Did anyone ever doubt that Armed Forces Chief of Staff Hermogenes Esperon would court martial most of, if not all, the military officers accused of involvement in a supposed “coup attempt” early this year?
For him not to would undermine the Arroyo regime’s claim that a Communist- Military conspiracy was afoot to overthrow it last February. That would make the Arroyo regime’s actions then and since totally indefensible. It would also validate the popular view that the regime used the “conspiracy” as the pretext to go after its critics, intimidate the press, and intensify its suppression of the rights to free expression and assembly through Proclamation 1017.
These same Filipinos look positively at Esperon’s overruling the alleged recommendation of the AFP Pre-Trial Investigation (PTI) panel to drop the mutiny charges against the 38. They think the PTI recommendation too reminiscent of what happened during the Corazon Aquino presidency, when, despite several coup attempts, the government chose to be lenient rather than harsh towards the plotters.
The fear that military ascendancy will lead to a regime that would not only be dictatorial but also inefficient is common among the Filipino middle class. No one can blame it for that belief. The only instance of both de jure and de facto military ascendancy on record was during the martial law regime (1972-1986), when the military collaborated with Marcos in driving the country into the ground.
The coup attempts of the late 1980s didn’t help either. Not only was every one of those attempts instigated by politicians intent only in seizing power for themselves, and driven by the desire for a share of the spoils. As coup attempts went, they weren’t distinguished by astute planning or even a modicum of secrecy and efficient organization either.
Circumstances have changed since then. As in the 1980s, the usual politicians and other opportunists were in the background egging on military elements prior to, and in February, 2006. But the difference was that the legitimacy issue had driven Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s approval ratings to sub-zero levels, which did not happen to Mrs. Aquino in the 1980s. Of even more significance was that the disgruntled elements of the military seemed to be developing a systematic critique of the political system, and in the process abandoning the usual putschist paths–i.e., a military uprising a la the late 1980s–in favor of the People Power model.
The first tentative indication of this difference was the Oakwood incident of 2003, the leaders of which described what they were doing as a “protest.” Their being armed to the teeth was not too convincing an argument in their favor. But in early 2006 other military elements seemed to have taken that line of reasoning a step farther by declaring that, rather than launch a coup attempt, what they wanted was to convince the AFP leadership and men to join the street protests at EDSA and withdraw their support from the Arroyo regime.
Whether this was at all a realistic path to take is not at issue. But it does raise questions about whether there was indeed a coup attempt last February–and even if the officers now accused of it were planning one.
The PTI panel recommendation–assuming that the version of it leaked to the press was authentic–apparently believed that not even the intention to launch a coup is sufficient grounds for a court martial. The AFP Judge Advocate General’s Office agreed with the PTI panel’s recommendation. But Esperon has no choice but to overrule the JAGO, unless he’s willing to take responsibility for undermining Malacanang’s version of the events of February.
In so doing Esperon is risking the possibility of–in the words of Senator Aquilino Pimentel–“stoking the fires of discontent” in the divided officer corps. Not only does the PTI panel recommendation itself indicate how deep those divisions are. The leak of the panel report also shows that there are officers in the AFP senior enough to have access to it, and unhappy enough with Esperon’s decision to leak it to the media.
Esperon has justified his decision by declaring that it is his prerogative to accept the JAGO recommendation or not. Whether he indeed does have that prerogative is not as important as what impact his overruling JAGO will have on the officer corps, especially the junior officers in it, among whose ranks antipathy for the Arroyo presidency and its favored generals continues to seethe.
Esperon has announced that the 30 officers he has ordered court martialed will get a fair trial. But his overruling the military justice system’s own processes is likely to convince the disgruntled that their fellow officers won’t. Esperon and the regime he serves could end up widening the rifts in the armed forces further. But it’s damned if they do and damned if they don’t.