Philippine soldiers learn new meaning of `retreat'

WHILE fellow soldiers battled communist insurgents in the hills, 54 members of the Philippine Army spent last weekend at a seminary. They were the first military men to begin their year-long religious training under the new government of President Corazon Aquino. Top military commanders expect the training to help the military to deal more effectively with insurgents by healing internal rifts left over from the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

In stressing moral values, the training is also expected to bring the 200,000-plus members of the armed forces closer to the people. Offered to Christian, Muslim, and agnostic alike, this unusual approach to military reform was launched this month by the first general appointed under President Aquino: Brig. Gen. Jose Almonte.

General Almonte, whose official title is assistant chief of staff for civilian-military operations, serves as a link between Mrs. Aquino and the armed forces. By promoting him from the rank of colonel in April, the President acknowledged his key role in the February military revolt that toppled the Marcos regime.

The training, which General Almonte calls ``value formation,'' is being provided by the Word of Joy Foundation Inc., a Filipino Christian evangelical group. The group, composed of largely middle-class Filipinos, was chosen by Almonte for its experience in giving ecumenical seminars called ``Life in the Spirit.'' The seminar is based on the work of the Word of God, an ecumenical religious group in Ann Arbor, Mich. According to the Filipino group's manual, the seminar is ``used primarily for people who already have a clear identification with a particular church to bring those church members to a fuller experience of life in the Spirit.''

In an interview, Almonte explains that the training is just one of several military reforms under way to prevent the kind of abuses and human rights violations allegedly committed under Mr. Marcos. The first reform was replacing many top officers promoted under Marcos. Another step was a new set of rules to prevent corruption in military procurement of equipment. Also, the military's top commanders hope to raise the living standards of soldiers, many of whom live in near-poverty (Army privates earn 1,200 pesos a month -- about $60).

``All the problems that the Philippines is experiencing now -- replacing local officials, ambushes by insurgents, politics between factions -- are just all part of the same problem. The long-term solution lies in this training,'' says the quiet-spoken General Almonte.

The experience of the 20 years under Marcos, including nine years of martial law, ``inflicted so many wounds on the emotions, the thinking, the values of the people -- and the armed forces especially,'' Almonte says.

``Under Marcos,'' he says, ``there was an attempt to impose an ideology on the military from above. Now, we do not talk about ideology. We just talk about values. Value formation is something dynamic. We let the process develop the ideology, whatever that is. All we do is bring them back to their basic heritage.''

The training so far has been tailored for Christians, especially Roman Catholics, who compose about four-fifths of the population. A separate seminar is planned for Muslims. Some soldiers have questioned whether it is too denominational, running counter to their own religious beliefs. But, says Almonte, ``The purpose is to refresh their memories about the values of the gospel. If they are Muslim [about 2 percent of the armed forces], then their values are the holy Koran. ``We promise them that after the training, that if they are Catholic, they will be better Catholics, and if they are Protestant, they will be better Protestants.''

The next group of soldiers and officers will start the training next month. After the initial weekend seminar, soldiers will be given two-hour sessions every week for a year. A typical question at the first pilot session was: ``If we become compassionate, might we not become useless as soldiers?'' General Almonte reply: ``This is not looking at the problem deeply enough. Soliders fight for a cause, especially the meaning of the cause. What we try to provide is a system of values that define that meaning. They come to understand that being good to their people is not only an obligation but also a necessity. The soldier has to learn that he is really nothing unless he follows the values of his faith.

``The seminar is really an exercise in humility. Unless you are humble, you cannot accept mistakes, you cannot accept correction. Otherwise, you think you are No. 1, like our previous President did. He thought he was infallible and the strongest. That was the source of his trouble,'' Almonte says.

The seminars are voluntary, but soldiers have been strongly encouraged to attend.

``We have to make it voluntary because many soldiers have to overcome certain fears and doubts. You see, the trouble is that Christianity -- the Catholic version -- was introduced in the Philippines by the Spaniards. I'm not blaming the Spaniards, but they used it as a strategy for colonial control. The impact was that the Christian development of the Filipino people was not as effective in nationhood as in other countries. Religion here was used to manipulate the minds of the people,'' he said.

What does the Roman Catholic Church think of the program? It is not yet clear. But the Catholic military vicar requested that five Catholic chaplains be allowed to participate in the first retreat, says Larry Gamboa, head of the Word of Joy Foundation, who holds a degree in business from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Even though the seminar leaders are all lay Catholics, Mr. Gamboa expressed concern that the church might exert pressure to have priests run seminars ``in order to prevent Protestant groups from dominating.'' But he hopes such a ``turf battle'' can be avoided.

Many religious Filipinos believe that the events in February were a ``divine plan.'' Aquino, who encouraged ``prayer vigils'' during those days, refers to the unforeseen chain of events as a ``miracle.'' General Almonte explains that Aquino chose him as her first appointed general because she honored the values of the secret military reform group he helped lead during the final years of the Marcos regime. Called the Movement for National Unity, that group of about 50 officers provided the ``revolutionary strategy'' for the much-larger Military Reform Movement in the armed forces.

``Our two principles for action were: (1) In the event that we had to take action, we would apply maximum force -- but no violence; and (2) if we had to intervene in the political life of the nation in order to save it, we would not use the power that fell into our hands but give it to others we perceived as mandated to receive it,'' he said. ``These values are not based on any revolutionary book, but on the gospel -- the value of total selflessness. We were thinking that this is the only way to save the nation from a constitutional crisis. The foundation is the gospel. It might be crazy from the point of view of revolutionaries or politicians. But I am not a practicing revolutionary. I am just a crazy soldier.''

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