Cosmetic changes in Philippine military
Bangkok, Thailand — Despite the drama and confusion in Philippine politics over the last few months, little has actually changed. Gen. Fabian Ver has temporarily left his post as armed forces chief of staff and is awaiting trial on the charge of conspiracy to kill opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. But he retains his access to President Ferdinand Marcos and his influence over the military.
The President has been reported ill, even dying. But he seems to have rallied , and shows no sign of willingness to relinquish his office. And First Lady Imelda Marcos, who in recent months has kept discreetly out of the limelight, has begun to project herself into the public eye again. Her supporters are still pushing her as the logical successor to her husband.
Intimates of General Ver say that he ''wants back'' to his position as chief of staff. He is reportedly still to be found in the presidential palace - his own residence is in the palace grounds. And though his rivals, acting chief of staff Gen. Fidel Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, are in nominal charge of the armed forces, Ver still seems to be calling the shots. General Ramos and Mr. Enrile are apparently fighting back.
The recent dramatic decline of President Marcos's health, coupled with reports of tank movements around Manila in late November, increased fears of a military takeover. Enrile has, however, hinted that he and Ramos would resist any military takeover.
The fear of many Filipinos is that Marcos's death or permanent incapacitation would let intimates arrange a succession. A close confidant of Mrs. Marcos's reportedly boasted recently that news of Marcos's demise would not be made pubic for ''150 hours.''
But sources close to Enrile claim that he has taken steps to keep abreast of the President's health in the event of another medical crisis.
There are plenty of signs, however, that Ver's influence is still great. The recent tank movement around Manila was later dismissed by the military as ''routine.'' It had, however, taken place without the knowledge of either Enrile or Ramos. The operation was apparently the work of Gen. Josephus Ramas, commander of the Philippine Army and Ver's closest associate in the military.
Around the same time as this, a number of generals received six-month extensions of military service. All were long past retirement age. Most if not all are known to be close to Ver. They included General Ramas himself and Gen. Santiago Barangan, titular commander of the Presidential Security Command. (Most observers feel that real control of Presidential Security Command lies in the hands of Ver's son, Col. Irwin Ver.)
The list also included Gen. Prospero Olivas, who like Ver is on leave from his post pending trial on charges of conspiracy to murder Senator Aquino. General Olivas was head of Manila Metropolitan Command (Metrocom), one of the forces in charge of security in Manila.
Ramos has said that he will not recommend another group of officers for extension when their present terms expire in coming weeks. If he sticks to his word, he may find himself in direct confrontation with both Army commander Ramas and Ver in six months, when Ramas once again comes up for extension.
Since taking over as acting chief of staff, Ramos has placed considerable emphasis on cleaning up the military's image. He has traveled extensively, investigating allegations of abuse himself. This has probably improved his own image in the eyes of civilian Filipinos. It may also have allowed him to reestablish contact with military commanders in the field, who until October reported mostly to Ver.
Ramos's most dramatic move in his public-relations campaign was to announce that the intelligence arm of Metrocom was being ''put on ice'' pending investigation of alleged abuses. The Military Intelligence and Security Group (MISG) is feared even by other members of the military.
On Dec. 2, MISG operatives, assisted by members of the Presidential Security Command, were involved in a near-shootout with an antismuggling investigation team of the Ministry of Finance. Armed MISG and Presidential Security Command guards reportedly stopped the Finance team from searching the houses of two businessmen suspected of hording smuggled items.
Such moves have reinforced Ramos's excellent relations with the Roman Catholic Church and Jaime Cardinal Sin. Ramos has also established good contacts with members of the moderate and conservative opposition.
The opposition itself, however, is still struggling to achieve internal unity. Three of the most respected leaders - Corazon Aquino, the wife of the assassinated senator, Lorenzo Tanada, and businessman Jaime Ongpin, have formed what is known as the ''convenors' group'' in an effort to avoid some of the rivalry that would follow Marcos's death or permanent incapacitation.
The group has made a list of possible opposition presidential candidates. The list includes: National Assemblymen Aquilino Pimentel and Ramon Mitra of the Pilipino Democratic Party; Assemblywoman Eva Kalaw; Salvador Laurel of the United Nationalist Opposition; Agapito (''Butz'') Aquino, the late senator's brother; and Rafael Salas, a former executive assistant to Marcos and now head of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities.