Marcos's top general keeps finger on power

The indictment of Armed Forces chief of staff Fabian Ver has thrown the Philippine military into turmoil and has brought to the surface the bitter rivalry between General Ver and his vice-chief of staff, Gen. Fidel Ramos.

At the moment the contest between the two men is unevenly matched.

Ver has officially taken a leave of absence pending the outcome of his trial for his alleged role in the murder of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., but he remains firmly in control of the upper echelons of the military.

General Ramos, like Ver a distant relative of President Ferdinand Marcos, has taken over as acting chief of staff. But he and his main political ally, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, are almost totally isolated at the top of the military hierarchy.

One indication of the gravity of the rift is the report, from a hitherto very reliable source close to the communist underground, that some officers thought to be opposed to Ver have sent out feelers to the Communist Party.

The source says that overtures were made on more than one occasion and in more than one part of the country over the past year. The source adds, however, that the communists, suspicious of the military men, did not respond.

The isolation of Ramos and Mr. Enrile was highlighted by a manifesto published in a Manila newspaper last month. The manifesto expressed support for Ver and belief in his eventual vindication. It was signed by 68 of the 83 active-duty generals. The few significant omissions included two aides to Enrile - and General Ramos himself.

The manifesto may not have been a totally spontaneous gesture: One signatory claimed that his name had been forged. And more junior officers may not have appreciated the manifesto: ''Very silly,'' one colonel remarked.

The manifesto is, however, only a partial indication of the extent of Ver's military power base.

The network of senior officers loyal or beholden to him is complex and well-organized. Its core is based on two organizations: the National Intelligence and Security Authority (NISA) and the Presidential Security Command (PSC). Ver is director general of NISA and his son, Col. Irwin Ver, controls PSC. In the years following the imposition of martial law in 1972, Ver built up an extensive national-security structure for President Ferdinand Marcos.

Officers considered particularly reliable - often from Ilocos Norte, the home province of Ver and Marcos - were drawn into PSC. Some were later transferred to NISA, and then on to key positions elsewhere in the Armed Forces.

But when they moved away, they kept in close touch. ''In some ways,'' a Western observer remarked, ''they don't seem to be deactivated from PSC - they're more like PSC moles in other units.''

One way PSC alumni keep in touch is at a select PSC ''happy hour'' every Friday afternoon on the grounds of the presidential palace, Malacanang.

The power of the PSC-NISA network is best illustrated by the forces responsible for Manila security in the event of civil unrest. The two key units in the capital itself are Metrocom, which is part of the Philippine Constabulary , and the PSC.

The first line of reserves is the Army's second division, stationed just south of the city. PSC is controlled by Ver, and the second division is commanded by Gen. Roland Pattugalan, who has spent most of his career with the presidential security forces or NISA. ''A complete Ver creation,'' one retired general says of him.

Metrocom was until last month commanded by Gen. Prospero Olivas, who was never associated with PSC or NISA. He was indicted along with Ver for his part in the Aquino murder and has taken temporary leave.

His replacement is Gen. Victor Natividad - former PSC chief of staff. Thus, in one way Ver has increased his control over the capital's security forces since taking leave. Other prominent PSC-NISA alumni include Gen. Luther Custo-dio, also under indictment for the Aquino slaying, and Gen. Jose Zumel, head of the Philippines Military Academy.

As intelligence organizations go, NISA is fairly well known. Its budget is one of its lesser-known features, but it is thought to be substantial.

Luis Villafuerte, a former Cabinet minister who has now joined the opposition , recalls that when he was minister of trade and industry at the start of the decade, ''General Ver came to see me to point out what items of my budget were really his.''

Government ministers have been known to feel NISA was bugging their offices. A counsel for the Fact-Finding Board investigating the Aquino murder said the panel ''worked on the assumption'' that NISA was listening in.

But Western and Filipino observers say NISA is not quite as influential as it seems. Much of its time is taken up with classic intelligence and counterintelligence work - as one retired general puts it, ''less important stuff like Russians, Chinese, and journalists.''

PSC intelligence, headed by Col. Irwin Ver, is the most important intelligence organization in the country, these observers agree. PSC is pure national security. A number of commanders of the elite Military Intelligence Groups are PSC men, one Western observer says.

And directly under the PSC intelligence office, the observer continues, is the Presidential Security Unit. This unit has two functions, the observer says: close security for the President and his family; and ''heavy stuff'' - strong-arm tactics.

Ramos's temporary assumption of power has been greeted with pleasure in some quarters. These probably include Washington - Ramos is a West Point graduate - and the moderate opposition.

But Ramos's support in the top echelons has been dwindling fast. The creation last year of regional unified commands - a system whereby military forces in each of the Philippines' 12 regions report directly to Ver - seriously reduced Ramos's authority.

All regional unified commanders signed last month's manifesto. Several of them are former PSC men. And even in the week before he went on leave, Ver was still cutting down the number of Ramos's generals. In mid-October, 17 generals were retired: Most, according to one military analysis, were close to Ramos.

Supporters of Ramos and Enrile hope that they will be able to dismantle Ver's power structure. Many, however, doubt that Ramos has the will, and Enrile the power, to do so. Ramos's reputation for probity is much higher than Ver's. But it has been tarnished - in the eyes of both civilians and military men - by his long affiliation with the government. Western and Filipino observers alike note that Ramos has for years commanded the Philippine Constabulary, which has perhaps the worst reputation for indiscipline and corruption of any Armed Forces unit.

''Why do people say Ramos is so clean?'' Ver reportedly grumbled to an associate recently. ''Look at the unit he heads.'' For once, many of Ver's detractors agree with him.

The first test of Ramos's authority will come later this month. Several senior generals, including Ramas Olivas and PSC Commander Santiago Barangan, are due for retirement. Most are thought to be close to Ver, and have in the past routinely received extensions of service. If Ramos does not recommend their extension, and if the President accepts Ramos's recommendation, this will probably be a sign that Ver's power is on the wane.

But most observers feel Ramos's chances of shaking up the command structure are slim. ''Marcos just doesn't trust Ramos enough to allow him to change too much,'' said the retired general. ''If he can get Ver back in charge after the trial without creating too many ripples, he'll do so.''

If he cannot do this, the President may look to a ''Ver II.'' This officer would have to have the implicit trust of the President and - if Ver is to go quietly - of the general as well. At the moment the most likely candidate, in the view of some foreign and Filipino observers, is Gen. Josephus Ramas, the current Army commander. General Ramas is thought to be closer to Ver than all the other generals.

Another possibility is that the President will announce the need for new blood at the top of the military, and appoint someone like General Pattugalan or Gen. Edon Yap, First Lady Imelda Marcos's brother-in-law, to the senior position.

The major question mark about Ver's power base is his support among junior officers, many of whom have suffered by his constant extension of generals who have reached retirement age. At the moment, however, most observers feel any resentment toward Ver is passive rather than active. Until his power begins to crumble, gratitude at the top and fear mixed with fatalism lower down will probably keep the Armed Forces behind Ver.

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