Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Military as Arbiter of Political Conflict

In the July 9 New York Times article "Fuel for a Coup: Perils of Latin America's Oversized Military," Nobel Prize winner, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias wrote that strong militaries in Latin America have paved the way for military solutions to political conflicts in the region. He observed that the coup d'état that led to the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya is something that is not unexpected in a region that "continues to view armed forces as the final arbiter of social conflicts."

While the Philippines is not as extravagant as Latin America when it comes to military spending, since the days of martial law our armed forces have increasingly taken an active role in trying to resolve our nation's manifold problems. We thought that after EDSA I the re-branding (from AFP to New AFP) and reorganization of the armed forces would eventually lead to its depolitization. But as history would have it, coup after coup have wracked the nascent administration of then President Corazon Aquino.

Yet again under the present administration, the military continued its political involvement in seeking solutions to our socio-political problems during the so-called Oakwood Mutiny despite repeated indoctrination at the nation's premiere military academy and among the ranks of active military personnel against military adventurism. Then there was the Manila Pen incident. The leader of Oakwood, Navy Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes IV, would later on be popularly elected as senator even while he was behind bars.

Coup d'état as a means of achieving change is, aside from being a crime punishable by law, without a doubt unconstitutional. Not even the present constitutional provision defining the role of the armed forces as the protector of the people can legally justify the military's role in acting as the arbiter of the country's political conflicts. That provision was meant to highlight the military's role in protecting the people against external threats or aggression, and not as a prescription against a corrupt government, however appealing the idea may be to others.

Arias says the imbalance between Latin America's fragile democracies and strong militaries, with the scales tipping toward the latter, has much to do with the militray taking an active role on the political landscape. The Honduran experience shows that when Zelaya committed flagrant disregard of the country's Constitution and defiance to its high court's ruling, the military decided to resolve the impasse by arresting Zelaya and whisking him out of the country. The Honduran military's swift action did decisively what the Supreme Court and Congress failed to do: to immediately stop the illegal actions of an abusive president.

The failure of our democratic institutions in maintaining political stability and reigning in of official excesses have left our people looking for answers elsewhere. Idealists in the military have seen this as an impetus for involvement in transforming our society by resorting to extra-constitutional measures. As citizens equally disgusted by the worsening problems in the country, these soldiers follow the route where they have been trained well in seeking the much needed change. And for a country that is yet to see a truly military rule, Marcos's martial law notwithstanding, hard line military idealists would find the idea of a military junta a seductive goal, especially so that previous administration changes have only resulted in installing new faces into power without resolving the country's fundamental problems. The guiding political aphorism, it would seem, is that when democracy fails force becomes a necessity.

To be sure, the armies of other nations are much more powerful and highly trained compared to those of Latin America and the Philippines. But we do not see the United States or United Kingdom being threatened by coup d'états. The reason is their democratic institutions and processes do not fail them. Sure there are failings here and there, but not on a scale as grand as in our country. And solutions are invariably found. In the Philippines we've seen how our democratic processes and institutions have been repeatedly mocked by those in power: until now not a single verdict of conviction has been handed down against the former First Lady Imelda Marcos despite the plethora of cases brought against her, she and her family have reacquired political power, public officals who only earn miniscule salaries continue to live lavish lifestyles, we have a president who committed an act comparable to or even worse than Watergate but continues to remain in power, scandals after scandals are being heaped upon us by government officials who remain unscathed by the scalpel of justice, etc.

For as long as we do not fully mature as a democracy, where our democratic institutions and processes are revered as inviolable, members of the military establishment clamoring for change will continue to see their relevance in instituting political reforms. As long as our politicians continue to tinker with the Constitution and unabashedly violate the law, our institutions fail to cut down official excesses and public officials defy the people's will, the military will remain an active participant of political change.


  1. I guess having the military as an arbiter in a period of political stalemate is not necessarily evil. At most, I would see it as a neutral force that can be harnessed either for change or the status quo, by the right-wing or the left wing, of reaction or revolution (or even reform).

    On the one hand, we have the example the coup of Augusto Pinochet overthrowing the democratically elected social reformist Salvador Allende in Chile, on the other we have Hugo Chavez whose early military adventurism failed, but later won the election, and then ousted through a coup, but finally came back through another round of popular elections. Military had been pivotal in ousting the virtual (virtual only because at that time, martial law was already lifted) dictator Marcos and the corrupt Estrada regime, as much as it had been the cause of destabilization during the Aquino administration.

    I would say, that while building democratic institutions may be helpful indeed in forwarding one variant of democracy (the liberal-type), it may also act so as to subvert democracy or preserve an anti-democratic polity. Therefore, more than its institutional form (of procedures and rules), democracy and its forces must be seen as an expression popular power that may, at times, emanate from our soldiers. The military as arbiter of political conflict may not subscribe to the mainstream notions of liberal democracy, but it certain places, the military may be the only real genuine forces of democracy.

  2. Everytime we are tempted to believe that the AFP can bring about change because "previous administration changes have only resulted in installing new faces into power without resolving the country's fundamental problems" we need only look at the changes within that organization to see that they are incapabale of reforming themselves too.

  3. MB,

    The statement you quoted is an observation as to why elements within the military continue to involve in our country's political affairs and would want to impose their kind of change. Indeed within the AFP itself much needs to be changed, but it is also precisely this necessity that all the more impels some members - like Trillanes and company who complained about needed reforms within the AFP - to become active political partisans.

  4. james,

    Can you please further expound how people power can emanate from soldiers? Are not soldiers supposed to be guardians of the people rather than deciders for them?

  5. Seems like "Liberation Theology", as interpreted by the military. Probably same justifications. The NPA, MNLF, MILF and the Abu Sayaff probably have the same arguments.

    On the other hand, from recent Philippine history, military people who has gone on to become politicians do not fare bad at all - probably better than traditional politicians.

    Going straight to become a politician is less risky. Or, even better become a blogger - no need to run for election.

  6. Gud pm po sir!

    Gusto ko lamang po sanang makahingi ng tulong sa inyo... kung huwag nyo po sanang mamasamain.

    Isa po kayong abugado kung kaya't alam kong kayo po ang aking maaaring mapagtanungan.

    May event po kasi na mangyayari sa school namin.

    Para po siyang hearing. Hindi po sya debate kasi may mga cross examinations na gagawin, mga evidences na ipapakita at iba pang mga bagay na makikita sa korte. MOrality po kasi ang subject na iyon.

    Ako po ang naatasang leader ng grupo namin kung kaya't nasa aking responsibilidad ang kaayusan ng grupo namin.

    samakatuwid, ako po ang gaganap na lawyer sa gaganaping kaso sa school namin.

    Gusto ko lamang po sanang humingi ng mga advice, tips at mga strategies lalung lalo na sa mga cross examinations para mahuli mo at gayon din ay masabing mali ang mga weaknesses ng mga kalaban at mapalabas na tama ang panig ko. Gusto ko rin po sanang malaman ang mga basic terms sa korte na ginagamit ng mga lawyer (eg. Misleading the witness, etc.)

    Kung may alam po kayo na site na makakatulong, please send it to me.

    i- email nyo na lang po ako sa site na ito:

    Thank you very much

  7. roundstone,

    The idea that our elected leaders, democratic institutions and processes are not truly working for the welfare of the people, thereby forcing idealists in the military to participate in the political process in accordance with their training, that is by instituting violent change, could very well apply to the NPA, MILF, etc. But history will be the judge of whether the claim for genuine change is real or just another selfish quest for power. We all know that history is full of instances of supposed reformers who, once in power, acted no differently or worse than those they overthrew.