Rascals in the Barracks

Sheila Coronel

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“The military has entered the period of normalcy that public attention has shifted away from attempted coups d’etat to mansions and designer wear,” argues Sheila Coronel. What do the recent cases of military corruption say about contemporary politics?

It used to be said that the phrase  “military intelligence” is an oxymoron. That was back in the 1980s, when the Marcos regime was nearing its twilight and soldiers were arresting activists willy-nilly in street protests around the country. Today another word is being paired with “military.” But the resulting phrase—military corruption—is sadly far from oxymoronic.

A lot has happened to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the 25 years between those two phrases. It has gone from being the secure pillar of dictatorship to an unsteady plank of democratically elected governments. In that quarter-century, the popular discourse on the military has also shifted. In the early post-Marcos years, military meant coup.  But since the naughts, popular outrage has been directed toward the corruption—rather than the rebellion—among the brass and in the barracks.

Military corruption, as The Enemy Within points out, is not new. Unaccountable during the period of dictatorship, generals did away with accounting rules on the pretext that they could fight the communists more efficiently. Before long, they were pocketing the proceeds from payments for nonexistent supplies and services. This practice was called “conversion,” and it spread throughout the ranks and became embedded in the AFP’s organizational ethos, flourishing even after the fall of Marcos. Put simply, it entailed converting fake receipts from suppliers into cash. (“Conversion” was a martial-law-era military euphemism like “salvaging,” a stand-in for summary execution. One of the most potent exercises of military power is the imposition of malevolent meanings on otherwise harmless words.)

The Enemy Within is a primer on conversion and its causes and consequences. A collection of investigative articles by Newsbreak’s Glenda M. Gloria, Aries Rufo, and Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza, the book chronicles recent corruption scandals in the armed forces. These include the notorious cases of Brig. Gen. Carlos Garcia, who is accused of having amassed a fortune of at least P300 million after a career in the comptroller’s office, and of former chief of staff Angelo Reyes, who committed suicide after one of his generals accused him of various improprieties, such as receiving a P50-million retirement gift from the AFP’s conversion kitty.

The book taps into popular disenchantment with the high life of generals, especially after the exposés of their multimillion-peso mansions and the spectacle of Garcia’s wife and son being held at U.S. Customs for flying into the country with $100,000 in undeclared cash (Later one of the Garcia sons, a New York-based stylist for Marc Jacobs, would give an ill-advised interview to the Daily Beast. At his Trump Tower apartment, Timothy Mark Garcia showed off his Hermes cuffs, Alexander McQueen jeans and the Gucci outfit worn by his Yorkshire terrier, Cartier).

Perhaps it’s a sign that the military has entered the period of normalcy that public attention has shifted away from attempted coups d’etat to mansions and designer wear. The military, it turns out, is no different from politicians. Generals, previously fortified from public scrutiny, are now in the realm of the sleazy—and the familiar. The military has been demystified.

 

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By Dante Hong Carlos

There ought to be some comfort in that. What The Enemy Within makesclear, without making it explicit, is that we know much more about military corruption now because of the checks and balances in a democratic society. Such airing of the AFP’s dirty linen would have been unimaginable in the past and is still not possible in countries similar to ours, like Indonesia and Thailand.

The Enemy Within’s catalogue of military malfeasance makes it a depressing book, but we can take some solace in the fact that democracy has pried open the AFP’s best kept secrets. After all, the armed forces in any country are the most opaque of institutions. Yet congressional investigations and cases in the anti-graft court, even if they didn’t get anywhere, have brought the allegations of military corruption onto the public stage. Independent-minded government auditors have shown exactly where the wrongdoing took place and how. Civilian defense secretaries, notably Orlando Mercado and Avelino Cruz, have gone public with what’s wrong and attempted reforms. And no doubt, the officers who have spoken out about the rot in the system would not have had a hearing if they didn’t have sympathetic ears in government and the media. Moreover, a free press has made investigative reporting on the military possible.

A book like The Enemy Within could only have been produced in an environment where there are open sources on the military and officers feel safe enough to expose the games of the generals. The exposure of military corruption is therefore a sign of the health of the system, but also its vulnerabilities. The scandals and the investigations have helped push for reforms, but these are incomplete and fragile. As the book points out, civilian institutions are as much to blame for poor oversight and for politicizing the military.

It didn’t help that presidents handed off the chief-of-staff post to the most loyal generals, not the most qualified. Senators, including those formerly from the military, were motivated more by self-interest, and in the case of Gregorio Honasan and Antonio Trillanes, by ties to their Philippine Military Academy mentors and classmates. The courts trying corrupt generals were compromised, a fact famously dramatized by the Sandiganbayan’s lopsided plea bargain agreement with Garcia, who escaped jail by promising to surrender assets that were already subject to forfeiture in other cases. Garcia finally ended up in prison years after he was tried and found guilty in a court martial, a rare case of the AFP disciplining its own, but only because President Noynoy Aquino pushed them to do so.

The Enemy Within does well in terms of giving us an account of the last decade, when military corruption took on scandalous proportions and was publicly exposed. The authors, all reporters for Newsbreak, should be given credit for pushing the envelop on reporting on military thievery. The book is rich in anecdotes and telling details, such as the bagsful of P20-bills that used to be handed out to commanders during the Marcos era to spend as they pleased. There’s also the story of the four vaults in the office of Lt. Col. George Rabusa when he was the military comptroller. At any one time, the vaults contained P40 million in cash, mostly from conversion, doled out as patronage to officers. It was the AFP equivalent of pork barrel, except that all that money was off the books.

The Enemy Within, however, would have benefited from some aids to help the reader keep track of names and events, such as a chronology, a cast of characters and an organizational chart.  It’s a good read, but a tighter knitting of the chapters and a more cogent narrative arc would have helped those who aren’t steeped in the subject. The book is written for today’s readers, the tone is immediate and reportorial. One hopes that a future edition would provide much more context that would allow future readers to grasp recent events more fully.

The story of military malfeasance in the early part of this century is a gripping one, and Gloria and her team are well qualified to tell it because they have followed this story from the start. But the recitation of facts sometimes overwhelms the drama. There are some great characters in this tale, and some are more sharply drawn than others:  Angelo Reyes, the former military chief who committed suicide on his mother’s grave; the unlikely whistleblower George Rabusa, son of an army sergeant and chess prodigy who became one of the most corrupt army comptrollers; and real heroes in ex-putschists-turned-military reformers like Ricardo Morales and the straight-as-an arrow navy captain, Guillermo Wong.

Then, there’s the unrepentant Carlos Garcia, who wheeled and dealed his way out of jail, but ended up behind bars in the end. Last heard, Garcia was a lay minister at the national penitentiary. If that sounds like the ending of a bad Filipino movie, it’s because the AFP’s rascals remain quintessentially Pinoy, down to potbelly, vintage hair-do and showboat religiosity. Shorn of their military mystique and exposed for what they are, they are no better—or worse—than the rascals we already know.