An armed forces reorganization ordered by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to relieve U.S. pressure for military reform is shaping up as a maneuver to preserve the existing power structure and prepare for a February presidential election, according to Philippine military sources and foreign analysts.
The supposed reform was announced last month a few days before a court acquitted the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, 24 other military men and one civilian on charges of involvement in the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. and a subsequent cover-up.
Ver, 65, a relative and a close confidant of Marcos, was reinstated by the president as chief of staff within hours of his acquittal. The United States had lobbied against the move, making clear that it considered him a major obstacle to military reform. Washington has been pushing Marcos to reform his armed forces to counter more effectively a growing Communist insurgency in the countryside.
Among the changes announced have been the retirement of the Navy commander, Rear Adm. Simeon Alejandro, and the reassignment of about 50 key officers in the provinces. In addition, Marcos has established a Board of Generals and Colonels headed by Gen. Ver to make recommendations by Dec. 23 on revitalizing the armed forces.
The highest ranking officer to retire so far, Alejandro was replaced by the Coast Guard commander, Commodore Brillante Ochoco, who is considered staunchly loyal to Ver.
Ochoco initiated a manifesto that expressed unswerving "loyalty and support" for Ver last year after a fact-finding board implicated him and the 24 other military men in the slaying of Aquino. The manifesto was said to have been signed by 68 generals or other flag officers.
Ochoco was also the only senior officer to come out publicly against the armed forces reform movement known as "We Belong." The movement surfaced early this year at a graduation ceremony of the Philippine Military Academy and has issued a number of statements calling for the retirement of "overstaying generals" as well as other changes.
Another change announced by Ver upon his reinstatement was the reassignment of the customs commissioner, Brig. Gen. Ramon Farolan, to a lesser position in the Air Force.
Farolan was the only officer to repudiate publicly his purported signature of last year's manifesto supporting Ver, declaring that he "did not sign or authorize to anyone to sign on my behalf."
"This is a punishment," said a Philippine colonel. "It's a signal to those who are not loyal during a time of crisis."
Since the reassignment of Farolan was announced, the military has said it was planning to recall about 160 officers and enlisted men assigned to various civilian offices in the government and state-owned corporations.
Such changes, heralded as part of the reorganization, have left reformist officers cynical and disillusioned about the prospects for genuine reforms, military sources said.
"This revamp and reorganization is only an attempt to satisfy the American pressure," said a colonel sympathetic to the reform movement. "It will not be a reassignment based on merit and capability."
"There's no real reorganization, and there's no real reform," said a foreign specialist on military matters. "It's a farce."
Said a professor who monitors the military: "I don't see anything fundamental that will really help improve the image and performance of the military. It's just minor reshuffling here and there."
One of the tasks of the new board headed by Ver is to set guidelines for the retirement of generals whose terms of service have been extended by Marcos. At present, 29 generals out of about 100 in the armed forces have been extended beyond mandatory retirement, set at age 56 or upon completion of 30 years of service. Among the "extendees" are Ver, Ochoco, the vice chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, and the commanders of all the service branches.
Last weekend, Marcos said the armed forces reorganization would "reach the levels of Ver and Ramos after about a week," implying that they would be retired.
There has been no further word about these retirements, but military sources consulted said they expected little change even if Marcos goes ahead with them. They detect a trend in the moves announced so far to secure the power and influence of Ver through senior officers beholden to him.
"Whoever sits there as chief of staff, Ver will still continue to control the armed forces," said a Philippine intelligence officer. A foreign analyst noted that "if Ver goes, his people will be in place. He will still control the military from behind the scenes, and he won't even be accountable, because he won't be there."
Further criticism of the military reorganization has followed the announcement of what was described as Ver's decision following his acquittal to reassign 46 key officers, including 20 provincial commanders, as part of the reorganization to help fight the insurgency. According to military sources, most of the changes actually took effect six to eight months ago when Ramos was acting chief of staff.
Other reassignments have added to suspicions among reformist officers that the reorganization is not all it is portrayed to be. In one reshuffle, the highly regarded regional commander in central Luzon was sent to the troubled southern island of Mindanao, reportedly because of his counterinsurgency experience. He was replaced by Brig. Gen. Isidoro de Guzman, who was in command on the central island of Negros Occidental when paramilitary forces recently killed at least 20 demonstrators in the town of Escalante.
Military sources said de Guzman has a reputation for his ability to bring in the vote and was once the commander of the central Luzon province of Pampanga. One of the major charges of reformist officers is that the Marcos government has used the military and paramilitary forces to help rig elections.
The heavily populated central Luzon region is seen as a key battleground in the February election. Opposition candidate Corazon Aquino is from its province of Tarlac.