Wed, Jul 30, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Democracy in the Philippines is under threat

President Gloria Arroyo's claim that the end to a mutiny last weekend was a `victory for democracy' is not quite true

By Ronald Meinardus

Military interventions in Philippine politics are not a novel phenomenon. The politicization of the armed forces occurred during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when influence and power of officers were determined not by merit or performance but by political allegiance to factions or cliques. Ever since, the military has played the role of political arbiter at crucial moments in Philippine history.

The armed forces gave their blessing to the transfer of power from Marcos to Corazon Aquino in 1986 following what is often referred to as the "People Power Revolution." And in early 2001, the decision of the military leadership to withdraw support from disgraced president Joseph Estrada paved the way to power for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

In an international comparison of troop-strength and military hardware, the 113,000-strong Philippine armed forces may be regarded as relatively weak. But in their case, too, applies an observation by Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington: "What drives the soldier into the political arena is not his own strength but rather the weakness of the political system." When political institutions cease to provide the mechanism for the resolution of political, economic and social issues, extra-constitutional routes to achieve political goals become an attractive alternative.

Structurally, fragile institutions and military interventions in politics are two sides of a coin. Lamenting what he terms "our reliance on extra-constitutional means of effecting change," the well-known Filipino columnist and sociologist Randy David states, "With a history of martial law, three people power explosions, and seven coup attempts in a period of 30 years, it will not be easy for Filipinos to go back to a naive faith in constitutional order."

These sentences were written before last weekend's mutiny in the heart of the Philippines' financial district, when once more, the absence of total authority in the political leadership invited disgruntled elements of the military to act in open rebellion. Lack of faith in the constitutional order was certainly the main driving force of the mutineers. It may be fortunate for that same -- disrespected -- constitutional order that not only this most recent but all earlier armed rebellions ended in failure.

Compared with other coup-prone nations, the Philippines, in this regard, has a "comparative advantage," which may be explained by factionalism and lack of unity in the military ranks. This fragmentation became apparent also during the recent rebellion which was staged by a small clique consisting of no more than 300 men and junior officers.

All this is not to say that the government has not taken the matter seriously. The actual mutiny followed days of coup rumors, which filled the pages of the newspapers and led to myriad consultations between the government and military personnel. Only a few days before the revolt, the president herself engaged in a dialogue with the conspirators discussing with them their well-known gripes such as low pay, insufficient housing and corruption in the top echelons of the Philippine military. These grievances from the ranks are nothing new, and the government has, on more than one occasion, promised to address these concerns.

New and disturbing is the plotters' accusation that the government is selling ammunitions to various armed insurgent groups faced by the military. "Our own bullets are killing our brother soldiers," said Antonio Trillanes, a navy lieutenant who led the rebels. The plotters even accused the government of staging recent bombings in Mindanao and pinning the blame on the Muslim separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

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