President Ferdinand Marcos has dealt a blow to moderate forces within the military, to religious and political opponents, and possibly to the United States. The Philippine President announced Tuesday that a ``formal agreement'' had been made for his close aide, Gen. Fabian Ver, to resume office as armed forces chief of staff if acquitted of complicity in the August 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.
The announcement undercuts Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, General Ver's temporary replacement and longtime rival, who has been trying to dismantle parts of Ver's military power structure. It also comes as a blow to the Roman Catholic Church and opposition leaders, who had supported General Ramos's efforts. And it will probably cause disquiet in Washington.
Tuesday's announcement was not the first step the President has made recently to reinforce Ver and his supporters.
Earlier this month, a well-informed source says, the President extended indefinitely the tenure of the commanders of the Army, Air Force, and Navy.
This is an abrupt change from normal procedure: Once officers reach retirement point, service is usually only extended for six-month periods. The Army commander, Gen. Josephus Ramas, is thought to be Ver's most intimate associate in the armed forces. The other two commanders are also thought to be Ver loyalists.
The two moves effectively turn Ramos into a lame duck. They also appear to confirm the belief that Ver's influence with the President was not affected when the general temporarily relinquished office pending trial late last year. But, if the public or US backlash against the moves is too strong, the President may yet modify his position.
At least two factors probably influenced the President's actions.
The most obvious is the close and longstanding relationship between Mr. Marcos and Ver. They are relatives -- Marcos is a distant cousin of Ver on his mother's side -- and townmates. And Ver has been Marcos's alter ego for the past 20 years: The general's enemies and supporters agree that he never does anything without the President's knowledge.
The second consideration probably relates to President Marcos's assessment of the threat from communist insurgents, and the best way to handle this.
``Judging from decisions that have come from his office recently, the President seems to be of the opinion that the present military leadership must be retained because of the [security] situation here,'' said a senior member of the Marcos administration, speaking long before Tuesday's announcement.
By the present leadership, the official explained, he meant Ver and his colleagues.
The official expressed his suspicion that this opinion was being put forward to President Marcos by Ver, General Ramas, and their associates -- all of whom are thought to favor a tough approach to insurgency and dissidence.
Since January, the official continued, the President's attitude toward street demonstrations has also hardened.
``Now he says that we have compromised too much in the past,'' said the official. ``I don't know why. His perception of the situation in the country is probably different from most of the rest of us.''
The official, who is also a ranking member of the President's ruling party, the KBL (Kilusang Bagong Lipunan or Movement for a New Society), predicted that Ver's reinstatement would have a serious impact on the government's standing.
``The regime will suffer a further and substantial erosion of political credibility and support,'' said the official. ``Whatever is left will be further eroded.''
One institution that will be alienated by the move is the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic primate of the Philippines, Jaime Cardinal Sin, is on good terms with acting chief of staff Ramos, with whom he meets regularly. (Ver, by contrast, recently paid a rare call on the cardinal to protest coverage of his case in the church-backed weekly, Veritas.)
Ver's resurgence will further dampen the hopes -- shared by both church and moderate opposition -- that a smooth transition to the post-Marcos era can be achieved. It will probably also increase their fears of a military coup.
Ver's supporters have been carefully planning his return. Several weeks ago, for example, one former aide of the general was making the rounds, trying to assess the potential impact of Ver's return. Did most Filipinos feel Ver was guilty, he asked observers. If so, what would be the reaction to Ver's renistatement? Would public protests be bigger and more violent than before? The general's men obviously feel the situation is containable.
They also make little effort to hide their hostility toward Ramos -- and by extension to the US, which in their eyes is Ramos's biggest supporter. One open Ver sympathizer mentioned to this writer a theory for the Aquino killing that he seemed to find plausible: The assassination was a plot by the US Central Intelligence Agency, intended to discredit Ver and allow Ramos, ``the American boy,'' to take over the military. Other Ver supporters have been circulating the same theory.
Anything more than the briefest return to office will probably unnerve the US, which has made clear its belief that anti-insurgency operations in the Philippines can best be carried out by an ``unsullied'' military leadership. A State Department spokesman contacted Tuesday had no comment on the agreement to reinstate Ver.
Recent US official visitors to Manila seem hopeful that Ver will make a brief return to office and then retire. Some of Ver's supporters feel he will do the same. But before he retires, the general will almost certainly want to make sure his successor is amenable to him. At the moment, some military officers speculate, the most satisfactory successor in Ver's eyes would be Ramas.
In another development in the Aquino case, five key witnesses failed to appear Wednesday before the court trying 26 men for the oppostion leader's assassination, the Associated Press reports.
The witnesses include four airport private security guards and a cargo loader who gave testimony before a fact-finding board contradicting the military claim that Aquino was shot by an alleged communist agent, Rolando Galman. Presiding Justice Manuel Pamaran has declared a five-day recess and ordered prosecution lawyers to find the witnesses.