The debate on whether Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is in control of the military, or if she’s become a mere figurehead commander-in-chief, began in 2006. That was when she declared a state of emergency at the prodding of the Security Cluster of the Cabinet. The country’s security forces immediately began acting as if the country were under martial rule, raiding a newspaper office, imposing “guidelines” on the media, dispersing demonstrations and arresting their leaders, and imposing a ban on public assemblies.

Mrs. Arroyo lifted Proclamation 1017 a week later, but that lifting has since seemed of no consequence to the police and military. The latter, particularly, has reemerged from its post-1986 dormancy to once more become a key player in Philippine governance and politics.

The debate assumes that Mrs. Arroyo is of a different frame of mind from the Philippine military hierarchy, meaning that she is concerned over such issues as human rights as a universal entitlement, as well as those freedoms protected by the Constitution: free speech, the free press, freedom of assembly and free expression in general.

Unless she and the military are of different minds, whether she’s still in command of it or has become its hand puppet would be of no particular importance. If she is indeed in control of the military, it would only mean that the military’s resurrection as the fist of authoritarian rule occurred with her support; they’re all in it together.

On the other hand, if Mrs. Arroyo has become the military’s convenient front to enable it to carry out its agenda of repression, it would imply that she disagrees with its approach to addressing the insurgency—an approach which favors the harassment and neutralization of party list groups and other organizations it claims to be fronts of the New People’s Army and the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Whether Mrs. Arroyo is in control of the military or its hostage and marionette has never been laid to rest. The deployment of troops to Metro Manila’s urban poor areas, and Mrs. Arroyo’s congratulating the AFP for “a job well done” and her urging that they “keep up the good work” has in fact provoked another round of speculation as to whether the commander in chief still commands or is being commanded.

Like Mrs. Arroyo’s now infamous 2006 acknowledgment of the “good work” of Jovito Palparan, her praise for the troops in Metro Manila is surprising for its seeming callousness to the sensibilities of the many groups as well as ordinary citizens appalled and intimidated by that presence.

After several weeks of explaining the deployment through various creative ways, the AFP’s Major General Ben Mohammad Dolorfino has finally justified the deployment in terms of civic action. Dolorfino said after Mrs. Arroyo’s visit to the military detachment in the poor urban community of Baseco in Manila’s teeming Tondo district that his troops were addressing the “problems of the community” as a counter-insurgency tactic meant to deny the guerillas of the New People’s Army their mass support. “If there are no problems in the communities, (the insurgents) will die a natural death,” said Dolorfino.

But are there NPA guerillas in Metro Manila? Obviously none. But the military says there will be, because, it claims, the NPA is planning to field its guerillas in the cities. The troop deployment is thus a preemptive measure, much like the US invasion of Iraq.

If the NPA is indeed about to enter the cities, then we must credit the military with uncanny, George W. Bush-like prescience, since the deployment of NPA guerillas in Manila would be in defiance of its announced strategy of encircling the cities from the countryside. The re-assertion of that strategy was in fact the fundamental reason behind the CPP’s withdrawing NPA units from the urban areas in the late 1980s in the wake of its campaign to reaffirm its adherence to Maoist principles.

If the NPA’s soon-to-be presence in Metro Manila is only an excuse for the deployment of troops in the capital, only the May elections could be the real reason, and those elections are crucial to the survival and future of Mrs. Arroyo and her crew.

The civic action approach would make sense only if the real rather than stated aim is to prevent people from supporting militant party list groups like Bayan Muna: the approach assumes that the NPA and these groups are linked to one another or are one and the same. It would also make sense in terms of preventing the making of an anti-Arroyo House of Representatives, while at the same time making sure that the troops are handily nearby when elections come around.

Malacanang was making noises about a timetable for troop withdrawal before the elections—but that was before Mrs. Arroyo’s April Fool’s Day visit to the troops In Tondo. Instead what the whole country heard from her was not only an endorsement of their work, but also a mandate for their continuing presence.

Whether Mrs. Arroyo is still in command, or whether she is being commanded should no longer be at issue, her acquiescence to whatever the military says being to her and her allies’ interest anyway. The troop presence in Manila has intimidated community activists enough to prevent their campaigning in those areas where the militant party list groups have a strong presence, and where the military has deployed most of its troops. That, together with the fabled machineries for fraud a former Comelec official assures us are still in place, should result in some surprising results in the party-list elections, as well as in the House and even senatorial elections this May. As the Palace has said often enough, its candidates will sweep the elections, whatever the surveys say.

The military may be out of control—but only in the sense that it is aggressively making up for its post-1986 losses as a power broker by reclaiming its martial law prerogatives. The Arroyo regime doesn’t mind.

(Business Mirror)

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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