The phrase “coup d’etat” is of French origin and means “a blow against the State.” It consists of sudden and decisive strokes, usually unconstitutional, and at times accompanied by violence by which the existing structure of government is drastically altered.
The Swiss-German word “putsch” denotes the same politico-military actions. In Spain and a number of Latin American countries, one comes across the term “golpe de estado.” The term also basically describes similar activities.
Here in the Philippines, depending on the circumstances that surround significant issues of the day, we tend to attach sinister motives to otherwise simple developments taking place within the military establishment. And because of prior experiences, we think along lines that indicate trouble.
Last week, news reports on supposed troop movements within the city fueled rumors of possible destabilization moves by certain elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Retired generals belonging to the previous administration allegedly were taking the lead in recruitment efforts among active service personnel presumably to institute action against the government.
The AFP Public Affairs chief, Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, was quick to clarify that while there were indeed troop movements, these were “a logistics run” consisting of military supplies being transferred from the Port of Manila to Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.
This did not stop the rumor mill from spouting various stories to catch the attention of the citizenry.
There are a few contributory factors that may have given rise to what some sources describe as “destabilization moves” against the administration.
First and foremost is the current debate between the executive and judicial branches of government on the constitutionality of certain actions and practices under the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP). This has given rise to three impeachment complaints against the chief executive. On a number of occasions, he has apparently stood firm on his position in the face of a unanimous interpretation to the contrary by the Supreme Court. It is noteworthy to add that in his recent State of the Nation Address, the President avoided any mention of his differences with the high court. His lower ratings in survey reports on performance and trust levels, while still on the high side, indicate that perhaps our people would prefer to see less confrontation and more cooperation between branches of government if we are to make economic growth more inclusive for the greater number of our people.
Second, it is true that from time to time retired officers gather for any number of reasons to discuss the problems facing the nation and, in particular, the Armed Forces. There are quite a number of organizations or groups of these officers who have little in common except a desire to introduce measures that would result in greater strength and professionalism in the Armed Forces.
One such group is a board of retired senior officers of the Philippine Military Academy. This group has been active in proposing and recommending to higher authorities changes in the tour of duty of certain ranking officers. The proposed changes are meant to maximize their potential as well as their experiences instead of merely making key position movements as mere stepping stones to promotion prior to retirement. As things now stand, we have basically two types of movement in the Armed Forces: one is the “revolving door” concept of leadership where the AFP chief of staff is replaced every year with increasing regularity; the other, the “escalator” policy of advancement with seniority as the general and dominant rule.
In addressing this concern, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin proposed that “we join together in asking our legislators for the possible re-enactment of a law to address the lingering problem of the ‘revolving door’ policy in the appointment of officers to key positions in the AFP.”
Perhaps, it is not too late to revive legislation that would provide fixed tours of duty for the AFP chief of staff as well as for the major service commanders. While the present practice certainly benefits more individuals who can be moved up the chain of command, it does not provide sufficient continuity for the implementation of organizational programs.
There is another group, an advocacy body that meets from time to time to discuss specific issues that concern the Armed Forces. And of course, PMA classes also get together and the issues of the day are usually the general subjects of conversation. But the farthest thing from the minds of these individuals is to go back to the past in trying to solve or to understand the problems of today.
A third and possibly more sensitive issue that confronts many retired officers is the backlog in the nonpayment of pension benefits that have not been attended to for a number of years. This in the light of so much government savings that, according to recent discussions on the DAP, were realigned to pay for other requirements such as the capitalization of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and other government obligations. Instances such as these tend to spotlight the low priority given military personnel when it comes to the use of government resources. The Department of Budget and Management should take this matter into account as it can become a serious source of discontent.
Generally, however, since President Aquino assumed office in 2010, there have been no serious reports of discontent, dissatisfaction or restlessness in the rank of the military organization. To a large extent he has carried out what his predecessors had failed to do in upgrading the capability of our Armed Forces, particularly in terms of military equipment and hardware.
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Going back to the issue of coups, I am reminded of an article in an old issue of Asiaweek, a regional publication that once was widely circulated in the country. The issue had a specially commissioned essay by former President Fidel V. Ramos.
The essay starts with a question and an answer. “Why does the military ever intervene in politics? The Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington provides the classic reply: ‘What draws the soldier into the political arena is not their own strength but rather the weakness of the political system.’” Ramos goes on to say that “the corruption, elitism and incompetence of the (previous) regime had so weakened the Philippine state that it became vulnerable to a Communist insurgency and Muslim secessionist movement.”
The threat of a communist takeover coupled with the assassination of a number of senior officers of the Indonesian army brought a relatively unknown General Suharto to the presidency of his nation. It was widespread corruption and incompetence of civil officials which led to a military coup by Gen. Park Chung Hee in South Korea. Only recently, the Royal Thai armed forces intervened in government because the existing system could not deliver in terms of the basic needs and aspirations of the people.
Considering our historical background of military subordination to civilian rule, the ongoing peace initiatives of the government, as well as the perception of growing progress and political stability, the danger of military intervention will continue to recede as civil institutions are developed and further strengthened.
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