A politicized military

IN A way, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Cabinet toward the end of her regime could be described as “star-studded.” Arroyo, after all, had a habit of appointing retired star-rank generals to key positions in her official family.

Former Armed Forces of the Philippines AFP vice chief of staff Eduardo Ermita served as executive secretary. Angelo Reyes and Hermogenes Esperon Jr., both former AFP chiefs of staff, handled several portfolios, while former Philippine National Police director generals Leandro Mendoza and Hermogenes Ebdane were appointed transportation secretary and public works secretary, respectively.

Retired officers peppered the rest of the Arroyo administration as well. Alexander Yano, Roy Cimatu, and Generoso Senga parlayed their stints as AFP head into diplomatic posts; Dionisio Santiago led the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency after retirement; and former PNP chiefs Avelino Razon, and Arturo Lomibao also held key government positions.

The presence of these generals in government, critics said, was a sign of just how politicized the military had become under PGMA. The appointments, they added, were simply a way for the government to reward allies who have remained loyal to the president. The Arroyo administration, for its part, tried to justify the appointments of retired military and police officers by touting their qualification and competence.

Harder to justify, however, is the revolving door policy for appointing military chiefs. In her nine years in office, Arroyo appointed a total of 12 generals as AFP Chief of Staff: Reyes, Diomedio Villanueva, Cimatu, Benjamin Defensor, Santiago, Narciso Abaya, Efren Abu, Senga, Esperon, Yano, Victor Ibrado, and Delfin Bangit. Setting aside Reyes – actually a hold-over from the Estrada regime – seven of these men held the post for less than a year, with Defensor barely having enough time to have a cup of coffee as chief, serving only a total of 69 days.

Critics hit the policy, noting how the flux of leaders prevented the armed forces from pursuing much-need reforms. Many also viewed the tactic as an act of political pandering for favored generals by a government faced with questions of legitimacy after the ‘Hello, Garci’ scandal.

With the military having been part of two popular revolts that ousted incumbent presidents, it paid for Arroyo to have the generals on her side. And with recent reports of AFP chiefs receiving multi-million peso going-away packages, it looks like it certainly paid for generals to receive Arroyo’s blessing for the post – if only for a few months. “That quickly became the game in the AFP, to get to the top so you can get your pabaon,” says retired general Ricardo C. Morales, a fierce advocate of reforms in the Armed Forces.

To be sure though, the entry of military officers into politics began long before Arroyo took power. During the early Martial Law years, several military officers were also in civilian posts, with some even going into local government. And far from having a diminishing political role in after EDSA, the military has only steadily grown as an actor in the country’s political equation. “The military, once it intervenes, cannot go back to the barracks,” Gregorio Honasan, a leader of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement that was behind several coup d’état attempts in the late ‘80s, told the PCIJ in a 2006 interview.

It is quite ironic to see soldiers who have spent a good part of their careers battling Maoist insurgents prove true the old Mao Zedong maxim that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But the door to political power for military officials has also come through the ballot instead of arms. Three of Corazon Aquino’s military chiefs used the position as a springboard for their political careers; Fidel Ramos went all the way to the top as president, Rodolfo Biazon served as senator for 15 years and is now on his first term as a representative, and Renato de Villa tried to duplicate his mentor Ramos’s feat by running for the country’s highest office in 1998.

Former Army colonel Honasan won a seat in the Senate in 1995 in spite – or some would argue, because – of his past as a putschist; when his current term ends in 2013, he would have served in office for 15 years. Navy lieutenant Antonio Trillanes followed Honasan’s footsteps, becoming a senator in 2007 despite being incarcerated.

In the 2010 elections, Army general Danilo Lim, Marines colonel Ariel Querubin, retired Army general Jovito Palparan, and former Air Force colonel Hector Tarrazona sought positions in the upper house, but none of them won a seat. At least 48 former soldiers and policemen ran for elective office in 2010, including Esperon and Ermita, who lost congressional races in Pangasinan and Batangas, respectively. Elective office, it would seem, is a perfectly natural post-retirement option for ex-officers.

Yet despite the participation of these ex-officers in the electoral processes and their substantive representation in executive and legislative positions, things have remained dire for the AFP.

Morales argues that success against insurgency should be the measure for judging the AFP. By that token, he says, the organization has completely failed. In an unpublished 2003 paper, Morales explained: “The AFP has failed to transform its resources into battlefield victory. It is an inefficient user of public resources. If this were otherwise then an increase in the Army’s budget must result in a reduction of rebel strength. The historical relationship between the Army budget and NPA guerilla strength shows that military operations have a minimal effect on the communist insurgency.”

Political scientist Marcus Schulzke, in a paper published in 2010, said that the low level of professionalism in the Philippine military is responsible for the AFP’s poor response to the insurgency. “Security forces,” Schulzke wrote, “are often politicized and put into service of one faction of politicians working against others.”

Schulzke traces the problem of politicization to the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, who fostered loyalty among troops by promoting favorites instead of the most talented. The EDSA revolt only served to worsen the situation. Observed Schulzke: “The ranks were already packed with officers used to acting based on personal ties. But the transition to democracy allowed them to feel a greater sense of influence over the political sphere.”

In the 1991 book Filipino Politics: Development and Decay, David Wurfel noted that the system for the promotion of officers ranked colonel and above required presidential appointment and confirmation by the Commission on Appointments. “Nomination may have been based on the political judgment of professional peers,” wrote Wurfel, “but confirmation was strictly political.”

Even worse, the culture of corruption has managed to isolate honest officers in the armed forces. Military insiders say that officers who refuse to participate in money-laundering activities are branded as not being team players, and are quickly sent off to less glamorous assignments.

Morales says that personal ties and other extraneous factors, instead of merit, have become the military’s bases in selecting its leaders. “We don’t have a system for selecting who among the (officers) are fit to lead at the highest level,” he says.

Schulzke argues that the development of an apolitical officer corps promoted through a meritocracy should become top priority in any discussion of AFP reforms. A meritocratic system, he wrote, “would discourage officers from becoming involved in politics, thus reducing the risk of corruption and allowing them to focus on restoring national security.”

“By eliminating the politicized promotion system,” he continued, “officers would no longer have to worry about winning a popularity contest and would thus be free to make unpopular decisions like disciplining corrupt subordinates or waging a less glamorous, but more effective counterinsurgency focused on winning popular support.”

For Morales, the first step in turning the military into an apolitical bureaucracy should come from the civilian government. He acknowledges that after EDSA, civilians have been intimidated by the military, whose threat of an uprising hangs like a Damocles’ sword for the government. This intimidation, he explains, has prevented people from making the AFP accountable.

“They only selected, as chief of staff, who they thought could control the armed forces,” he says. “But there’s no oversight; no one’s looking into the living conditions of the soldiers, the state of preparedness of the air force and the navy, the state of training. There’s no civilian leader who goes to the camps and looks at the motor pools, the classrooms, the ammo dumps.”

Morales says that as the people’s representatives, civilian government officials need to be more involved. He also proposes a return to basics to underscore civilian supremacy over the military, such as holding formal ceremonies for issuing arms to soldiers. An elective official would then present the gun to a soldier as a reminder of where the real authority lies.

“Power comes from the people,” says Morales. “When a soldier finally wraps his hands around his weapon, he should be thinking, ‘This is not mine. This was only lent to me by the Filipino people so that I can defend them.’” – PCIJ, February 2011