Worst enemy

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The mint-new President Benigno Aquino has an opportunity, over the next six years, to shield the Armed Forces “from what arguably may be its worst enemy — Filipino presidents and other politicians exploiting authority over the military for their own ends”.

Aquino could have “emotional difficulty in dealing with an institution that… may have conspired in the murder of his father” and mounted coups against his mother, journalist Eduardo Lachica writes in the study Avoidance of Civilian Misuse of the Armed Forces. “Yet, preparing the AFP, for its future tasks, has to be among the President’s most important tasks.”

After a Philippines Herald stint, Lachica became Tokyo Depthnews correspondent. He served in the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau, until his recent retirement.

The picture of a “troubled military resentful of and occasionally rebellious towards civilian authority” emerged over the years, from President Marcos’ imposition of martial law to Gen. Delfin Bangit’s forced bailout from the chief of staff’s post.

Like many other institutions, residual American culture shaped the AFP. It didn’t build business enterprises and foundations like the Indonesian and Thai armed forces. “There are no expressways in Manila named after revolutionary commanders as in Jakarta,” Lachica points out.

A generally-unmilitaristic society keep its soldiers in their places, or out of sight. “Filipino families would be inclined to send their first sons to law school, second sons to medical school, and third sons to the Philippine Military Academy” — until Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law.

“Marcos knew his generals only too well.” He co-opted them with bribes and promotions. Professional soldiers were shunted to ambassadorships, or were reassigned.

“The Marcos generals became the nouveau riche… in an armed forces sworn to defend the constitution… (they) did not “actually run martial law. For the most part, they were … virtual pawns at the President’s hands.”

Ramos offered himself as a model of the soldier-statesman. His reforms dissipated misgivings. He was “less successful at prosecuting long-needed military reforms” though. He coddled coup rebels. Ramos hasn’t given a satisfactory answer why 35 percent share of the proceeds from the sale of Fort Bonifacio property — then valued at P5.4 billion, or more than $1 billion — didn’t go to AFP modernization.

By ordering an attack on Camp Abubakar, President Estrada handed the “AFP a wider war.” And the President’s impeachment on charges of plunder gave the military another opportunity to play kingmaker….”

Gen. Angelo Reyes “might have been induced by Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to undertake mutinous act that helped make her president.” The account by Inquirer’s Amando Doronila suggests, “The circumstances suggest a corrupt bargain that would lend legitimacy to a virtual coup in exchange for rewards for individual officers.” Columnist Rene Saguisag recently recalled the former First Gentleman’s boast “We have back up forces.”

Former President Arroyo “surrounded herself with retired military officers in a manner that can only be called Marcosian. The more she and her husband were enmeshed in scandal, the more she… played favorites with generals.” Their truncated service as AFP chief denied opportunity to build a power base.

President Aquino can insulate the AFP from political entanglements. The AFP could then focus on institutional rebuilding. It’d give elbow room to focus on basic and changing security missions.

From a peak of 25,200 members in 1987, communist insurgents are now down to 4,702. This attrition stems not from AFP’s superior arms but from ‘extinct ideology’, dissipation of the exhaustion grassroots support, and vicious bloodletting between rival factions.

The Muslim issue ties up nearly 60 percent of combat troops. “No other single factor will affect AFP’s retasking more than untangling the strategic mess left behind by the Arroyo administration. Aquino needs to restart the peace process quickly.

“There is a serious risk of the Mindanao project drifting into stasis as spoilers see more benefits than rewards in continued stalemate and Manila runs out of patience with a relatively isolated Moro problem.”

“Indonesia and Malaysia will not be fully rid of its terrorist networks until their safe havens in Mindanao are cleaned out,” Lachica adds. “These maritime countries also depend on each other to contain threats like the booming narcotics trade, people smuggling, and other transnational crimes”.

If current trends continue, the AFP will lag even further behind Indonesia’s TNI and the Malaysian armed forces. Dwindling US aid revived in 2001 only because the Philippines was smack in the middle of the war against terrorism. President Arroyo stood firm on this issue.

The default U.S. position should recognize the importance of these security ties, “regardless of how political winds blow in Manila…. No one says this aloud. But the Philippines’ ultimate strategic value is as a potential forward base of operations in the event of hostilities in the Taiwan strait. U.S security assistance to the Philippines will likely stay at current levels and perhaps even increase.

President Aquino “can start governing ‘with the wind at his back’ simply because Arroyo will no longer be around to feed political uncertainty”. The AFP can be freer from cooptation by political elites at the end of his term. Political generals will be quietly retired. PMA will again produce professionals. Our Lady of EDSA still looks after her people.

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