THE LONG VIEW
Soldiers no better than cops
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:30 AM April 12, 2023
The assassination of Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo put the armed forces on the dock. The Armed Forces of the Philippines took pains to point out that the three ex-soldiers implicated had been dishonorably discharged. But the point stuck and a few days later the military said it now considered dishonorably discharged soldiers as threat concerns. AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar said Army chief Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. ordered counterintelligence to be strengthened and discharged soldiers monitored, as well as the review of the Philippine Army Transition Assistance Program. The justice secretary for his part said a database of ex-Philippine National Police and AFP personnel was needed and would be built. The new defense chief announced that both the AFP and PNP would crack down on “private armed groups.”
The military traditionally has a low opinion of the police, a view not helped by cops being considered a far more pliable tool of political leadership. This was perhaps best seen during the investigations into Mamasapano; but in recent years, there have been incidents pointing to outright hostility, such as a shooting in 2020 between the PNP and AFP in which the ex-police chief of Jolo ended up gunned down in Maguindanao, and another in which an Army veteran was gunned down by cops during quarantine. A recent case in which an Army general was implicated in the murder of a “model-turned-businesswoman” turned the tables in what may come to be seen as a sign of where things have been headed for some time.
After two decades of military adventurism (from Honasan in 1987 to Trillanes in 2007), a social contract of sorts emerged between civilian and military leaders: The armed forces as a whole would enjoy generous pensions and its top brass would all take their turn, however briefly, at senior positions. At the same time, the military retreated from politics and became more professional. This “openness to embrace reform and substantive professionalism,” as noted by Aries Arugay in a 2021 commentary, had tangible public relations benefits: A 2019 Social Weather Stations survey “revealed that the AFP enjoyed its highest trust ratings since public opinion polling began … ” in which “[a]n astounding 79 percent of Filipinos trust the military.” But Arugay’s point was what was happening to the armed forces at the behest of President Rodrigo Duterte: the increasing reliance on the military to do duties best left to the police. Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase cleverly termed Duterte’s approach to both the police and the military as “Militarizing the police, constabularizing the military.”
Duterte did three things that would have a lasting effect on this delicate balancing act between satisfying parochial interests by means of pensions and promotions and fostering institutional professionalism. The former president tried to address policy and bureaucratic challenges by staffing civilian offices with retired officers; he tried to repair the damage he had dealt to counterinsurgency efforts when he welcomed aboveground radicals into the government, by filling positions vacated by the radicals, again with retired officers; and in the siege of Marawi City, he gave free rein to the military as it got mired in an urban siege, including turning a blind eye to allegations of looting by the military. He doubled military salaries, which in turn ballooned the funding needs of pensions, raised the military retirement age, and signed a law instituting a fixed term for the AFP chief of staff, both of which landed a fiscal and management problem on the lap of his successor (near the end, he issued a token appeal for reform, with no sign of his using his political capital to help bail his successor out: Recently, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go vowed to run interference in efforts to trim pensions).
In light of the recklessness of the past six years, Mexico provides a cautionary tale on unintended consequences. For 17 years, Mexican presidents have increasingly turned to the military in its drug war. Bringing in the military to undertake police missions imposes tasks on the armed forces for which they aren’t trained. At the same time, it exposes the military to the same temptations to which the police have succumbed: on one hand, to supplant the drug cartels, and on the other, for individual soldiers or groups of soldiers, to be enticed into going rogue and turning into mercenaries. Here is where official policy can bleed into the murky world of crime.Back in 2021, in what can be considered the end-of-term report card of the Duterte era, the the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s Global Organized Crime Index assigned the Philippines a criminality score of 6.84, making 13th of 193 countries, sixth of 46 Asian countries, and second of 11 South-Eastern Asian countries, with mafia-style groups (“activity from these mafia-style groups is likely only to increase in the coming years”) and state-embedded actors scoring the highest, respectively (both at 8).
Now consider three things. First, as an act of political restitution to an offended military, Duterte declared open season on communists, however loosely defined, removing the already few restraints on soldiers always chomping at the bit to liquidate the enemy. Second, his overall “war on drugs,” in which he took upon himself the moral responsibility for liquidations so long as they were undertaken according to the parameters and with the methods he defined, provided cover for the settling of scores and the conquest of turf, for all sorts of actors. And third, the riches plundered from Marawi gave significant but untraceable economic power to soldiers, quite possibly up and down the line, opening up the possibility of their having means and motive to edge out politicians and others who formerly had a stranglehold on political and economic power in their areas.
Whether an active duty general having to be arrested on charges of liquidating a civilian, or former soldiers, dishonorably discharged or not, turning into hitmen, the armed forces which formerly sneered at the police for being not just crooked, but incompetent, now have to look at itself in the mirror to ask if its reflection isn’t looking more and more cop-like. This is what has spooked the entire political class, from the President to his cousin the Speaker, and now our top brass.