The Philippines: tribal politics and General Ver

IN Manila, the trial of those implicated in the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino is drawing to a close, and the speculation is that Gen. Fabian Ver will be acquitted of charges stemming from the murder. At present, he is on leave from his post as chief of the armed forces, and President Ferdinand Marcos has consistently held that General Ver, should he be cleared, would be returned to power. The proposed return of Fabian Ver places United States policy in an extremely difficult position. Persistent American intelligence reports indicate that the Marxist insurgency continues to expand.

Many US observers believe that Ver's reinstatement would obstruct any serious effort to improve the military's performance. In contrast, Gen. Fidel Ramos, a West Point graduate and acting armed forces chief, is viewed favorably by American officials.

As Mr. Marcos consolidated power, he increasingly relied upon the armed forces for support. In exchange, the military was built up and senior officers were rewarded more for loyalty to the administration than for competence. In short, what developed after the declaration of martial law was a bloated military machine with a vastly expanded role in Filipino life. In addition, there was also an officer corps which some suspected had developed a desire to rule as well as command. This fundamental change in the military's nature was overseen by Fabian Ver, who is reportedly a relative of the President and his closest confidant.

His restoration to power would be a step away from the military reform that Washington is hoping so fervently for.

To be sure, the general retains powerful support in the military establishment, and President Marcos must deal carefully with one of that institution's favorites.

Yet, that alone does not explain the Marcos rigidity on the Ver question. A more complete answer can be found in Filipino culture, where the orientation in this archipelago of stunning diversity is toward family and friends. For Mr. Marcos, Ver is possibly the former and is most certainly the latter. Within the cultural mores, it is paramount that such a person not be abandoned, and indeed, Marcos, during the general's time of hardship, has been steadfast.

It might also be noted that General Ver remains a mystery man in terms of his background within the context of a Philippine society in which there are few secrets about leading political figures.

Beyond the issue of Fabian Ver, it must also be understood that Mr. Marcos's attitude is typical of his entire style of governance. From the infamous ``crony capitalists'' who have destroyed the economy to the habitu'es of the inner circle who help steer the sinking ship of state, Marcos has been consistent in at least one regard: his tendency to reward those close to him and punish or ignore everyone else.

In that sense, he resembles more a traditional village chieftain in Ilocos Norte, his home province, than a leader of a modern state. His instincts are toward the local, the known, and the trusted. The problem, however, is that the nation he leads is not so compact. The Philippines is an archipelago with over 7,000 islands, and its inhabitants speak more than 100 dialects, eight of which are considered major languages.

In the past, the Philippine congress would have checked Mr. Marcos's parochialism as representatives zealously guarded the interests of constituent groups. That function disappeared with the declaration of martial law and the centralization of power, and only full democracy can restore the healthy balance.

Despite his mismanagement of Philippine affairs, Ferdinand Marcos is not a fool. He feels the pressure and understands that hostility to his rule is growing, even among his benefactors in the White House. He also knows that his main value to the Reagan administration is his ability to protect American interests in the Philippines, primarily the US naval and air bases. That ability is now in doubt.

President Marcos's rejection of reformist pressure from the US indicates that he will not step quietly aside. For Marcos, serious reform means inevitably the surrender of power, a consequence he will not accept.

Marcos finds himself beleaguered, and his tribal instincts will become even more pronounced in the weeks ahead. His intransigence indicates he is drawing the wagons in closer. He will be strengthened and supported by traditional sources -- those who are closest -- and of these, none is more so than Fabian Ver.

Peter Bacho is a lawyer and teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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