“The AFP is the protector of the people and of the State.”
- 1987 Constitution
Military officers, they say, are different. We belong to a silently acknowledged class of people authorized to bear arms. In order to ensure that those arms are not used in a self-serving manner, we are trained and drilled, fed and force-fed an honor code. Do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal nor tolerate others who do. We are told that our work involves the highest public good. That we are sworn protectors of the republic and that our responsibilities alone are honor enough. And we swear with our lives to protect the greatest good.
We are part of the profession that bears arms, and only the most worthy are allowed in it.
As a young lieutenant out of West Point, my first assignments were in Sulu. This was standard practice then, to send new graduates out into the field. This is what we were trained for, and much of our learning was easily put to use.
Later, however, when not fighting, I had to live among townspeople in these areas. Like most officers in similar situations, I could not help but notice the plight of countrymen in these areas and I discovered to a large extent that the only government presence felt by these people – my own countrymen—was the military. So they came to us, for assistance or survival, compelling us to fulfill roles for which we were never trained. We became mediators, police officers, sometimes we provided instant loans, we fed the hungry, looked for homes for the homeless, provided doctors and dentists, if we could and if not, we had to make do with what we had, to answer cries for help. In some hilarious instances we have had to be midwives.
We helped because we are part of the noble profession of arms, and we must uphold the public good. We could not, cannot walk away.
But yes, we are different, for very few of our citizens see the country the way a soldier does. Our frequent assignments and transfers and field experience put us in the heart of the Motherland, right into the places where the forgotten live. And since we bear the emblems of government, we provide, like it or not, what is expected of government, though we can rarely provide it completely or fully. Sometimes, the problems are beyond our minimal capabilities, and we must also deal with our own helplessness.
We see poverty in its most profound forms because insurgency takes root there. And yet, in some bizarre twist of circumstance, we are vilified too for defending the same government whose neglect has caused such suffering, hunger and war. The soldier must provide what government fails to provide. Yet he must locate himself within the same failed government machinery that has caused much of the problems he is asked to solve. He is not allowed a political opinion other than his vote; he is compelled to obey civilian authority. Yet our own training also compels us to listen to voices that exhort honor, integrity, honesty and forces us to defend our people against oppressors, yes, even if those oppressors themselves are agents of the state.
Can we blame the soldier for following that voice? Can we blame the AFP for being conflicted? At some point, if the soldier or officer will choose to protect the highest public good. He goes back to the honor and integrity demanded of him at training. When he does, he is called a criminal. When the officer instead makes blind adherence to political expediency, he is rewarded and may even obtain high positions in a government that will continue to fail its people.
Nowadays, the voices of truth have lessened in volume and with it the meaning of the words honor, integrity, loyalty. The government from being the highest democratic expression of the people was transformed into a plaything of the elite, to seek rent, privileges and expand power. And together with the AFP, the slide to mediocrity and despotism became a sort of a median to our national politics.
As such, we cannot blame the ordinary people if they look at us not with respect, not with confidence but with fear and contempt. While it pains me, I will readily admit that the institution from which I hail from is an institution which has been used once too many not only to protect the interest of a privileged few but also as an apparatus to exact fake consent from the public through the use of repression and subjugation. One only has to review history to see how the military establishment was utilized by the dictatorship as its personal private army and again, at present by the Arroyo government, best demonstrated by the 2004 Hello Garci scandal. We confess, we own up to our institution’s historical and current transgressions.
But permit us also to be hurt, injured and sometimes offended by these things, of how people regard us, of how the military as a social construct is seen by many as an enemy that must be vanquished.
The truth is, many of us are honest and loyal to the people. Beyond the unexplained wealth of some of our leaders, the majority of us are incredibly poor and impoverished; receiving meager salaries, even as our profession demands everything including giving one’s own life. Many of us remain faithful to the values of honor, integrity and loyalty, celebrating it not only in rhetoric but more importantly, by putting flesh to the ideals, by living it every day.
Yes, “soldiers are people too”. Like the laborers, we are also victims of summary dismissals, low wages much worse, unemployment. Like the farmers, many of us, sons and daughters of peasants saw how landlords and agri-business elites took their lands from them; like the urban and rural poor, we too have been forcibly displaced by illegal and violent demolitions. We are no different from the man in the street demanding social justice, yearning for a better future. We too desire change.
I guess many among you will ask, what is precisely “the change” I am advocating, what is “change” according to the military’s viewpoint. I cannot speak in behalf of the institution which itself is an arena of different if not competing perspectives. What I will share are my own alone, which hopefully many among you will agree with.
The path to meaningful change is an arduous and complex terrain. Many aspects of the change will not be realized by mere passion and enthusiasm alone, intelligent and viable alternatives must be presented if we are to realize a progressive society under a strong and developmental state. However, there are essential changes that are so obvious and immediate and yet for the longest time have not been actualized. These are the changes I want to speak of today.
If we want to see a professional army beholden and faithful to civilian rule, then we must fight for good and democratic governance, we must put into office civilian authorities that could govern effectively without resorting to military intervention to extract consent and exercise leadership.
We must put to an end to electoral misconduct, grand scale fraud and vote padding-shaving by introducing important electoral reform laws to democratize the electoral process and insulate it from the machinations of traditional politicians and elite families.
Poor leadership from civilian authorities puts the soldiers and their institution in a tongue-tied situation. Let us remember the ascension of military establishments do not happen in strong, legitimate and democratic governments, they happen when civilian authorities are weak, when there is an absence of strong political parties, when democratic institutions are anything but democratic.
Furthermore, the military must be insulated from politics—that is, partisan politics of politicians who knock on our barracks for armed support. We call for another form of politicalization among our ranks, a heightening of their social consciousness, and an adherence to the politics of the people— namely, to defend human rights, political liberties and democracy. Subsequently, all private armies must be dismantled especially those utilized by warlords and politicians to sow fear and terror among their supposed constituents. While these are primarily regarded as the AFP’s allies in promoting peace and in counter-insurgency, truth is, they are obstacles if not enemies of democracy, peace and the rule of law. We must learn from the horrific Maguindanao massacre.
Lastly, the Arroyo government must be made accountable for the transgressions it committed against the people. There must be a day of reckoning. We are not a vindictive people. However, we know that justice must be extracted to restore the dignity and humanity of those deprived and oppressed by Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal of corrupt leaders.
Hence, our immediate challenge, military or civilian is for us to promote and put into practice effective democratic governance, to deepen democracy and further the potentials of our political system, flawed it may be in so many ways, not to blind our people that there are no real alternatives but simply to reclaim basic things that were deprived from them.
And from there, let us build a new vision of a better future outside the limitations and the paucity of economic and social development as seen and felt by our people in the current juncture. Together with the progressives, students, workers, peasants and the academic community, a more democratic and humane society could and must be achieved.
As what progressives usually say, “Another world is possible.”
(Sgd.) Brig. General Danny Lim