The military in politics

Every time we allow politicians to steal elections with impunity, to rule without accountability, to rob the public coffers routinely, and to lie brazenly – we are creating the conditions for military intervention. Professional armies go hand in hand with strong democracies.  We are not a strong democracy; that is why the temptation to play the military card remains strong.  Yet, even in the most desperate circumstances, there is no assurance that the public will automatically welcome military intervention. Much depends on the clarity with which the military defines the provisional extraordinary role it claims for itself, as well as on the trust that the people are willing to repose on their soldiers.  Trust is earned.

The military is shaped by the contingencies of its own history.  The formative contexts are different for each society — every army has to find its place in the evolving life of the nation, shedding off some functions and practices inherited from its colonial past, and developing new ones suitable to the changing needs of the nation. The Indonesian case shows this clearly.

The Indonesian armed forces or ABRI sprang from the victorious revolutionary forces that fought the Dutch.  Indonesia’s army is celebrated as the midwife of the free Indonesian nation.  It was logical for its leaders to assume major roles in the political administration of the country.  It was also natural for them to be rewarded with the management of the economic enterprises taken over from the Dutch. Throughout its history, the Indonesian military occupied a privileged place in the country’s economy and political administration. Until recently, the military was given reserved seats in parliament.  But, under a democratizing Indonesia, military officials have been stripped of their political and administrative roles.  They cannot be parliamentarians or government officials so long as they are in the military service. The pendulum has swung to the other side, although people are wondering how long it can be kept there.  From the moment of the establishment of the Indonesian nation, the military was the only organization that could perform the functions of political administration.  That fact cannot be reversed overnight.

We have a much greater chance of achieving professionalism in our military than Indonesia.  The Philippine military has had longer practice as a professional army subordinate to civilian authority. Running a state is not part of its traditions.  It is not saddled by a triumphalist past that entitles it to a privileged place in the administration of the nation.

But this is also its weakness.  Having been formed as a colonial army, it has no heroes.  After the grant of independence, it fought on the side of the new native rulers, defending the social order of wealth and property against the sporadic protests of the exploited and landless masses.  The pantheon of our people’s folk heroes is filled with rebels and guerillas who fought foreign oppressors.  There is no place in it for any of the uniformed men of the Philippine Constabulary.  In many places of the country, the military is still viewed as an invading force.

The uniformed personnel of our Armed Forces probably occupy the lowest rungs of the public service, not only in pay and benefits, but also in social esteem.  In our kind of society, which places a high premium on the white collar professions, to be a soldier is not one of those messages that hopeful parents whisper into the ears of their children.  There is no money in being a soldier, unless you are corrupt.  No status in it, unless you are among the few who went to the Philippine Military Academy.  And no future in it, unless you have a political patron.  Indeed, our society does not give our soldiers even the modest recognition and respect they deserve.  But that is mainly because the government itself treats them shabbily, sending them out like dispensable foot soldiers to clean up the mess created by the nation’s politicians.  Simply upgrading the situation of the ordinary enlisted man – his training, his equipment, his education, and living condition – could produce radical changes in the image of the military profession.

There is a consciousness shift however.  A new generation of professionally-trained officers who know their history can no longer tolerate the kind of roles they are made to play by corrupt politicians in an unjust social order.  They take to heart the Constitution’s definition of their role as “protector of the people.”  Their increasing politicization has made them skeptical of the principle of supremacy of civilian authority, especially where civilian authority rules on the basis of a questionable mandate. Constantly admonished by their superior officers not to involve themselves in political questions, they point an accusing finger at them, telling them of the brazen way in which they allow the organization to be used for partisan purposes during elections. This lies at the heart of the political activism of the young officer corps.

The observation of Professor S.E. Finer, author of the classic “The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics” goes into the heart of the matter: “Instead of asking why the military engage in politics, we ought to ask why they ever do otherwise.” The opportunity to convert superior organization and arms into political power is always there.  The problem is not how to prevent soldiers from entertaining the thought, but how to build a modern political system that would make military intervention inconceivable.

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