The Men on Horseback

Jose Antonio Custodio, Non-Resident Security Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute

As we commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the EDSA Revolution, it brings to the fore a prominent player in the Philippine political landscape: the military. Aside from the Catholic Church, no other institution is regarded with such deference when it comes to legitimizing political rule in the country.

The Republic of the Philippines, even after 72 years of independence seems to have failed to consolidate itself as a nation state, imbuing on the military the burden of enforcing national unity in the face of internal dissent. This possibly makes the Philippine military one of the most politicized in the world.

After all, once a military engages in counterinsurgency, it is exposed to civilian influence and thus feudal political practices that further breed rebellion. This might result in a dangerous perception that could undermine civilian supremacy over the military.

Following the EDSA Revolution, attempts were made to bring the politicized military back into the barracks and prohibit it from intervening in the country’s affairs. One such attempt is to establish a system of congressional review of promotions of officers to colonel and flag rank.

Although in principle this was supposed to create a military that was professional and responsive to civilian rule, a new form of politicization occurred — the rise of careerism, evidenced in the way some junior officers seem to seek political patrons to guarantee a positive career path. This arrangement opened an opportunity for certain civilian entities to advance its political agenda by using cultivated contacts in the armed forces. EDSA 2 is illustrative of such scenario, which saw maneuverings perpetrated by outside interests that pushed segments and, eventually, the whole of the AFP to break from the Estrada administration.

With this in mind, Philippine military appears to have two characteristics: first, a traditional contempt of politicians due to their involvement in internal security operations; second, the politicization brought about by a mixture of careerism and political patronage that makes them vulnerable to outside influence and suggestions. This situation has caused many military disturbances in the decades following the original EDSA rebellion from 1987 onwards.

The coup attempts and mutinies of the late 1980s that culminated in the December 1989 battles in Metro Manila was followed by a brief respite in the 1990s only to come back to the fore just before the end of that decade as elements within the military became skeptical of the Estrada administration. By 2001, the military was egged on to execute the move that eventually led to the ouster of the sitting president.

Predictably, military involvement in what seemed to be a king-making operation triggered a series of mutinies in the AFP well into the succeeding Arroyo administration, including Oakwood in 2003, Fort Bonifacio in 2006 and the Manila Peninsula siege in 2007. The second decade of the 21stcentury has fortunately been quiet so far.

What are the lessons that these realities give us?

Considering the incidents in the 1980s, the military as an institution detests communism. Many military complaints in the 1980s arose supposedly to combat alleged communist influence into the first Aquino administration. Thus, one must never overplay one’s hand in testing the tolerance level of the Philippine military to civilian government overtures to communists, whether local or foreign in nature.

The incidents in the late 1990s up to the first decade of the 21st century meanwhile tell us that high casualty rates and corruption create an explosive mix in the Philippine military.

In 2000, the inconclusive Abubakar Campaign resulted in higher than the usual casualty rates for the military. This period also saw corruption cases against the Estrada administration, both contributing to military involvement in EDSA 2. The corruption allegations and counterinsurgency operations during the Arroyo administration also created a conducive environment for mutinies to thrive in. Thus, one must avoid creating such a situation in current times.

However, as it is the tendency of Filipinos to forget their past, one wonders if such lessons will still be remembered today.

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