Far from spontaneous, the Magdalo Group of military officers’ takeover of Makati’s Oakwood Hotel seems to have been part of a failed, amateurish and frightening attempt at restoring naked authoritarian rule through a junta.

Their supposed idealism has been tarnished by their association with some of the worst politicians in the country. They brought no proof to either Oakwood or the Feliciano Commission hearings on their allegations of corruption in the military and its involvement in terrorist acts in Mindanao.

The National Recovery Program of Senator Gringo Honasan they endorsed (parts of which one of their leaders seems to have written) is at best a prescription for essentially the same policies past governments have implemented, and at worst a collection of motherhood statements meant to maximize its author’s chances at being elected in 2004.

Despite these obvious limitations of the Oakwood mutineers—their inability, in sum, to break out of the conventional political and intellectual parameters dominant in the military as well as civilian components of the elite government—their claim that the Armed Forces of the Philippines is ridden with corruption, says one former Philippine Army officer, is not only true, it can also be documented, and what’s more can be stopped.

Speaking at a forum at the University of the Philippines on “Understanding the Oakwood Mutiny” last Saturday, August 16, former Scout Ranger Captain Rene Jarque said that like all government agencies, “the AFP has its own share of the ‘normal’ graft and corrupt practices such as commissions, kickbacks, overpricing, padding, substitution, rigged biddings, under-delivery and ghost deliver(ies).” He described these practices as “common knowledge among suppliers, dealers, auditors, supply officers, enlisted personnel and everyone involved in the supply and finance chain.”

But, Jarque added, “the AFP is involved in a far more sophisticated form of corruption that can be called the ‘mother’ of all corruption in the AFP.” A reform minded 1986 graduate of the US Military Academic at West Point, Jarque was involved in the 1987 and 1989 coup attempts against the Aquino government, which he said he now regrets.

Jarque was an expert on defense and security policy, psychological operations and defense-military management. He served in the Scout Rangers in a variety of staff and command positions, and was Special Assistant during the Ramos administration in the office of the Secretary of Defense. He was also a lecturer in AFP schools, and edited the Army Journal Cavalier. He is the son of former Army General Raymundo Jarque, who defected to the National Democratic Front in 1995 in protest over persecution by fellow senior officers.

The younger Jarque resigned his commission and left the military a few years ago disillusioned over the corruption and unprofessionalism he saw in it. Although now in the private sector, he has continued to argue for the need for Armed Forces reform.

Jarque sees the practice of “conversion” as the fountainhead of AFP corruption. “Conversion,” said Jarque, “is the process of converting procurements (into their) cash equivalent.” Under this scheme, an amount meant for, say, office supplies, is “converted” into cash so it can be spent to pay for something else, like construction materials.

In the process, approving and auditing authorities skim percentages off the top at an average of 25 percent. Only nine to 16 percent of the actual allocation goes to the suppliers of the materials.

Aside from the obvious fact that the practice means that less than 20 percent of the allocated amount is actually spent for the needed materials—the cost of corruption being therefore in the neighborhood of a whopping 80 percent, or worse than in such notoriously corrupt civilian agencies as the Department of Public Works and Highways—“conversion” is in the first place prohibited by the AFP Procurement Manual and Commission on Audit circulars, and is a form of graft punishable under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

It’s clear enough why it is illegal. “Converted” funds, said Jarque, “can be used for any purpose including personal expenses, allowances, travel ‘pabaon’ (spending money), buying a house and car, paying personal credit card bills, night-clubbing and philandering.”

Because it has been so used, converted funds result in income disparities, professional jealousies, and demoralization in the Armed Forces.

“The lifestyle of officers and soldiers receiving allowances derived from conversion is far more affluent than those who rely on their salaries alone. The captain who rides a jeepney and sees a fellow captain driving a nice car feels not only inadequacy but resentment.”

Most of all, said Jarque, conversion “slowly and very subtly erodes the moral fiber of soldiers involved in it.” Jarque argues that conversion, as “the mother of AFP corruption,” should be the first practice that must be stopped.

It will not do to rely on the internal mechanisms of the AFP, however, since the corruption permeates all levels of the organization. Instead, Jarque suggests, civil society groups should “keep the reform process alive” by calling public attention to the issue, and demanding that reforms be vigorously pursued. Congressional involvement is also crucial, said Jarque, in that reforming the AFP will require new laws as well as the review of existing laws pertaining to the military and defense. Lifestyle checks “should also focus on senior officers, as not all of them have heiresses as wives.” (Some senior officers who live obviously extravagant lifestyles claim these are sustained by their wives’ money.)

But it is the President most of all who should lead in the reform process, said Jarque. It is the executive department that can look into conversion, and devise ways to “minimize, if not eliminate, graft and corrupt practices in the AFP.” In addition, the President’s commitment to reform “will dictate (its) intensity and tempo.”

The failure to reform the AFP will be the failure of the President. “The biggest question is whether the Commander in Chief, the President, has the moral courage and political will to initiate fundamental reforms.”

Jarque suggested that the Magdalo Group might have been driven by a combination of “a messianic complex compounded by a sense of adventurism and misguided idealism” because of their experience.

In the remotest barangay of the Philippines, said Jarque, soldiers in combat duty are exposed to the inadequacies of government services in their efforts to “win hearts and minds.” Soldiers are in many cases forced to take over government responsibilities such as providing medical and dental care, but are themselves hampered by lack of AFP resources.

When they visit Camp Aguinaldo or Fort Bonifacio, the officers and men who have seen combat are greeted with the disparity between their difficulties in the field and the luxury of certain officials’ lifestyles. The feelings of frustration, envy, inadequacy and whatever else can lead to using the gun to try to achieve change, no matter how nebulously conceived. The use of the gun, said Jarque, is only logical, since the gun is to the soldier a means to power.

Jarque’s conclusion is that the threat of coups can only diminish if what drove the Magdalo Group to Oakwood—and to involvement with those unscrupulous politicians who tried to manipulate them for their own purposes—is addressed. That means weeding out corruption by the roots, and professionalizing the entire Officer Corps.

Take it from someone who’s been there and who’s done that: “Only by reforming the Armed Forces can we be assured that the military will know its rightful place in a democratic society,” said Jarque.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, August 19, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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