TCS Daily

Using the Military to Promote Democracy

By Robert Garcia Tagorda - August 21, 2003 12:00 AM

The late July mutiny of over 300 Philippine military officers illustrated a major problem in the global war on terror: some countries, though supportive of American counterterrorism initiatives, lack the institutional stability to serve as effective partners.


The Philippines has stood firm with its Western allies. As President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assured President George W. Bush in May, Filipinos "are with you in your leadership against terrorism, wherever it may be found.... We believe that the U.S. leadership and engagement with the U.S. makes the world a safer place for all of us to live in." Arroyo has organized Southeast Asian leaders to improve regional cooperation. In turn, Bush has designated the Philippines a Major Non-NATO Ally and provided military equipment, research, and other resources. Philippine and American troops have also participated in joint counterterrorism training exercises.


Similar agreements have taken place between the Philippines and Australia. In March, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to foster cooperation between security, intelligence, law enforcement, and defense officials. Four months later, the Australian Federal Police vowed to train its Philippine counterpart in forensics, crime scene investigation, document fraud investigation, port security, and border control. Hence the Philippines has committed to regional counterterrorism efforts, and allies have facilitated its participation in them.


But the Philippines faces serious obstacles. Most notably, the agencies responsible for counterterrorism -- the Philippine National Police, which captures and detains terrorists, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which fights Muslim insurrection in Mindanao -- have struggled with incompetence and corruption. For instance, as Arroyo and Australian Prime Minister John Howard negotiated a three-year A$5 million counterterrorism agreement, Jemaah Islamiyah bomber Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi and two other terrorists escaped from the PNP Intelligence Group detention facility. An investigation found that they simply opened their cells and walked out without the guards' notice. These guards, along with one superintendent, later failed lie-detector tests, prompting Philippine Senator Rodolfo Biazon to suspect collusion.


The escape was nothing new. Last year, Faisal Marohombsar of the Pentagon Gang, a Terrorist Exclusion List designee, walked out of the National Anti-Kidnapping Task Force's maximum security detention cell. In 1995, Khaddafi Janjalani, leader of the Abu Sayyaf group that held two American missionaries hostage, fled with similar ease. Arroyo acknowledged that corruption may have played a role in all of these cases. Even if its role was limited, the fact remains that the PNP has failed to contain some of the most dangerous enemies in the war on terror.


The military has seen its share of problems. According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, defense contractors set aside bribes to ensure that procurement officials review their proposals. In the Army, such "grease money" goes as high as 35% to 50% of the contract's original value, while Navy payoffs often reach 100% and the Air Force up to 200%. Taxpayers ultimately suffer, but so do troops: high costs mean limited access to outdated weapons, aircrafts, and other supplies for combating well-armed terrorists.


Rebel leader Antonio Trillanes raised similar concerns. In two masters-program term papers at the University of the Philippines, Trillanes not only confirmed the corruption of Navy procurement, but also detailed the bribery of Navy patrols, which allowed bandits, pirates, and terrorists to smuggle arms, drugs, and other contraband. These activities subsequently helped the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf fight government forces. To be sure, Trillanes's political agenda likely influenced his studies, but Sheila Coronel, executive director of PCIJ, added that his methodologies were "sound." AFP Chief Narciso Abaya said in a post-mutiny interview: "This graft and corruption is not only at the highest levels (of the military). I admit there is graft and corruption at all levels even down to the company commander level." In her State of the Nation Address, Arroyo, who met Trillanes a couple of weeks before the mutiny to discuss his grievances, conceded that the military has an "underlying problem."


This problem goes beyond the armed forces, as journalist Glenda Gloria argues in "Out of the Barracks." Since the "People Power" Revolution of 1986, writes Gloria, numerous military officers have received appointments to the largest revenue-generating public agencies, including the Department of Transportation and Communications, the Bureau of Customs, special economic zones, and government-owned and controlled corporations. These officers have become embedded in the patronage system, blurring the line between civil and military institutions. To some extent, politicians have sought such loyalties for their own survival. Arroyo, for example, rose to the presidency after the military withdrew support for her predecessor, Joseph Estrada. In two-and-a-half years, she has had six chiefs of staff, prompting Marites Danguilan Vitug, editor-in-chief of Newsbreak magazine, to accuse her of "us[ing] the position as a thank-you card to please the generals."


One should note that all of these corruption charges are inevitably hard to verify. Nevertheless, they reflect the instability of the military, particularly when one considers coups. As Alfred McCoy observes in Closer Than Brothers: Manhood at the Philippine Military Academy, after Ferdinand Marcos turned the armed forces into the fist of his dictatorship, members of the PMA Class of 1971 launched six coup attempts in the late 1980s. One member, Senator Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, has been suspected of ties with the mutiny. McCoy argues that the Class of 1971 sees the armed forces as "an instrument of social transformation," and because this view seems to remain, Article II of the Philippine Constitution may face threats: "Civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military."


Therefore, although the Philippines has shown willingness to contribute to the war on terror, its vehicles for meaningful contributions have, at the very least, brought disappointment. A quandary also exists: American and Australian assistance provides essential resources, but the Philippine government is so internally crippled that it cannot do much with them. Its own institutional problems hamper regional initiatives.


How should the United States address this issue? The Washington Times suggests that the Bush administration should apply diplomatic pressure by postponing an October visit to the Philippines: "The message needs to be clear that Mrs. Arroyo must get a grip on the chaos." Indeed, reform must come from within, but as Karl Jackson, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says, "self-help without resources always fails." Both the PNP and the AFP need to be professionalized. In the Southern Philippines, frontline troops receive combat pay of only 250 pesos a month and meal allowance of only 60 pesos a day. If Arroyo limits corruption, she can increase funding for basic military and law enforcement needs. Because the Philippines plays a strategic role in the war on terror, the United States should perhaps give additional funds.


But given other American commitments around the world, such a plan might encounter political opposition at home. Thus, as a short-term alternative, the Bush administration should revise its May proposal to include professional as well as combat training. The proposal calls for a comprehensive security review that details "how the United States can best support Philippine military modernization and reform." In addition to discussing UH-1H helicopters and other equipment, this review should devise ways in which the assistance program can be used to strengthen military adherence to civilian authority. Education will hardly serve as a panacea. But it will at least begin to put the spotlight on stabilizing and strengthening institutions that have important counterterrorism responsibilities.


In "Supremacy by Stealth," Robert Kaplan states that the fourth rule for managing an unruly world is to "use the military to promote democracy." The Philippines already shares democratic ideals with Western allies. Still, if the United States wants to advance the war on terror, it must find a creative way to apply this rule in the Pacific.


Mr. Tagorda, a Truman Scholar, will be attending the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University next fall. He writes regularly at



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