AT SOME point during her interminable occupancy of Malacanang, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said something to the effect that the police and military are charged with preserving “our way of life.”
I hesitate to call it an unguarded moment, Mrs. Arroyo not being known for lowering her guard at any time, except when she’s playing golf with the state capitalists of China. Let’s call it an unintended confession of what the country’s ruling dynasties and their instrumentalities are up to.
The way of life Mrs. Arroyo mentioned does need preserving — for those among the small percentage of the population who have everything and whose existence is one long vacation in the lap of luxury. As for the rest, theirs are either lives of uncertainty and crisis, in which leaving the country is the only way out — or, for the 60 percent mired in the miseries of poverty, a desperate struggle for survival.
As a result, every government the country has had since 1946 has been focused on keeping unrest at bay, the preferred method being the use the use of the coercive powers of government — i.e., using the police and the military — as was most clearly demonstrated by the Marcos martial law regime.
That regime did eventually collapse, although the process was as glacial as most other processes in this country are. But despite the overthrow of the Marcos regime and the restoration of liberal institutions in 1986, the police and the military emerged with both their own sense of how crucial a factor they are to the politics of this country, as well as with the political class’ profound appreciation of the critical role police and military support is to its fortunes.
The result was to catapult these institutions, with their monopoly over the legal use of force, into a position of preeminence in the political calculations of the “elites and dynasties” (former Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s words) that have ruled this country even before 1946.
Of all Philippine Presidents since Marcos, it was Mrs. Arroyo who was most deeply aware of how crucial police and military support were to her and her families’ fortunes.
The many coup attempts during the Corazon Aquino watch may have failed, but future attempts may not, which makes keeping the police and the military happy important to any regime.
Beyond that understanding, however, Mrs. Arroyo seems to have also learned that police and military support doesn’t have to be passive: together with the support of the warlords in command of various regions throughout the country, police and military support was active during the crucial elections of 2004 and 2007 through the involvement of key police and military officers in assuring the alleged victory of Mrs. Arroyo in 2004, and of her coalition in 2007.
But nothing comes free in the country the political elite has fashioned in its own image. Part of the cost of police and military support came in the form of at least tolerating, and at most encouraging, the corruption in both institutions — of which a practice known as fund “conversion” the AFP claimed to have “outlawed” in 2005 — that as early as 2003 had been exposed by, among others, junior military officers like Antonio Trillanes III and the late Army Ranger Captain Rene Jarque.
While fund “conversion” continues — which some military officers continue to justify by claiming that it’s necessary for the armed forces to wage the wars its fighting to, well, basically preserve the political elite’s “way of life” — the Senate inquiry into the General Carlos F. Garcia plea bargain case has led to the revelation that it’s only one among many forms of corruption in the military. (Police corruption, on the other hand, is fairly well known, among its many forms being that of providing “protection” to illegal gambling, prostitution, carjacking, and the drug trade among others, as well as police officers’ themselves running criminal syndicates.)
As in such high profile “civilian” cases as the NBN-ZTE case, the amounts involved — P50 to P150 million in “welcome” and “going away” cash gifts to AFP chiefs of staff, for example — are not only staggering , but also suggest that they’re part of a system devised to encourage military corruption. The forms of military corruption the Garcia case has bared in its wake could include, in addition to the suspicious plea bargain agreement between him and the Ombudsman, the Arroyo regime practice of appointing Chiefs of Staff to serve brief months-long terms, which on the face of it suggests an attempt to “distribute the wealth” among as many senior generals as possible.
The expected result seems to be not only to keep past Chiefs of Staff content and quiet. It also includes demonstrating to officers aspiring for the highest posts in the military that loyalty has its rewards.
The cost to the treasury is tremendous, but there’s a far stiffer price the forms of corruption that are being exposed almost daily are exacting, and that’s the damage to the state the military’s supposed to be protecting. The cost of military corruption certainly means the armed forces’ reduced capability to modernize — and let’s not even talk about the AFP’s capacity to repel an invasion. But at the level of the common soldier and even field officers, it also means the transformation of frontline units into badly-equipped troops that have been known to forage for food and supplies among the already desperately poor communities they’re supposed to win over.
The military labels various groups including labor, farmers’, human rights, and journalists’ organizations as “enemies of the state.” In a perfect world it would purge that list of those groups whose only crime is to try to make things a little better in this country. It would instead put at the top of that list its own corrupt senior officers, whether retired or active, among them those whose wives and children have been known to proudly declare that they’re carrying $100,000 to the US for shopping money. But that’s in a perfect world, and not in this oh- so- imperfect one called the Philippines.