The military’s reckless tagging of legal groups as communist fronts, its probable role in the killing, abduction and harassment of political activists, and the continuing possibility of coup attempts not only recall the martial law period. These are also reminders that the military has not changed much, and is still driven by Cold War and authoritarian assumptions.
Nineteen years after EDSA 1986 and despite the repeal of the Anti-Subversion Law (RA 1700), the Armed Forces of the Philippines still describes materials seized from the alleged NPA guerillas it captures as “subversive documents,” and militant groups as “subversive organizations.”
Its Marcos-era views and its own weaknesses shape the military’s response to everything from the participation of party-list groups in elections to local guerilla activity. In the Philippine countryside, where mass support is essential to the defeat of insurgency, soldiers act like marauding bands. Haphazardly trained, and poorly equipped and supplied because of officer corruption, some rob and beat residents, harass women, and arrest, torture or even kill those they suspect of rebel sympathies.
High-level corruption subverts the AFP’s capacity to fight, as well as the very state it protects. But senior officers see no irony in describing certain groups as “legal” but “subversive,” and therefore legitimate targets.
Its politicization during the martial law period has been blamed for the military’s current state. But the armed forces had been politicized long before 1972. Founded during the American occupation, it was from birth a political instrument for the defense of the new colonial regime and the suppression of the remaining fighters of the Philippine Revolution.
The new regime used the military to curb social unrest and sporadic rebellions. The military also suppressed Moro resistance, and implemented the Christian settlement policy that eventually made Muslims a minority in Mindanao. After 1946 it was focused less on defending the country against external enemies than on dismantling Muslim and other rebel groups. Its officers’ commitment to the defense of the economic, social and political order was amply demonstrated during the Carlos P. Garcia presidency, when AFP generals were involved in a plot to oust Garcia should he persist in his Filipino First policy.
By sharing power with its leading officers, Ferdinand Marcos gave the military unprecedented political prominence. But its history had long prepared it for the role it played during the martial law period and after.
A politicized and unreformed military is a perennial threat to democratization. To flourish, democracy needs dissent and criticism as well as the lawful transfer of power via honest elections. The Philippine military has demonstrated its contempt for the former, and through gross partisanship last year, its disdain for the latter.
When Filipinos express fears over military adventurism, they presume that purely military rule would ensue in the event of a coup, but every coup attempt in this country has included a civilian component. Unlike the military establishments of Indonesia, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar) the Philippine military has always relied on civilian patronage. The probable reason lies in its history and the socialization of its officers. The US colonial regime emphasized the dominance of civilian power over the military, and enshrined it in the Philippine Military Academy as a basic principle.
The anti-Garcia coup plot in the 1960s was thus not a purely military conspiracy, but was led by politicians with links to the US Central Intelligence Agency. The military was Marcos’ servant and never his master in implementing and consolidating martial rule. EDSA 1986 overthrew Marcos, but demonstrated that the military alone can neither seize nor hold power. Civilian conspirators masterminded the coup attempts during the Aquino presidency. In 2003 the Oakwood mutiny was part of a bigger plot similarly involving, if not masterminded by, civilians.
The killing of activists, the seeming pre-eminence of former and active generals in government, the resurgence of human rights violations, and the martial-law era approach to the Moro and NPA insurgencies have revived speculations that the present government has lost control of the military.
This view assumes that the civilian government has one policy and the military another. But it was a civilian bureaucrat, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzalez, who was loudest during the 2004 elections in describing Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Anak Pawis, etc. as fronts of the Communist Party. Echoed in the military’s “Knowing Your Enemy” briefing, the labeling suspiciously occurred as the killing of activists and community leaders was escalating.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s silence was deafening then, but is even more deafening now. Despite the killing of activists–fifty since 2001–and protests over the military’s labeling of legal party-list, labor, youth, farmers’, workers’, fisherfolk, women’s, media and church groups as CPP fronts, she has maintained a silence that’s been interpreted as approval.
Divided, weakened by corruption, and without strong leaders, the military is easily controlled by its civilian overseers. The Macapagal-Arroyo government is thus able to implement through the AFP a policy based on the dual tactics of negotiations and aggressive military efforts against the CPP’s “legal machinery.”
Criticism of military excess, short-sightedness and corruption has correctly led to criticism of the Macapagal-Arroyo government and its Marcos-era approach to insurgency, dissent and human rights. Taming the military will require the taming of the civilian bureaucracy.
(Commentary, Philippine Daily Inquirer /INQ7)