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MANILA — Ideally, in a democracy the military is subordinate to the political leadership, which enjoys a popular mandate through universal elections. In reality, civil-military relations often have a different quality.

When I was a political science student, the theory of the “military-industrial complex” was in vogue. Those were the days of the Vietnam War, and it was fashionable even outside leftist circles to identify an almost collusive closeness between U.S. policymakers and weapons manufacturers and their lobbies.

It is no coincidence that similar theories have once more become popular as America, the sole superpower, has waged new costly wars in different parts of the world.

In the Third World, civil-military relations tend to have a different quality than in the established democracies of the West. In several developing countries in the Southern Hemisphere, the armed forces evolved from guerrilla groups that fought wars of independence and national liberation. In the eyes of the victorious freedom fighters, this legacy entitles them to a privileged role in the political system and society.

The politicization of the military usually poses serious challenges to democratic governance, as this is always based on the primacy of a democratically elected leadership. In this setup, the soldiers are confined to the barracks, their sole duty being the defense of the country against external aggressors.

In the Philippines, the reality is rather different. With no plausible military threat looming beyond the borders, the armed forces are more or less exclusively absorbed with counterinsurgency operations, fighting a decades-old communist rebellion and Muslim separatist groups in Mindanao. The strategic focus, thus, is inward-looking and the perception of the enemy local.

While on the surface Philippine democracy may seem stable, civilian rule has been challenged by several military coup attempts after democratic restoration in 1986. The unrest in the ranks is persistent and so is, therefore, the threat of new coups.

Only a few days ago, the leadership of the armed forces revived an internal military spy unit, ordering it to go after coup plotters and “scallywags in uniform” out to topple the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Throughout her presidency, Arroyo has courted the military, to which she is indebted politically. The former vice president rose to power on the back of the armed forces, which, in a moment of great political uncertainty in early 2001, threw their weight behind her and joined a popular uprising against President Josef Estrada.

Ever since, she has placed powerful military leaders in high government positions in what observers see as an effort to protect her administration against coup threats and destabilization efforts.

Partially, this strategy of co-option has been successful. Unlike President Corazon Aquino, who in her six-year term endured no less than seven coup attempts, the military so far has challenged Arroyo only once — in July 2003 when a group of soldiers and officers seized an apartment complex in Manila’s financial district. After a standoff that lasted just one day the coup attempt ended without a shot being fired.

The mutineers accused the government and their superiors of graft and corruption. While the political class rejected the methodology of the mutineers, many showed sympathy for the issues raised by them.

Graft and corruption in the military once more hit the headlines after Maj. Gen. Carlos F. Garcia was accused of accumulating unexplained wealth during his three-year stint as financial comptroller of the armed forces. Interestingly, the scandal that broke last August came to light not as a result of the attentiveness of the Philippine prosecutors but following an apparently deliberate leak from the U.S. government to local media.

According to political observers, the Garcia case may well pose the biggest test for the Arroyo administration. On the one hand, the president has proclaimed she will fight graft and corruption with all available means. At the same time, though, her vigor to dig deep may be curtailed by concerns of a possible violent military backlash if the investigations begin disturbing powerful vested interests.

While the details regarding the Garcia case published in the attentive Philippine media are both scandalous and spectacular, many Filipinos believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. Corruption in the Philippine military is endemic according to observers, who say that this reflects the pervasiveness of corrupt practices in society at large.

“You cannot have professional soldiers in a nation governed by corrupt and incompetent leaders,” says Philippine columnist Randy David. “They will either try to seize power or become part of the rotten system.”

Apart from the economic and moral dimensions, corruption in the armed forces also has grave military implications.

“Corruption in the Armed Forces in the Philippines is perhaps the single most dangerous security threat to the nation,” says Kevin E. Cross. In a paper titled “The Enemy Within: Corruption in the Armed Forces of the Philippines as a Security Threat,” the U.S. scholar describes how military corruption enables arms and munitions to eventually reach the arsenals of insurgents.

“This form of corruption is twice as damaging to the Armed Forces of the Philippines as it depletes its own offensive capability while directly strengthening its adversaries,” says Cross.

Allegations of collusion between elements of the military and the enemy are not new. In a recent conference in Manila, retired Brig. Gen. Jose Almonte, who served as national security adviser to President Fidel Ramos from 1992 to 1998 and is a respected military analyst outside the Philippines as well, spoke of “corruption in logistics units that in effect arms the Abu Sayyaf bandits and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatists from the AFP’s own armories.”

In response to calls for drastic changes in the armed forces, the government is implementing a far-reaching “Philippine Defense Reform.” A civilian secretary of defense has taken charge and recruited undersecretaries from the business sector to assist in reforming the graft-ridden procurement, accounting and auditing systems in the military.

Some say change for the better is already visible. At the same time, others say that a truly reformed military may even pose a greater threat to Philippine democracy than the present corrupt institution.

“Ironically, a reforming AFP could present a mortal danger to a Philippine state which is unable — or unwilling — to reform itself,” says Gen. Almonte. Should the state continue to be run by corrupt and incompetent politicians, he adds, “then this professional military will — sooner or later — be moved by popular demand to take over such a mismanaged society.”

This veiled threat to civilian rule is symptomatic of widespread disenchantment with the political class in the Philippines. It also reflects a way of thinking in which respect for a basic rule of democratic governance — the supremacy of a popularly elected political leadership — has been lost.

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