Mon, Jan 09, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Asia's militaries continue to influence politics in the region

With the exception of Japan, Singapore and India, the role of armies in Asia goes beyond soldiering to encompass politics, economics and diplomacy

By Richard Halloran

Senior military officers in the Philippines and South Korea have become disgruntled with their respective presidents, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Roh Moo-hyun, but they differ on what to do about it.

In Manila, the city is awash with rumors of an impeding coup that would replace Arroyo with a junta. That revolt has so far been staved off by the president's supporters, led by former President Fidel Ramos. He has warned the army that a coup would weaken the nation's already fragile democracy.

In Seoul, displeased army officers appear to have decided to wait out Roh, whose term expires in February 2008. Under South Korean law, he is limited to one five-year term. In the past, the military has intervened frequently in politics but democracy has evidently become rooted deeply enough that South Koreans citizens would rise up against a coup.

These episodes underscore the pervasive influence of Asian militaries -- which often go beyond soldiering to become the arbiters of power in politics, the economy, diplomacy and the social order. Only in Japan, Singapore and India are armies clearly subordinate to civilian authority.

This role of armies is part of the legacy of Asia's anti-colonial movements after World War II that led to independence. In many countries, the military was the only institution that emerged with cohesive leadership. Some militaries were almost immediately engaged in fighting, as South Korea was against North Korea and the Filipinos against the Hukbalahaps, which reinforced their respective military forces' standing.

For the US, the power of Asian armies underscores the vital necessity of military-to-military relations. The Pacific Command in Hawaii and other commands in the region prepare and execute military operations, but their political-military responsibilities are equally demanding as they seek to enhance alliances and to deter potential adversaries.

Military leaders in the Philippines, according to the Manila press, have become enraged by what they consider to be Arroyo's failure to overcome economic stagnation, to end a Muslim insurrection in the south, to clean up government and business corruption, and to avoid election irregularities.

In response to open speculation about a coup, the president's spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, felt compelled this week to dismiss the recurring threat.

"We have undiminished faith in the professional loyalty of the [armed forces] and the full capacity of the command to deal with these controversies," he said. "Rumors of a coup can be set aside, as the discipline and morale of our troops is high and the chain of command solid."

In contrast, dissatisfaction among South Korean army officers has been largely expressed in private whispers. They are dismayed by Roh's anti-US political stance and worried that he has so damaged South Korea's relations with the US that Washington will withdraw most of its military forces and dilute its security commitments.

Those officers say they consider Roh's accommodation with North Korea to be approaching appeasement, giving away aid without getting something in return. They are distressed by the president's apparent tilt toward Beijing and fear that South Korea, as in ancient times, will again become a vassal of China.

Roh has called for reform of the armed forces, which army officers argue means cutting budgets, reducing the forces and slowing efforts to modernize. They also point to the dismissal of senior officers out of favor with the president and the appointment of cronies to top positions. Even so, South Koreans who know military officers and US officials with access to intelligence say they have so far not seen evidence that military officers are planning to intervene as they might have done a few years ago.

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