In the same University of the Philippines centennial lecture in which he argued for state subsidies for the mass media as well as state regulation of media content (see Vantage Point: “An idea whose time has not come,” Business World, April 11, 2008), former UP President Francisco Nemenzo urged academics to deepen their study of the Philippine military, arguing that the latter has become a major player in Philippine politics.

What’s more, said Nemenzo, “Given the situation now, it is only the military that can neutralize the elite.” And God knows the elite, having demonstrated how far it’s willing to go in destroying this country in the pursuit of its political and economic interests, needs neutralizing.

The “situation” Nemenzo was referring to is the state of perpetual crisis that voracious and irresponsible elite has created and continues to perpetuate, primarily through the use of the police and the military to suppress dissent and movements for change.

The Philippine military, Nemenzo said, has historically been an elite instrument in that it has always defended the status quo against the challenges that have confronted it. But, Nemenzo argues, “when the legitimacy of an existing regime is challenged, the military will either embrace the Praetorian ideology and establish a military junta as in Burma, or it will integrate with the mass movement and aspire for revolutionary change as in Venezuela.”

Although there were rumors in the 1960s of military restiveness over the Filipino First Policy of then President Carlos P. Garcia, it was only since 1986 that the Philippine military began to seriously entertain the coup option — precisely on the basis of its opposition to change.

In July 1986 officers identified with the defunct Marcos regime took over the Manila Hotel to install Marcos’ Vice President, Arturo Tolentino, in Malacanang, arguing that he and not Corazon Aquino was the legal successor to Marcos, who had fled to Hawaii in February that year.

In the years that followed, military officers identified with former defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile launched a series of coup attempts meant to restore authoritarian rule and to preserve what those officers perceived to be their prerogative to decide on political issues as partners of the political elite. These efforts were followed by much weaker and even less carefully planned coup attempts, among them the Oakwood affair of 2003.

The coup attempts that followed EDSA 1 have all failed. But the military’s perception that its role in Philippine politics is crucial had been seemingly validated by EDSA 1 in 1986. The dominant military view is that it was responsible for the overthrow of Marcos, and the people only window dressing in that event. EDSA 2 in 2001 reinforced that conviction, when, in the view of key military figures, it was military support that made Joseph Estrada’s ouster possible.

That view has since been boosted rather than weakened by the failed attempts to force Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to resign, in which the crucial factor seemed to be the absence of military support.

The point is that recent Philippine history has shown that the military has chosen to take the Praetorian path of preserving the status quo and even the reactionary route of restoring the status quo ante rather than the path of reformist, even revolutionary change the world is witnessing in Venezuela.

Led by former Army lieutenant colonel Hugo Chavez, who has been Venezuela’s president since 1998, the military of that Latin American nation has been at the forefront of government reform efforts, among them Plan Bolivar 2000.

The Plan is an ambitious program aimed at raising the living standards of the poor. Under its auspices the government, with the military’s participation, has been cleaning up streets and schools, improving the environment to eliminate diseases, and generating employment, while involving community organizations in the effort. Observers say that this and other reform programs have generated the enthusiastic support of Venezuela’s officer corps, specially its junior officers, who are now regarded as the most radical in Latin America.

The Venezuelan military’s participation in reform programs like the Plan is by itself markedly different from the Philippine military’s own role in suppressing such efforts rather than furthering them, and in terrorizing rather than supporting communities.

But what’s even more outstanding is that the Venezuelan military has actually been a force for democracy by defending the decisions of the Venezuelan people. For example, it supported Chávez’s return to power in 2002 when a group of senior officers launched a coup attempt and temporarily took power in behalf of the Venezuelan elite. Contrast this with the Philippine military’s record involvement in subverting the people’s will through participation in electoral fraud, suppressing protest, and combating social movements.

What has made the difference should make for interesting studies, although one major factor could be the anti-colonial, Bolivarian tradition in the Venezuelan military. The Venezuelan military was forged in the anti-colonial struggles of the 19th century, and deeply influenced by the efforts of Simon Bolivar to dismantle colonial rule and to integrate Latin America into one political entity. Chavez himself was educated in a military academy rooted in the Bolivarian tradition.

Although it claims to have been fathered by the Katipunan, in contrast the Philippine military was founded by a colonial power to suppress the remnants of the revolutionary movement (it was founded for that purpose at the turn of the century by the United States). It has no traditions of social commitment either, and exists to defend the existing order and to protect elite and imperial interests.

None of these argue against efforts at a better understanding of the Philippine military, even if these do suggest that it’s not going to be — despite Trillanes and company — the instrument of the change Filipinos have been desperately hoping for since the 19th century and even earlier. Nemenzo does have a point — the military having evolved into a major political player in this country, it’s time to look more closely into it, not only as a matter of academic exercise but to discover what it is in its traditions that can help it change its course from being the servant of elite interests into an authentic partner of Filipino aspirations.


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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