Echoes of 1972

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If the Arroyo government doesn’t watch out, it may yet end up sounding and looking so much like the Marcos government that those old enough to remember that atrocity may think the country to be in a time warp.

The impression that history’s repeating itself, though this time as farce, was not created overnight, but began to develop almost as soon as Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assumed the Presidency in 2001. Within days it seemed Mrs. Arroyo had adopted the revisionist view of the events that had catapulted her to power. Once ensconced in Malacanang, in word—and, as the months went by, in deed—she made it evident that she believed her good fortune to be due to the military’s withdrawal of allegiance from Joseph Estrada, and not to the millions of her countrymen who had massed at EDSA.

It wasn’t difficult for a traditional politician to draw that conclusion. Then AFP Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes’ announcement on January 20, 2001 that the AFP was withdrawing its support from Estrada seemed to be the critical factor in the latter’s abandonment of Malacanang, and Mrs. Arroyo’s taking power. Reyes announced his defection to the EDSA forces surrounded not only by the media, but also by at least a million Filipinos who wanted Estrada to go and take his midnight cabinet, his women, and his brain-dead advisers with him.

Reyes’ shift of allegiance had been premised on that very fact: he had earlier told EDSA II leaders that he would make his move only when they had gathered a million people or more at EDSA—and he did. Like Mrs. Arroyo, whose political life so far had been characterized by waiting to see where the wind is blowing so she could go the same way, Reyes was moved, not by principle, but by his sense of who was winning.

Not one to trust the power of the people, and in that sense a close ideological kin of Reyes, Mrs. Arroyo once President put her trust in Reyes and the military, which meant that it was that institution—and that institution’s generals, specially Reyes—that above all else had her ear as well as her support.

The May 1 riot led by Joseph Estrada’s allies hardened that support. From Mrs. Arroyo and company’s viewpoint, it was the police, with the backing of the military, that foiled that threat, not the civil society groups that had gathered in the surrounding streets to defend the Palace with placards and streamers. May 1 was a pivotal event in Reyes’ rise to power, assuring him the Defense post upon his retirement from the AFP.

As Mrs. Arroyo’s Presidency wore on, the policies she adopted, for example towards the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the National Democratic Front, became more and more pronouncedly those the military favored. In time, the military’s preference for a military solution in dealing with these groups became preeminent.

Unnoticed by most Filipinos, the military launched offensive after offensive, the most visible of them being the 2002 and 2003 campaigns against the MILF. Among the consequences of this policy was the increase, reminiscent of martial law, in the number and intensity of human rights violations in Mindanao and elsewhere.

Though also favored by Mrs. Arroyo herself, who probably sees US support for her government as pivotal to her goals for 2004, military pre-eminence in government policy making has been equally evident in the Arroyo government’s reengagement with the United States to the extent of permitting US troops to participate in the anti-Abu Sayyaf campaign, and providing unconditional support for the US war in Iraq.

Reyes, in this context, waxed in power and popular recognition if not approval, to the extent of his reportedly entertaining ambitions for the Presidency. Supposedly he has since given up on that, perhaps recognizing its futility, and has since tempered his ambitions to a more realistic level. His aspirations for an elective post, probably for the Senate, have in fact been confirmed by those infomercials—supposedly about the National Disaster Coordinating Council which he headed, but which were actually about himself—that he caused to be broadcast starting early this year.

The Oakwood mutiny not only put a stop to those infomercials. It also shocked the Arroyo government into the realization that not all of its pandering to Reyes and company could prevent the first coup attempt in 14 years from being launched against it.

On the contrary. The Oakwood mutiny revealed that Reyes had become part of the problem in the military by turning into one of the biggest sources of disaffection within it, specially among its younger officers. Now the military, in her mind once Arroyo’s biggest asset, has become her biggest worry, as rumors that the coup plotters within it, with the help of some of the worst politicians this country has ever spawned, have not given up and are still a threat to the government.

The Marcos government too had put its trust in the military, and even shared power with it. The inevitable result of military politicization was its turning against its own patron. In 1986, the EDSA uprising had been fueled by Marcos’ favoring one military faction, that of his cousin Fabian Ver’s, over others. In 2003 the Oakwood mutiny—and the broader coup plot of which it was only the most visible episode—was at least partly driven by perceptions that the Reyes faction was favored above all others.

It was to dispel that perception, among others, that has forced Reyes to resign (although Reyes is keeping his future plans close to his chest, and seems to be distancing himself from the Arroyo government for goodness knows what purpose) . It is towards dispelling that perception that the Arroyo government should be instituting in the military the reforms that it has long needed.

It won’t do for it to focus its sole attention on the so-called “civilian component”—which it equates with the opposition—of the July coup attempt. The resignation of Reyes, though temporarily damaging to the stock market and the peso-dollar exchange rate, should be only the first step in the effort to end the factionalism in the AFP that Reyes’ preeminence since 2001 has created.

That problem has to be addressed, not by singling out Reyes’ remaining partisans in Defense and the AFP, but in the government’s possessing the will to, first, establish which among the Oakwood mutineers’ grievances are legitimate, and second, to decisively address them.

Mrs. Arroyo has suggested that the “well-organized, well-funded effort by certain forces to bring down our democracy through massive disinformation and political agitation” of which Reyes warned when he resigned last week refers to the political opposition by asking Filipinos if they “will allow this kind of people to run our government”. This question is a political, meaning partisan, one which can invite speculations that she is contemplating the use of some means—perhaps another “state of rebellion,” which she has declared twice since 2002—to silence the opposition.

That would be futile as well as dangerous—as dangerous as Roilo Golez’ resurrecting the Marcosian claim that a “leftist-rightist conspiracy” was threatening the government in 1972. Golez last week used almost the same 1972 phrasing when he claimed a “tactical alliance” between the Right-wing groups plotting against the government and the Left, which can include both its armed and unarmed wings.

It is true that the New People’s Army has offered disgruntled AFP soldiers sanctuary in the areas that it influences. This has been an NPA policy for decades—incidentally encouraged by the defection of Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus to the NPA in 1971. It is far from a tactical alliance, which basically means coordinating operations in the battlefield.

Thankfully Mrs. Arroyo has not echoed the line of her National Security Adviser, who was, by the way, Bureau of Posts director during the Marcos period. Otherwise, it might have furthered the impression that for all the thirty years that have passed since then, the country has somehow been frozen in its tracks in the 1970s.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 2, 2003)

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