Philippine Military Coup Rumors, Though Rife, Are Taken Seriously

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Philippine Military Coup Rumors, Though Rife, Are Taken Seriously

by Manuel L. Quezon III

Coup talk is rife in the Philippines at the moment. The country has had its share of (failed) coup attempts, most recently in 2003 with the Oakwood rebellion. Yet the Philippine officer corps as it exists, dates back to the 1930s, when US Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as adviser to the Philippine government, set out to train and establish an army for a soon-to-be independent country.

But the question remains: Is there a particular, military mentality in the Philippines? A letter dated July 16, 1940, by Gen. Vicente Lim, the first Filipino graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, in which he made his political views, based on his military perspective, clear, may help. He wrote: “The principal defect of our national defense is not the training or lack of finances, but the great and dangerous defect of democracy which has been implanted into the minds of the Filipino people. We have a nationally wrong conception of democracy. Our democracy in the Philippines is unilateral. It is only for the benefit, for the freedom, for the rights, comfort and happiness of each individual member of the nation. That is the common belief, and I venture to say 99.9 percent of our people believe in that kind of democracy. They do not know their obligations, their duties, and the sacrifices that they should give to the state which is the relative counterpart of the amount of personal democracy he should indulge. The two should balance. We do not have yet in the minds of our people the thought that in order to enjoy the spirit of democracy they should give their lives and property to the state…”

Two days later he would write (in another letter) “I would rather work in a Philippines half-way being totalitarian than in complete democracy which is misinterpreted by 99 percent of our people.”

He was not alone in this view at a time when Malacanang was advocating “partyless democracy,” (which would mutate into Marcos’ “constitutional authoritarianism”) and other leaders like Jose P. Laurel, who also felt Filipinos had become soft, urged Filipinos to adopt the principles of bushido, or the moral code principals that developed among the samurai class of Japan during the 16th century.

Of course corruption was the first sign of this “softness,” including corruption in the military of the 1930’s which made Gen. Lim sick, particularly in one case where an officer was court-martialed and would have been exonerated despite the evidence, if Lim hadn’t intervened. It was bad enough that “the esprit de corps which had been handed down to us that right or wrong we should protect our comrades,” Lim wrote. He felt it would take 20 years to put the military on a sound footing.

That is, if outside interference was avoided. Imagine the fate of the army if it were politicized! As he wrote on July 23, 1941, “I have been saying without any mental reservation or equivocation on my part, that the thing to do to preserve this nation is to keep the army out of politics. But they do not seem to believe it, even (President) Quezon. He believes in the idea but not in practice, and there is a great difference between believing and that of acting. I have more faith in our future generation to build this army up than the present generation to eradicate the evil. I hope the graduates we produce from the Military Academy and those who graduate from the two academies in the States will be able to change this army in the next 25 years…the minute you put in favorites, relatives, and compadres, then this army will bring down the government.”

What is interesting about this observation of his is the fact that the military mentality is so distinct. However Gen. Lim’s views to my mind, are not the origins of the interventionist mentality feared by the Philippine government at present. True enough, the frustrations which made Lim dream of reform eventually led young officers a generation or two later, in the 1970s and 1980s, to agitate for reforms; but they went further: the young officers of that revolted in 1987, 1989 and are supposedly on the verge of doing so again, are a generation that has decided the military itself ought to become the governing power, to save the nation from politicians. Lim’s obsession was the creation of an efficient army, not the transformation of the state. He was even skeptical about military service requirements.

May 6, 1939: “I told the President that I am sorry that I do not concur with General MacArthur’s plan of (the army) taking care of the citizenship training of the youth of the land and that we are going again in the wrong direction as I still believe that the training of the youth really belongs to the homes, the churches, the schools and other institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.”

Lim had written earlier, on March 28, that “in 1934, a year before the inauguration of the Commonwealth…I set forth three fundamentals under which our Army should be built…first, the citizenship training; second the physical development; and third: the education along military lines.” Lim felt the army had no business meddling in the first and second stages.

Incidentally, ahead of American writer James Fallows, Gen. Lim came up with his own version of a “damaged culture” in his letter of July 16th: “We speak of nothing but our own rights, our own freedom. The government is corrupt because it is in the blood of the Filipino. It gives him quite a spirit of satisfaction and happiness to be able to mislead anyone; it is in the blood and to tell a lie is nothing but a happiness to him because it was the line of least resistance for the accomplishment of a certain end. He lacks that civic courage to suffer any defeat on any enterprise and he solves the problem the easiest way possible — by cheating or misleading to his goal.”

It is tragic to see how views like General Lim’s developed, in other minds, into the adventurist and alarming mentality of officers who consider themselves a Praetorian Guard, willing and able to “save the nation” from itself.

Lim had also written that, “This Army…to the public is a joke. We have made much bombastic propaganda to stir up the spirit to the cause of national defense. We have built castles in the air for the consumption of the public.”

This view apparently holds true to this day: Witness the skeptical opposition to the AFP’s modernization plans. But there is one big difference — no one views the army as a joke any more; the Philippine armed forces, to many people, is no laughing matter. Praetorian Guards, with their ambition and capacity to overthrow leaders, never are.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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