Filipino military rides popularity wave. But key task is to maintain people's support, officers say

Public confidence in the military has risen sharply in the weeks since the armed forces helped topple former President Ferdinand Marcos. One important beneficiary has been the country's preeminent military college, the Philippine Military Academy.

``We have been given, on a silver platter, the gift of credibility,'' said Col. Rodolfo Biazon, the academy's newly appointed superintendent. ``It is up to us to maintain this. . . . If eroded, it will be more difficult, for hatred will be deeper the second time around. . . ..''

Officers as well as academy cadets are careful not to jeopardize what they see as the still-fragile, new civilian-military relationship that has emerged as a result of the rebellion.

By the end of March, close to 200 cadets will leave the academy for insurgency-ridden Mindanao, the Philippines' southernmost island. They will be the first crop of graduates under the administration of President Corazon Aquino to do battle with communist insurgents.

Colonel Biazon, who came to the academy from his last post on Mindanao where he helped lead counterinsurgency operations, will send the cadets off with a message that characterizes the new civilian-military relationship. He tells cadets that they must take seriously their role as protectors of the Filipino people.

``The greatest mistake you can commit is to tag a farmer who gives rice to the communists as a communist,'' Biazon tells them. The farmer, he says, has no choice. ``But if you are there to protect him, if you do not default. . . . He can be won to our side.''

Biazon is confident that the military has already won half the battle for popular support. ``It is now easier to penetrate the masses, the one job we could hardly do before,'' he said.

The task of maintaining Filipinos' renewed confidence in the military will not be easy. To tackle the problem of military abuses against civilians, Chief of Staff Fidel Ramos is expected to implement wide-ranging military reforms, such as promotions based on merit, salary increases, and the streamlining of military operations.

To prepare cadets for mixing with civilians and countering insurgents, Biazon believes the academy curriculum should include training in nonconventional warfare. He also says that political officers should be assigned to the field to help prepare soldiers for counterinsurgency operations. The political officers would help increase political awareness and teach strict discipline in the use of paramilitary forces (which have been blamed for much of the military's alleged abuses).

But cadets and instructors say there is still much to be done in the academy itself. ``We need more ammunition for training,'' said senior cadet Bayani Campos.

``The facilities have not caught up with the increase in cadets. More military officers should be assigned here as instructors. The training of cadets is hampered by lack of funds,'' says Lt. Col. Nelson Eslao, assistant commandant.

But what seems more pressing to some officers is the need for a reorientation in the academy's curriculum away from its generally pro-American character. In its publications, the academy often refers to itself as ``Asia's West Point,'' and American professors teach at the academy.

``We're hooked on the US system,'' lamented Lt. Eduardo Punay, a mathematics instructor. ``I hope we become independent.''

An academy delegation is scheduled to visit various United States service academies within the year to observe organization and curricula for a review of the academy's curriculum.

Air Force Col. Hector Tarrazona, an academy alumnus says: ``The US system has been transplanted to the Philippines. Look at the uniforms alone. We should work back, examine field conditions, and train cadets for the actual conditions. Nationalism should be strengthened, readings [about the Philippine culture and history] should be encouraged.''

But the whole question of pro-US training is tied to the larger issue of the Philippine military's dependence on the US for military aid and weapons. Some officers admit that only when the military becomes self-reliant will the character of the academy's training change.

Right now, instructors find it difficult to conceive of the military going without foreign aid. The government may not have sufficient resources to increase the military budget enough to make the Philippine armed forces self-reliant, a junior officer said.

In the meantime, he said, the realistic expectation is for the military to continue receiving US aid and to operate with ``strings attached.''

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