A group of young military officers has launched a reform movement within the Philippine armed forces to halt what is seen as growing demoralization and to improve effectiveness in combating Communist insurgents.
While the movement emphatically rejects the idea that it might engineer a coup and insists on respecting the military hierarchy, it clearly responds to serious deficiencies in the armed forces' leadership and growing frustration in the nationwide battle against about 12,000 guerrillas of the New People's Army, the fighting arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
Among the movement's grievances, according to published statements and interviews with member officers, are corruption in the military, favoritism in promotions, "overstaying generals" who have passed retirement age, military abuses against civilians, inefficient distribution of supplies and loss of public support.
Known as "We Belong" or the "Reform AFP Movement," (AFP stands for Armed Forces of the Philippines), the group says it is expanding rapidly and winning support in various parts of the country. The number of members has not been announced, but one reformist officer has estimated publicly that the movement has the support of 70 percent of the more than 3,000 Philippine Military Academy graduates currently in active service. A legislator estimated that 40 percent of the 16,000 officers, in the armed forces totaling 113,000 men, could be supporters or sympathizers.
The reform movement has been welcomed by some leaders, including the acting armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos, and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, but it appears to have been greeted with suspicion or ambivalence by others.
The Coast Guard commander, Commodore Brilliante Ochoco, a former chairman of the Philippine Military Academy alumni association, said in a speech yesterday that the reformists' aims were worthy but their methods "deplorable." He charged that reformists' complaints "crucified members of the AFP before they even had a chance to protect their good names" and gave a false impression that nothing had been done to correct flaws. Instead of disregarding military tradition and using "propagandist venues" to air their grievances, Ochoco said, the reformists should go through "proper channels."
In an interview last week, President Ferdinand Marcos tended to dismiss the reformists' grievances as "griping," although he acknowledged that the complaints could be "well-founded."
"Griping is traditional in the armed forces, but they've just called it by an esoteric name," Marcos said. He reminisced about "gripes" he had about food, clothing and shoes while a military officer during World War II. He added, however, in reference to the reformist officers, "We should listen to them."
Asked about Marcos' remarks, five members of the reformist movement indicated in an interview Thursday that their grievances had gone well beyond "traditional" griping. "We don't like to use the word 'gripes,' " one colonel said.
Marcos conferred Friday with about 30 reformist officers from the military academy classes of 1971 and 1973, according to the presidential palace.
A statement said Marcos promised to prosecute promptly any military men accused of dishonesty or corruption and to encourage the group to help gather evidence of irregularities. But he warned against any "trial by publicity."
The statement said the officers, who were accompanied by Gen. Ramos, assured Marcos that their movement had not been instigated by any military or political leader and that they would press for change within the law and the military chain of command.
In apparent response to reformist concerns, Ramos yesterday ordered the court-martial of two military officers and six enlisted men for crimes including murder and robbery. At the same time, in a move approved by Marcos, Ramos relieved two military field commanders whose units in the provinces of Negros Occidental and Samar recently were attacked by Communist rebels. Ramos said the two colonels were relieved for failing to supervise security measures in their units.
In other disciplinary measures, the presidential palace reported that 40 officers have been dismissed from the service and six others reprimanded as of May 15 in what it called "an ongoing effort to weed out incompetents and undesirables in the officer corps."
So far, however, authorities have said nothing about what a reformist officer denounced as the "intellectual dishonesty" of some officers who he said were painting a "rosy picture" of the military's fight against the Communist guerrillas. "The situation is getting serious, and some commanders keep saying everything is under control," an Air Force colonel said. "We feel the military is starting to be isolated from the people."
Another described how guerrillas can lie in ambush for days "and nobody will inform the military about them." But when the military tries to ambush the guerrillas, he said, people often warn the rebels.
The officers said military abuses, including torture and summary executions, known here as "salvaging," contributed to the lack of public support.
"There are times when, from the public's point of view, we are losing the fight," one officer said.
The officers, who represented the Philippine constabulary, the Army, the Air Force and the Navy, were interviewed at Manila's Camp Aguinaldo, site of the Ministry of National Defense.
They said that although the grievances are longstanding, the movement began to take shape earlier this year. In February, a "preliminary statement of aspirations" was published by a self-described "small group of young graduates" of the academy to call attention to grievances and appeal for support.
The statement deplored the "prevailing military culture" that rewards "boot-licking incompetents" at the expense of "independent-minded professionals and achievers."
In its latest statement, issuedFriday, the group announced a new name, the "Reform AFP Movement," using the word "reform" as an acronym meaning "restore ethics, fair-mindedness, order, righteousness and morale."
In the interview at Camp Aguinaldo, the reformist officers said the counterinsurgency campaign could be more effective if the military were more united. Because of factionalism in the top military leadership, they said, some field commanders do not even talk to each other.
The main military split is widely believed to stem from a rivalry between acting chief of staff Ramos and the man he temporarily replaced, Gen. Fabian Ver, who is currently on trial, charged as an accessory in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino.
Another reformist officer complained that "some of us on occasion have been ordered to get involved in massive election irregularities," such as "carting off ballot boxes" and "terrorizing voters" into supporting certain candidates. He said the movement aimed to "generate enough awareness" that young officers would refuse such orders in the future.
Western analysts say that other groups besides the reform movement may be meeting, but have not surfaced yet.
According to one analyst, the movement "has support from retired officers who see this military as a cesspool that has got to be cleaned up."
Some changes already have been made under Ramos, who has been trying to change the military's image and is seen as more reform-minded than Ver. In the past few months, special action committees have been formed to investigate military abuses, a "church-military liaison committee" has been reestablished and 11 retraining centers have been set up to reform errant soldiers. Military procurement procedures have also been changed to eliminate skimming, analysts said.
However, some skeptics warn that the reform movement could turn out to be a double-edged sword if it leads to further divisiveness in the military.
Moreover, according to Philippine and western sources, it remains to be seen whether any profound changes can be implemented while the 20-year-old civilian leadership of Marcos continues.
As one critic put it, "Can one segment of a corrupt environment reform itself when the corrupt environment remains in place?"