A dialogue with mutineers

It could have been just an ordinary interview with a couple of young officers who wanted to talk about corruption in the armed forces.  The interview led to a broad exchange on theories of corruption – its origins, the forms it takes, its consequences, and solutions.  The young officers, among them Navy Lt. Sonny Trillanes, had horror stories to tell about the toll in human lives that military corruption takes in the field. I told them what I knew about the complex roots of corruption in modernizing societies like ours.

I did not doubt their sincerity, but as a journalist, I felt I needed more evidence to be able to write about corruption in the military. They promised to show me some proof, and I left it at that.  They did not contact me again.  I was, of course, fascinated to meet these sharp and highly conscious officers who could speak with passion and conviction about the problems of the country.  It did cross my mind that these young soldiers might one day feel compelled to intervene in the political life of the nation.  They resonated the frustrations and hopes of my children’s generation.  As a veteran of two Edsas, I felt old listening to them speak with great urgency about the need to reform our society.

Now that they have come out to proclaim their fears and grievances in the most dramatic way possible, I am hard-pressed to recall what else we talked about over dinner on that cool evening in March.  Did I miss anything or misread their message? The other day at a Malacanang press conference, someone gave this brief encounter a conspiratorial spin, and I am now even more concerned to know if I had been an unwitting tool in a plot to overthrow the government.

For the record, I am certain our brief tutorial on corruption did not include plans for a coup or a mutiny.  It would have been stupid to hold it in a restaurant.  In any case, had I been one of them, I might have done it differently.  I would have dramatized the depth of our despair by dropping our firearms and making a bonfire out of them while calling on our superiors to quit and give the country a chance.  I have never believed that soldiers, no matter how patriotic and intelligent they are, should be in charge of government.  They would have no choice but to be coercive.  As a democrat, I oppose military rule.  But I also have great sympathy and respect for young Filipinos who can keep their ideals intact in the face of so much bad example and cynicism in our society, and who feel strongly about changing the way we live.

This is why I am saddened by the way we are treating the Oakwood misadventure.  A standoff that could have taken a violent and tragic turn has been quickly and peacefully resolved. The core members of the young officers’ group have admitted responsibility for a deed that they know is sanctioned under the Articles of War.  They will be punished, and they have said it is a price they are willing to pay.  It happens to the best of families.

A special commission is looking into the causes of the Oakwood incident, and Congress has launched its own investigation.  Under our system, these investigations are themselves going to be media events.  The public is curious to know what has driven such bright and outstanding young men in our officer corps, the top performers in their class and military units, to risk their lives and careers by staging a rebellion like this.

The reportage of these investigations will inevitably touch on the corruption in our government and the weaknesses of our political system.  If it does not kill the system, it can only strengthen it.  Future generations can only profit from the process.  But it is not going to be smooth sailing for the present government.  This entire episode will test its credibility and legitimacy, and, ultimately, its moral right to remain in office. In a sense, 2004 is already upon us.

It is unfortunate that, instead of challenging the Oakwood mutineers to substantiate their grievances with specific and verifiable information, and to respond to these with sobriety, the government is mounting a shrill campaign to destroy the reputation of these young officers.  It is doing so by depicting them as worthless pawns of discredited politicians, and by digging up information about their business sidelines to show they are far from being the young selfless idealists that early media accounts have portrayed them to be.  This is no different from a parent exposing his son’s drug addiction after the latter had accused him of keeping a mistress.

Under pressure and bursting with emotion, the officers have not been the paragon of articulateness in a language that few in our country have mastered in its oral form.  Their detractors have also seized upon this to impugn their intelligence, forgetting that our schizophrenic approach to language has bred entire generations of Filipinos who have no firm command of either English or Filipino. Yet truth is now being tested as communicative competence.

I find it symptomatic of our deep cultural estrangement that the Feliciano Commission should demand that the young officers speak only in English.  This is our country, and our principal audience is not the foreign community.  Yet we are asking fellow Filipinos to express their deepest sentiments in a language that is not their own.  What kind of people are we?

But of course, by writing this column in a language that the majority of our people cannot read, I too am complicit in a practice that is analogous to corruption itself. Fortunately, our people do not need columnists to tell them whom to believe.  A glance at the faces of these young men sitting side by side their political and military elders is probably all they need to determine who is telling the truth.


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