A coup by “radicalized” officers and men of the Armed Forces of the Philippines was one of the possibilities that could “resolve the present crisis” mentioned by a speaker at a book-launching last December at the University of the Philippines.
The crisis is the one that’s been hounding the country since the summer of 2005, when the “Hello Garci” tapes surfaced as the probable smoking gun proving allegations that Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo manipulated the 2004 elections.
The book was former Ateneo Professor and Army major Dante Simbulan’s The Modern Principalia: the Historical Evolution of the Ruling Oligarchy in the Philippines. Now resident in Washington, DC and a vigorous 74, Simbulan’s name should be familiar to the military, not only because he is a graduate of class 1952 of the Philippine Military Academy. He was also a professor in his alma mater, where he taught history during the turbulent 1960s, and at the Ateneo and the then Philippine College of Commerce (now PUP, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines) upon his early retirement from the military.
Among Simbulan’s students at the PMA were Crispin Tagamolila and Victor Corpus. Though short-lived (Corpus surrendered in 1973, returned to the AFP, and retired recently as a general, while Tagamolila was killed in an encounter in the 1970s) Corpus and Tagamolila’s defections to the New People’s Army when they were already Army lieutenants the military partly blamed on Simbulan’s influence. For this and other reasons, Simbulan was arrested and detained when martial law was declared in 1972.
When they happened, the Corpus and Tagamolila defections were significant not only for whatever implications they would have on the NPA’s chances of success. They were also thought to indicate that the ferment sweeping the Philippines at the time had finally broken through the iron wall of conservatism that had insulated the PMA, and therefore the Philippine military, from understanding the economic, political and social crisis that for decades had afflicted the country.
As the primary instrument for the suppression of social unrest, the military had served since its founding as the guardian of elite interests and the status quo of mass poverty and social injustice. Now, it was thought, this could change as the military became politicized.
Before martial law “politicization” was shorthand for awareness of the nature of political power in the Philippines, how it has been the instrument of only a handful of families, and how it has been used to defend and enhance their and their foreign patrons’ interests.
Martial law “politicized” the military—but only in the sense that, as the collaborator of Ferdinand Marcos, who relied on its bayonets to keep him in power, the military became acutely aware of its power, and of its capacity to influence events.
In 1986 this awareness found expression in the aborted coup attempt against the Marcos government that led to the EDSA uprising. The coup plot by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) was triggered by the contest for power between the General Fabian Ver faction on the one hand, and the Fidel Ramos-Juan Ponce Enrile group on the other.
There were no signs in RAM of the “radicalization” that supposedly began in the 1960s. It seemed that the “radicals” had all settled into the usual niches of comfort in the military as junior and middle level officers. They were “politicized” only in the narrow sense that the Marcos regime had taught them.
The limits of this “politicization” was evident in the coup attempts of the 1980s. Not only were the statements of their leaders distinguished by the lack of any reasoned critique of the political order. The attempted coups were also premised on the Aquino government’s allegedly being “soft on communism.” Apparently these were not Simbulan’s former students speaking.
Since then, other than for oblique references to the writings of Claro M. Recto, neither RAM nor its successor groups—now said to be made up of junior officers as well as majors and colonels– has ventured into any analysis and/or critique of the political, economic and social system, or into any explanation of what it wants to achieve other than the usual motherhood goals.
Now back in the news because of the escape (or alleged escape) of four of its member-officers, the Magdalo group that occupied Makati’s Oakwood Hotel in 2003
has been similarly in default.
Marine Captain Nicanor Faeldon’s displays of audacity—his visiting military camps though a fugitive, and maintaining a website from where he’s urging people to display Philippine flags at half-mast as an indication of “civil disobedience”—are amusing, but based solely on what he claims is a fight “to reassert our citizenship, to establish our identity as Filipinos…and to reclaim our pride and identity as a people.”
Navy Lieutenant Second Grade Antonio Trillanes IV is even less specific, having railed against military corruption when he, Faeldon and other junior officers allegedly led the occupation of Oakwood in 2003. A few days ago he declared that Filipinos must choose between Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and change. Choosing the first, he said, would mean that one is satisfied with his lot in life, while the second choice would mean that one wants to improve one’s life.
Although the choice Trillanes says Filipinos must make is obvious, how one can put into practice the choice of “change”, what the changes would be and what means will lead to those changes, no one, certainly not Trillanes, is saying. And yet the Magdalo and other clandestine military groups are presumably among the “radicalized” military groups that some Filipinos think can resolve the present crisis.
In despair and desperation, many otherwise thinking Filipinos are pinning their hopes on allegedly “radicalized” military groups not only to quickly end the political crisis, but also to begin the transformation of Philippine society. Unfortunately, no one really knows for certain what these groups will do if they do come to power. Because they are an unknown quantity, they could as easily turn on their allies and supporters as on their perceived enemies. This is not to argue that a known evil is preferable to an unknown one– but to suggest that choosing an alternative that doesn’t seem to be an alternative at all would be as foolish.