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