Manila — During his 20 years in power, President Ferdinand Marcos has transformed the military into a major force in Philippine politics. Formerly modest both in numbers and in influence, the Armed Forces of the Philippines has tripled in size under Mr. Marcos, and its commanders have acquired unprecedented political power. But political power has not translated into military force: The armed forces have failed to check the growth of the communist insurgency.
The Philippine military's main spurt of growth came with the declaration of martial law in September 1972, when it emerged as one of the pillars of Marcos's ``New Society.'' Senior officers became mayors, governors, and heads of government corporations. They also amassed considerable wealth.
Marcos critics inside and outside the armed forces say that military commanders were chosen on the basis of their personal allegiance to the President rather than to the Constitution. And, officers themselves now say, the military played a large part in fixing post-martial-law elections. Marcos's new military structure was created by Gen. Fabian Ver, armed forces chief of staff and Marcos's relative and principal bodyguard.
One of the reasons Marcos cited to justify martial law was the communist threat. But in 1972, the communists were politically active but militarily weak. Founded less than four years earlier, the Communist Party's armed wing, the New People's Army, had about 1,000 fighters and 600 guns.
Today, the NPA claims 12,500 regular and a further 20,000 local guerrillas. They are active over much of the country, including the third-largest city of Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao. Filipino and foreign observers estimate that within the next three years the NPA will be strong enough to confront the armed forces head on.
A major factor in the NPA's growth, many observers feel, is human rights abuses by the armed forces. There are widespread, regular reports of arbitrary killings, arrests, torture, and theft by the military.
The armed forces are viewed by most observers as being at an all-time low -- demoralized, factionalized, and seriously underequipped. A large part of the enormous sums destined for the military are alleged to have been lost to corruption. One Western military attach'e describes the situation of the ordinary soldiers as ``wretched: I'm surprised that they haven't mutinied.''
These problems first came into the open in August 1983, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. was shot dead on arrival at Manila Airport. The government claims the killer was hired by communists. But an independent fact-finding board accused General Ver and 25 others -- all but one of them soldiers -- of the assassination. Ver and the others were acquitted last December after a trial considered by many to have been a travesty.
The murder triggered a political and economic crisis from which the Marcos regime has not yet recovered. For the first time, the divisions inside the military became visible. Proponents of reform looked to Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, another Marcos relative and a West Point graduate.
Despite the fact that he commands the paramilitary Philippines Constabulary (considered one of the more corrupt military outfits), General Ramos became the symbol of the clean, professional officer. His allies viewed Ramos as the antithesis of Ver and his allies -- ``the mafioso types,'' a senior Western diplomat said.
Reform-minded officers and civilians wanted Ver out. They wanted the replacement of overstaying generals -- commanders who were well past retirement age but who were being retained because of their political loyalty. And they wanted the armed forces to withdraw from politics and concentrate on counterin-surgency. Washington has quietly backed the reformers' demands, none of which have so far been implemented.
Most reform-minded officers are younger graduates of the Philippines Military Academy, and many are intelligence or counterinsurgency specialists. Many also are attached to the staff of Ramos or serve as aides to his ally, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.
In recent months, the reformers have become more organized, vocal, and less patient with the cautious Ramos. They have organized the Reform the Armed Forces Movement and have irritated Ver loyalists by announcing plans for an election education program during the present campaign. The movement plans seminars throughout the country to explain to the armed forces the need for ``clean, fair, and honest elections.''
``Basically, we'll be teaching the forces about the Constitution,'' said a movement member. ``And that's going to be a big job.''