Hostage or not, does it matter?

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Senator Joker Arroyo claims that it is now the military that’s “calling the shots” in this country and that Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is its hostage.

The most recent statements of military spokesmen, especially those of a Colonel Tristan Kison, indeed suggest that the military leadership believes it now has the mandate and the power to decide the fate of the nation. But Senator Arroyo could still be mistaken, and Mrs. Arroyo still in firm command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. But does it really matter who’s in command of whom?

The military—and let’s not forget the police, which, while officially a civilian agency, is dominated by the military mindset instilled into it by martial law—is very much in evidence today because of its undeniable role in preserving the Arroyo regime. This renewed prominence, reminiscent of the martial law period, did not happen overnight, and is the culmination of a process that began in 2004.

The political crisis over the legitimacy of Mrs. Arroyo was what catapulted the military, nearly 20 years after it returned to the barracks, into national attention in 2005 for the role in election fraud allegedly played by certain generals, colonels and even entire units of the AFP. (The Oakwood mutiny doesn’t count; it was only a minor annoyance in 2003.)

Civil society’s subsequent failure to force Mrs. Arroyo to resign during the last six months of 2005—a failure primarily due to the moral vacuity of the middle class and its inability to transcend its focus on itself—then convinced anti-Arroyo factions within the military that only they could resolve the crisis.

The path these factions chose was the usual, failure-strewn one: a coup d’etat followed by the installation of a civilian-military junta, with the “civilian” part of it likely to be mostly for window-dressing. But what distinguished this plot from the plots of the 1980s was the apparent attempt of its instigators to engage civilians and civilian groups in the effort.

Although the factions involved seem to have failed again in their chosen path to a “resolution,” the belief that only they could solve the crisis echoes the assumptions that drove military putschists to launch coup attempt after coup attempt in the 1980s.

But in the aftermath of Proclamation 1017, and the subsequent crisis of Philippine democracy, the military has re-assumed the role to which it was accustomed during the martial law period. Military bayonets made martial law possible, and for 14 years kept Ferdinand Marcos in power. It is its bayonets—plus the guns of the police– that are now being used to savage the Bill of Rights through arrests without warrants, the curtailment of the right to free assembly and free speech, and the harassment and intimidation of journalists.

The political events of the last two years are thus once more demonstrating, as the martial law period did, how crucial the military’s role is in a country ruled by an irresponsible political elite supported by a self-serving and myopic middle class.

The Philippines has a liberal Constitution. Its Bill of Rights is the envy of other countries in the region, especially the protection it endows on free expression and press freedom. But as the Marcos dictatorship proved and as the Arroyo regime is affirming, the Constitution can be a hindrance to regime survival. In unstable societies only violence and the threat of its use can keep even illegitimate governments in power.

That the military should crow about its role to the extent of entertaining the delusion that the government IS the nation, and that therefore what it has done is “keep the nation together” is inevitable in these circumstances. But such claims do come close to implying that it now commands the (de facto) chief executive rather than being commanded by her.

The debate over who’s commanding whom might be interesting. But it is hardly relevant to the nation now suffering the consequences of the weaknesses of the country’s democratic institutions. (It is the ease with which elections are manipulated that triggered the political crisis that has since morphed into a crisis for Philippine democracy.)

It hardly matters to the victims of the current repression whether Mrs. Arroyo is in control of the Armed Forces or not. She may very well be in a partnership of convenience with the military leadership in furtherance of common interests, or she might indeed be its hostage as Senator Arroyo claims, and the military just waiting to grab power for itself.

No one can be certain which is which. But what we can be sure of is that arrests without warrants are continuing, the media remain under threat, and public assemblies are banned. The bottom line is that the military, whether acting on its own or on Mrs. Arroyo’s orders, is doing what it does best with the zeal of unleashed Dobermans.

The past 20 years when the military was supposed to have developed some respect for human rights and the Constitution have obviously been for naught. Its passion for curtailing citizen rights reveals that it has retained the same authoritarian mindset martial law equipped it with. Its involvement in political affairs, whether through electoral fraud or coup attempts, indicates it is far from being the professional force a democracy can rely on to defend it.

If the last 20 years since EDSA 1 have indeed made a difference, military elements would have shunned political partisanship and involvement in electoral fraud in 2004. They would have refused to entertain the siren calls of their fellows for another coup attempt. And they would be objecting now to their being used once more to ensure regime survival at the expense of the democratic rights and well- being of the citizenry the Constitution mandates them to protect.

But as the events of the last two years have shown, one might as well ask for the moon as for a reformed military. The military is unchanged decades after it emerged from the EDSA 1 experience. That fact helps explain why Philippine democracy is exceedingly fragile.

(Business Mirror)

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