Young Philippine officers press for reform in the military

The Philippine military is facing a strong demand for change from its young officers. The armed forces have become unsettled by the erosion of the military's credibility, alleged internal corruption, charges of mismanagement of resources, and a system of promotion the officers call ``unfair.''

Col. Hernani Figueroa, the leader of the reform group, said Tuesday that the movement had no intention of undermining the government, committing unlawful acts, or doing anything to subvert the military's chain of command.

The reform movement was designed by several colonels in February to work peacefully and legally for change. They say they want the armed forces cleansed of ``undesirables,'' enforcement of a merit system of promotion, imposition of a ``high standard of discipline,'' and restoration of camaraderie.

Leaders of the movement say it was started by a group of graduates from the Philippine Military Academy, the premier military institution in the country. They claim that they have already reached reservists and enlisted men not only in metropolitan Manila but also in other provinces.

Esteem for the Philippine military sank low after October 1984, when a Fact-Finding Board accused the chief of staff, Gen. Fabian Ver, and other officers and men of participating in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. Morale among the Army officers also suffered.

Leaders of the movement who met with acting chief of staff Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos on April 20 say they were promised action. In return, they assured General Ramos they would not sanction a coup d''etat and would abide by the military chain of command. Ramos has temporarily taken over from General Ver, who is accused as an accessory in the Aquino murder and is currently on leave while on trial.

Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile told reporters Monday that the movement ``does not intend to undermine society, government, or [the] presidency.'' Mr. Enrile said he and Ramos have discussed the activities of the group with President Ferdinand Marcos. So far, however, there has been no response from the President.

``We are not politically motivated,'' one Navy officer says. ``We do not want to be involved in a power struggle. All we seek are reforms in the military.''

Some civilians welcome the concept of the reform movement. ``It's good that men in the military are concerned about welfare of the country,'' says businessman Jose Concepcion. ``We need professional soldiers.''

Other civilians, however, fear the movement could be used as a vehicle to seize government power.

Some high-ranking military officers also fear the movement will stage a coup within the military if an unpopular chief of staff is installed, one military officer says.

But members of the movement deny the possibility of a coup within the military.

``We merely want to return the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] to the center. It has been pushed to the right. . . . And it is very repressive,'' one Air Force intelligence officer says.

It is difficult to assess the strength of the reform movement. Its leaders want to keep the membership ``loose'' and the organization ``unstructured,'' and plan to remain unidentified. Their reason: They don't want to be squashed by those affected by the movement -- namely high-ranking officers who have benefited from the way the AFP has been run in terms of wealth and promotion.

The leaders of the movement say they do not gauge their success in terms of numbers.

``We'd rather have 50 committed men than a thousand who are not,'' a colonel says.

For them, an indicator of effectiveness would be an improvement in morale -- which could then be translated into combat effectiveness.

At present, the military is perceived to be losing ground in both combat effectiveness and the propaganda battle.

Recently, the underground National Democratic Front -- an umbrella organization composed of communists and other left-wing groups -- held its first press conference. A week later, rebel priest Conrado Balweg, who is sought by the military, was interviewed by journalists in the mountains of Luzon Island, northern Philippines.

Official statistics also show that the majority of the combat initiatives come from the guerrillas.

The movement's main activities are meetings and ``education sessions.''

Usually, the members discuss current issues and the role of the AFP, and reassess the response of the entire military organization to present national problems, as well as their individual responses.

``We look inward. It is self-criticism, in a way,'' one officer says.

Supporters say the movement is in the ``awareness stage,'' where officers and men discuss the ``unhealthy'' state of affairs of the armed forces. Men are encouraged to question not only what they perceive to be irregularities but also orders which traditionally are always obeyed.

``An order is no longer an order. We want it explained,'' says an army officer.

So far, they say, two generals have attended their meetings ``to listen.''

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