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.”

Military propaganda declares rebellions to be the causes rather than the consequences of poverty, injustice and mass misery. Protests are threats to the state and conspiracies hatched by evil groups, not legitimate attempts to redress real grievances.

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)

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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  1. Mr. Teodoro,

    I have read your piece on the military. As I have compared the problems of the AFP and the countries and militaries of other Latin American countries there are many similarities. One has to link this development to the US style of colonization. In the 1800s the US would colonize a country and after disarming the local militias and people would go on to establish a powerful military that would serve not as the protector of the people, but as the protector of the current US supported regime. Through the creation of a monopoly on weaponry and training, and in turn violence, the military was more than able to control the country and the populace. It was only after Mao’s victory in China and his creation of an effective insurgent theory of waging war that the stronghold of the military and their civilian allies, as we know it from the lessons learned in Latin America during the Cold War, was in real danger. This type of colonial method led to the problems one saw in Latin America and the Philippines alike, where the armies would go from being dormant to either terrorizing the local populace per orders of the ruling elite or to being used in a coup. As for the AFP’s connection to the ruling elite that should not surprise anyone because both the military and the elite have a common goal of not rocking the boat and staying in power. That goal is the reason why both sides are more than willing to work together. When the military does get involved in any coup it is usually to support a certain group of the elites that the military has deemed dangerous, or as was the case in Argentina during the Cold War– Communist. So, in the end it is my belief that the problems within the AFP are deeper than they seem at first and they can only be solved when the whole political and social climates of the country change. That of course is no easy task but a big step towards that goal would the elimination of a need for the AFP’s inflated budgets and deployment by bringing about a peace agreement in the Mindanao region of the country.



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