether the Arroyo or any other leadership likely to come to power will have either the disinterestedness or the will to do either (or will survive the coup attempt likely to follow any such attempt at real reform). More than the military—which has always served its interests, and which to this day has remained, not its Knight, but its pawn—the Philippine political class has a deep and abiding interest in keeping things the way they are.

Keeping things the way they are means seeing to it that the military remains what it has always been: a reliable instrument in the use of violence to quell social unrest, rather than the country’s reliable weapon in repelling invasion, or guaranteeing the survival of whatever still remains of Philippine democracy. The political class’ knowledge of this truth is at the head of the list of reasons why the country’s problems with the military will persist.

August 1, 2003

(Paper Distributed/Read at a Public Forum "Understanding the Oakwood Mutiny" Sponsored by BAYAN, 16 Aug. 2003 PCED Hostel UP Diliman, Quezon City)


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