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Ate Glow in Hot Water
Reforms in the military

The officers who say no

Military and police officers believe reforming the system begins with reforming the individual.

FIGHTING CORRUPTION. The military and the police are considered among the most corrupt state agencies, but there are reformers within, including members of the Christian Officers Reform the Police Service (CORPS). [photos courtesy of P/Supt. Cesar Bunag]

HIS JOB title was impressive enough: aide de camp and executive assistant to the interior and local government secretary. It was, however, a deskbound posting that consisted mostly of shuffling documents needing his boss’s signature. That was a decade ago, and Cesar Binag was then a young police captain fresh from a stint with the elite Special Action Force (SAF) that battled coup plotters and insurgents. To Binag, who was trained in the Philipppine Military Academy (PMA), his new assignment was boring. Or at least that’s how it seemed at first.

One day a friend invited him for dinner. Binag quickly accepted, perhaps thinking it was going to be a nice break from the drudgery of his job. Instead, his friend served up a temptation, a situation Binag would find himself in repeatedly.

When his friend turned up, he had in tow a foreign businessman with an eye on a P250-million contract the department was bidding out. The businessman’s proposition was simple: Binag would provide a copy of a document detailing the contract’s specifications, thereby giving the foreigner an edge in the bidding war. In exchange, Binag would get 1.5 percent of the contract budget, or P3.75 million. Half that amount was his for the taking right there and then, if he accepted.

“Politely I said to them, ‘I cannot do that,’” recounts Binag, now in his late 30s. “So I called the waiter, paid my bill, and then left.”

Not everyone would have reacted the same way Binag did. Indeed, others would have grabbed this chance of a lifetime. After all, the public sees the police force as a corrupt organization and a policeman as an officer making easy money extorting a few hundred pesos from motorists on the streets. How could a policeman resist a bribe that was almost P4 million?

Binag isn’t exactly a rebel or a maverick but it seems the country’s armed services do have their share of officers who know how to just say no. For a time, this had been hard for the public even to imagine, especially after the media exposé on Gen. Carlos Garcia, the former armed forces comptroller who has landed in jail for amassing wealth beyond the imagination even of a military man. But since Brig. Gen. Francisco Gudani appeared before the Senate Committee on National Defense to expose political maneuverings in the fraud-ridden 2004 elections, the public has become reacquainted with the idea that there could be more than a few good men in organizations as tainted with corruption as the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

“I am here as assistant superintendent of the PMA where we teach the cadets the honor code, that a cadet does not cheat, does not steal, does not lie nor tolerate these things,” Gudani said at the Senate in September. The general also made it a point to identify himself as the president of the Military Christian Fellowship (MCF), a loose grouping of Christians in the AFP. With that, he allowed civilians a peek at another way in which idealists in armed services have managed to hold up against the entrenched corruption within and pressures from politicians without.

Gudani earned praise from some civilians who thought he did the right thing. That he placed himself in peril, defying a presidential order against military officers appearing before congressional inquiries only added an aura of heroism to his Senate appearance.

Gudani has said he simply did not get the Malacañang order in time. Be that as it may, he would not have been the first idealist in the military faced with a moral dilemma. In the past, soldiers who felt strongly against an order or questionable practices had quit or gone AWOL. Others have tried to stage coups or mutinies. Because the structure does not provide support for those who want to remain upright and honest, in the end those who prevail are the men and women with strong moral fiber. For many, this fortitude to withstand temptation comes largely from a very deep sense of patriotism. For others, such love of country is enhanced by the moral conviction provided by the teachings of their elders or coming from their respective faiths.

Honor and loyalty

Officers who graduated from the PMA are supposed to be guided by the honor code to help them remain on the right path. But then they also swear by an oath of loyalty authored by the 19th-century U.S. publisher and writer Elbert Hubbard. It says: “If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him. Speak well of him and stand by the institution he represents. Remember an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you growl, condemn and eternally find fault, resign your position. And when you are outside, damn to your hearts’ content. But for as long as you are part of the institution, do not condemn it. If you do, the first high wind that comes along will blow you away, and you will probably never know why.”

MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT RHYTHM. Police Supt. Cesar Binag has turned down bribes and believes that it is possible to make the police a more accountable institution.

The oath is a pledge of submission used all over the world in various organizations, such as the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and by superiors and bosses to enforce what some people say is blind loyalty. Explicit in the oath is a promise not to blow the whistle on an organization to which one belongs. It seems to clash with the PMA honor code, which tacitly urges officers to speak out when they witness wrongdoing.

There is a lot wrong in the PNP, as there is with the AFP and the rest of the government. Aside from graft and corruption, there is also what Binag calls “bata-bata” system or higher ups playing favorites among their subordinates. There are the dilemmas over jueteng, the illegal numbers game from which it is said police officers enrich themselves by offering protection from the law.

Binag, now a superintendent and chief of the PNP’s resource reform unit, is a born-again Christian. When he talks about “conversion,” though, he means not the welcoming of a newcomer to his faith, but the practice of transferring or realigning funds intended for other purposes that in the process often end up in the pockets of corrupt officers. Conversion was one of the main problems exposed by the group of discontented junior AFP officers who laid siege to the Oakwood Hotel in Makati in July 2003.

“Here, if you partake of free lunch, I believe you’re part of the system because strictly the budget has no room for a free lunch,” Binag points out. ”Somewhere along the way, one item was converted into another item and that’s why it became lunch.”

Army Lt. Col. Amadeo Azul feels the same way about conversion in the Armed Forces. Many years ago, as a young lieutenant, he had rebuked his “goodhearted” commandant for converting an item in the budget into a P1,000 Christmas bonus for the staff. He was told, “ I wish everyone were like you but I’m only doing this to boost the morale.” Unlike the rest of the staff, Azul wound up with no bonus; he was also left worrying that while such gestures are well meant, they could also be openings for serious transgressions later on.

Azul, also a born-again Christian, says he is not cut out to be a whistleblower or to wash the AFP’s dirty linen in public. “The Bible says if your brother commits a mistake, go to him, rebuke him. If he does not listen, bring another…tell it to the whole church,” he said. That frame of mind has led him away from antagonistic confrontations with wrongdoers, and even the military practice of humiliating subordinates in public. Over time, he said, he has learned to choose whom to criticize and how, quoting another biblical passage: “Rebuke a wise man and he will be wiser. Rebuke a wicked man and he will hate you.”

The dilemmas can be tormenting for soldiers striving to live upright lives, like Azul. That is why when Azul was contacted for this story he declined to be interviewed at first. Azul was once the secretary of the MCF. Azul is also a member of PMA Class of 1983, which also produced Lt. Col. Alexander Balutan, the Marine officer who testified with Gudani at the Senate. Azul taught physics at the Academy and was at one point battalion commander of the Army’s 64th Infantry Batallion in Samar. He is currently posted at J5, the plans office of the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo.

Azul agreed to talk to PCIJ only outside his office and on a Sunday at a church where he attends service. It is a gleaming glass-and-steel structure that looks like the headquarters of a conglomerate. Its pastors look like yuppies. In these surroundings and out of his uniform, Azul himself looked like a young businessman taking a hard-earned respite. And he talked more as a Christian than as a soldier.

“The hard part is the battle within,” said Azul. The challenges, he said, range from resisting the martial culture that automatically insists on applying hardline solutions to social problems, and vices that machos in the military are known for, such as womanizing and drinking.

Speaking one’s mind, even in the name of the teachings of the Gospel, can have grave repercussions in the military. An officer can get relieved of his post or court-martialed as in Gudani’s case, or he can be totally ignored, bypassed, or misunderstood. Azul talked of looking at things now from a different perspective. Where before he would turn bitter over reprisals from higher-ups for what his Christian faith made him do, he now would rather act as a bridge between two seemingly incompatible paradigms.

A balancing act

In truth, being a spiritual person on the one hand and being soldiers and policemen on the other can sometimes mean walking a perilous tightrope. But both Azul and Binag seem to have found a comfortable balance. Both deny being purists, but talk of reforming long-entrenched flaws in their organizations bit by bit, and mostly by infecting their respective “spheres of influence.”

SHOOTING FOR THE MOON? Reformers believe it is possible to bring back honor and integrity to the military and the police.

Today Azul says he has a chance to effect some change by helping formulate planning and budgeting policies in the AFP. Budgets used to be drawn up by office-bound people who had no idea of the needs out in the field where conditions are fluid. The practice used to be that budgets were drawn up just to access the fund and didn’t reflect the realities in the field. As a result, money was set aside for uses not suited to war zones and had to be converted later into purchases of what the men in the trenches did need — that is, if abusive commanders weren’t pocketing the funds.

The present AFP is trying to implement a budgeting system that Azul described as “rationalizing resource allocation and ensuring it goes to the right uses” and a mechanism where planning and budgeting are “properly linked.” If it works well, conversion would be radically minimized, unless one happened to be really corrupt.

If Azul talks like a manager, it is also because he has had postgraduate management training, as did Binag and his friends in their Christian group called CORPS, an acronym for Christian Officers Reform the Police Service. Binag’s friends in CORPS have become his refuge and “accountability” group where they check on each other’s spiritual, moral, and professional difficulties.

It helps that officers like Azul and Binag took up management studies in institutions such as the University of the Philippines, the Asian Institute of Management, or even schools overseas, where they were exposed to better and more effective ways of doing things.

Binag, who has run the range of police duties from being police station commander to heading the PNP’s Traffic Management Group, likewise talks about having ordered time-and-motion studies to identify bottlenecks in the PNP units where he has been posted. He says leadership trainings are passing on effective management styles to potential young leaders in PNP offices where reforms are most needed. CORPS also has a mentoring program called “My Brother’s Keeper” and the “Bless Our Cops” campaign that invites the public to support policemen.

Restoring hope, implementing reforms

But a major obstacle has been the attitude of despair the public and even some PNP members have toward reform. Binag’s only request to classmates, civic leaders, and fellow policemen is, “Don’t lose hope.” Because reforms are grounded on the hope and the desire that things will change, Binag says, the first step is to restore hope.

“Hope is not a method,” he says. “We’ve got to do something to operationalize hope. But it’s hard to say how if you don’t have hope.” Azul, though, said things are looking up in Camp Aguinaldo, adding that reforms were being instituted even before the Oakwood mutiny broke out, and even despite such cases as that of Gen. Garcia, himself a PMA alumnus.

“The military is far, far better off now than it was in 1983 when I was a 2nd lieutenant,” he said. In those days, there were no limits to drinking, and parties for officers even had Girard-Peter models in attendance. Today there are mechanisms to air grievances, among them the campaign “Text Mo Si Commander” where soldiers inform higher-ups of their problem. Higher ups are also listening to junior officers a lot more, a far cry from 20 years ago when “lieutenants were seen and not heard.” Top-down, bottom-up monitoring and reporting makes the organization more cohesive and a coup d’etat less probable, Azul said.

Binag, too, doesn’t think a revolt is in the offing. But that’s because he earned his spurs defending the government. After all, in the SAF, which he had joined right after graduating from the PMA in 1987, he and his co-recruits were almost immediately fighting off coups that rocked the Aquino administration during its early years. Being in the frontlines defending the government comes naturally to men like Binag. What comes naturally to other members of the PNP and the AFP, however, may not necessarily be the same.