Saturday, October 16, 2004

Cleansing the Armed Forces

Cleansing the Armed Forces

Updated 01:00am (Mla time) Oct 16, 2004
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the October 16, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

THE REVELATION of the incredible wealth of Major General Carlos Garcia, as recently exhibited by his two sons and later his wife to the US customs authorities, has again focused public attention on the anomalies, real or imagined, in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

There were reports of irregularities in the disposition of its retirement funds, the alleged corruption in the acquisition of military equipment, the mansions and luxury vehicles of some of the generals, and even the sharing of kidnap ransoms by certain field commanders with Muslim rebels and the Abu Sayyaf bandits. But all these suspicions did not go beyond the usual investigations after the grandstanding of the legislators.

The military had earlier been regarded as a mere ordinary agency of the government, but it acquired a new image under martial law as the loyal protector of Ferdinand Marcos. The effect was devastating. Generals began to swagger like congressmen, whom they learned to disdain as inferiors. Sergeants started acting like colonels. The strong-arm stalkers of Colonel Rolando Abadilla wielded a deadly terror against the enemies of the new regime.

Marcos saw to it that the soldiers were well treated -- indeed, spoiled -- lest they turned against him. Their camps were improved, their perquisites increased. Even officers who had retired from the military were retained in the government as civil officials although there were better available civilians.

The constitutional mandate that civilian authority shall be supreme over the military has become a farce. Even after the downfall of the dictatorship, the Armed Forces have retained their power and prestige. The succeeding administrations have seen to that. The civilian presidents seem to be so terrified of a coup d'├ętat from the retired officers that they think it best to keep them contented. The way to do this is to appoint them to civilian offices for which they may have neither qualifications nor experience.

Eduardo Ermita is now the "little president" as the executive secretary. Leandro Mendoza is the secretary of transportation and communications. Angelo Reyes quit as defense secretary but has returned to supervise local governments. Many retired generals now occupy subordinate positions in the Cabinet where they may be groping in unfamiliar terrain. Victor Corpus, who recently finished his stint in the AFP, will be back as "reforestation czar," an office to be created particularly for him despite his lack of credentials for the job.

Back to Garcia, his superiors in the AFP earlier decided to have him charged before the civil courts rather than face court martial proceedings. Their reason was that they might be accused of a whitewash if the accused was acquitted. The AFP afraid? Was it considering a possible acquittal? We do have the presumption of innocence, but it may be rebutted with proof beyond reasonable doubt. Garcia will be hard put at justifying his extraordinary fortune -- and in US dollars yet -- with his monthly basic salary of only P19,381.

The latest report, however, is that they will court martial him, after all. Talk of indecisiveness -- and from the top defender of the nation. What if we're in a war?

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seems to be anxious to have no part in the prosecution of the general and is leaving it to the chief of staff to do whatever he feels should be done. This is a wonderful opportunity for the commander in chief to assert her authority if only to show her direct interest in maintaining the integrity of the AFP. Strangely, however, she would rather steer clear of this delicate and unwelcome responsibility. A stronger female president would have seized this opportunity to prove her mettle, but President Arroyo is no Prime Minister Thatcher leading the British forces to the Falkland Island.

Whatever the outcome of the case against Garcia, I hope it will lead to the wider investigation of the venalities in the AFP that triggered the failed Oakwood uprising last year. The Feliciano Commission that investigated that aborted coup suggested that a serious effort be made to study and correct the mutineers' grievances that were prima facie valid. Has the President acted on that suggestion?

Besides Garcia, several other officers are reportedly being investigated for discovered assets grossly disproportionate to their salaries. Another general is charged with falsifying his birth record to avoid his retirement two years ago. These cases may be only the tip of the iceberg, and a more serious examination of the conduct of military men may reveal more scandals. Past misdeeds that may have been covered up may even be reopened as part of the general cleanup of the AFP.

President Arroyo can vastly improve what she calls this strong Republic by cleansing the Augean stables in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. All she needs is the moral courage to face up to the crooked generals and other military grafters who have dishonored their now disreputable institution. She is, or should be, their constitutional commander in chief. She should have the will and the guts to act as such unless there are serious secret reasons for her dormancy.


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