A military renaissance

January 26 1987

A military renaissance

January 26 1987

A military renaissance


The guns have been silent in the Philippines, but a battle has continued to rage for the hearts and minds of Filipinos. Last Nov. 27 the government of President Corazon Aquino announced a 60day ceasefire between the armed forces and the New Peoples' Army, the Communist rebels who have been active since 1969. But although peace talks began in early January, the two sides remained far apart, with most observers predicting that the country's civil strife would continue for some time. Maclean’s London Bureau Chief Ross Laver visited an

army camp in the northern Philippines just before the ceasefire to assess how the country's military was coping with the Communist threat. He filed this report:

The daily routine at Camp David Corpuz in Cagayan, a province in the northern Philippines, begins at 5 a.m. Awakened by the squawking of roosters, Col. Rodolfo Aguinaldo sits down with his men to a cup of instant coffee and a heaping plate of locally grown rice and scrambled eggs. The men eat with their hands in traditional Philippine fashion. Then, after cleaning up, the troops sling their automatic rifles over their shoulders and begin five hours of training designed to prepare them for any future combat against

the outlawed New Peoples’ Army (NPA), the 22,000-member Communist force that has been fighting for control of the 7,100-island Philippine archipelago for the past 17 years. For most of that period the NPA gained strength, but Aguinaldo says that the tide has begun to turn—at least in Cagayan. As proof, he points out that 12 of the 20 recruits training at his camp are former NPA guerrillas who recently defected to the military. “We have been at war for many years,” said Aguinaldo, “but only now are we be-

ginning to win the enemy over to our side.”

The recent series of defections from the rebel forces signifies an important change for the Philippine military. Under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose 20-year regime ended in a peaceful revolution last February, the 230,000-member Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) became notorious for its corruption and frequent abuses of human rights. In a wave of right-wing terror, the army allegedly perpetrated thousands of so-called “salvagings”—death-squad killings of left-wing activists and civilians suspected of aiding the insurgency. Such abuses hardened the Communists’ resolve and drove many Filipinos to sympathize with the rebels, especially

in poverty-stricken rural areas, where clashes between the NPA and government forces were most intense. “Discipline in the AFP had completely broken down,” said one Western diplomat in Manila. “It is no wonder that a lot of people thought the army behaved worse than the rebels.”

Revamping the military’s image has been a difficult task. The army’s abrupt decision to withdraw its backing from Marcos last February and support Corazon (Cory) Aquino enhanced the military’s popularity. One of Aquino’s first acts after taking power was to appoint a presidential commission on human rights, headed by former senator and human rights activist José Diokno, to investigate reports of officially sanctioned torture and killing by the army during the Marcos regime. But the military has been slow to cooperate with the commission, and so far the panel has not laid any charges. Aquino also ordered the dismissal of more than two dozen senior officers who had remained in their posts beyond the official retirement age. But she has failed to institute a top-to-bottom reform of the army.

The Philippine army prefers to restore order to its ranks in its own way. During the later years of the Marcos regime, a small group of senior officers, known as the Reform of the AFP Movement (RAM), was ^ working behind the scenes Q to try to prevent the total ^ breakdown of the armed 5 forces. The military reformers, who included Aguinalo do, said that they believed othe only way the army could check the dramatic growth of the Communist insurgency was to win back the loyalty of farmers and peasants. But for years Aguinaldo and other reform-minded army leaders were constrained by the control exerted over the armed forces by Marcos and his chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver. It was only after Marcos’s departure that the “RAM boys,” as they were known, began to put their ideas into practice. One of the first to do so was Aguinaldo, 38, a graduate of the country’s elite Philippine Military Academy. Last February he became one of the first high-ranking officers to support Aquino openly—and later received a distinguished conduct medal.

Since April, Aguinaldo has commanded the 370-member provincial constabulary—or regular army—in

Cagayan, a sparsely populated province about 300 km northeast of Manila. Much of the territory is flat and covered with rice paddies, but a rugged mountain range dominates the southwestern half—an ideal shelter for NPA guerrillas.

Said Aguinaldo: “We try to follow the rebels’ movements, but it is very hard to find them as long as they are hiding in the hills.

The trick is to squeeze them out by halting their supplies of food and ammunition.”

Until Aquino’s victory 11 months ago, the army had little success with that strategy. The rebels had persuaded many local villagers that the NPA was on their side in the struggle to overthrow Marcos.

Many rural Filipinos, exposed to corrupt local government officials and ill-disciplined soldiers who stole food and tortured civilians, were happy to provide support to the rebel cause. In Cagayan and in other regions, the NPA created an extensive network of local messen-

gers and spies who warned guerrillas of nearby troop movements. U.S. analysts say that the rebels now operate in 60 of the Philippines’ 74 provinces and control about 20 per cent of the country’s villages.

Even after Aquino’s success, Filipinos remained distrustful of the army. One of the reformers’ problems was the fact that not all of the “RAM boys” were shining examples of military professionalism. Indeed, many members of the movement, opposed to Aquino’s apparent willingness to negotiate with the rebels, were discredited after last November’s alleged coup attempt against the president.

But the Communists’ tight control of the countryside is beginning to push farmers to seek protection from the army. Many rural Filipinos complain that once the rebels have infiltrated an area, they force local residents to live by their rules. “We have to give in to their demands or suffer the conse-

quences,” said a woman who lives near the province’s southern border. “We can’t do anything about it. Farming is the only way we can earn a living, and if we leave our farms all of us will die of hunger.”

Typically, rebels demand that local businesses pay taxes amounting to as much as two-thirds of their annual profits. Last year NPA guerrillas seized 28 pieces of heavy equipment from a logging company in western Cagayan and released them only when the firm agreed to pay the rebels 600,000 pesos (about $42,000). Said Florante Gallardo, 33, who described himself as a former member of an NPA assassination squad: “We had to collect progressive taxes from the businessmen to pay for firearms, food and other revolutionary expenses.”

Although the rebels remain a potent force, Aguinaldo’s strategy of trying to weaken their underpinnings appears to be paying off. Since April, 102 NPA guerrillas have surrendered to the military in Cagayan province. Aguinaldo’s success has also been repeated throughout the country. “Before, we were afraid of the army because anyone who was captured by them was tortured and detained,” said Contante Paulino, 21, a five-year veteran of the NPA who now lives at the Provincial Military Headquarters in Tuguegarro, Cagayan’s capital. “But now that the abuses have stopped, I am working with the military and telling them everything I know.”

Still, Aguinaldo admits that he is sometimes frustrated in his efforts to instil military discipline. In early November he ordered an investigation into allegations that several paramilitary soldiers in his district had executed three civilians whom they suspected of being NPA informants. At the same time, he said, there are still occasional reports of soldiers being drunk and disorderly. Some soldiers also sell their army-issued M-16 automatic rifles, worth about $730 each on the black market—$130 more than an AFP soldier’s annual pay.

The answer to such abuses, Aguinaldo says, is to crack down even harder on those who fail to do their duty. Between April and June last year more than 70 soldiers died in NPA ambushes in western Cagayan because, Aguinaldo said, they were not properly trained in counterinsurgency techniques. “It turned out that their battalion commander spent all of his time in Manila trying to get a promotion,” the colonel said. He added: “I immediately relieved him of his command and sent him to division headquarters. Now all he does is sit behind a desk.”