Ferdinand knows best

The ceremonial guard at the Rizal Monument goes through its stiff ritual. Across Manila, in airconditioned luxury, a general sorts his papers before chairing a directors' meeting. Hundreds of miles away a young captain tells villagers that his engineers will build them a bridge.

All images of discipline, order and efficiency. But there are others: of teenage soldiers ghoulishly posing with the severed head of a villager; an intelligence man at the back of a lecture hall gathering 'evidence of subversion'; an army sergeant fastening electric wires to a prisoner.

In eight years of martial rule in the Philippines, the military has become crucial to the functioning of the state. It is the institutional base for President Ferdinand Marcos''New Society'.

Regular armed forces have increased from 60,000 in 1972 to 260,000 today; there are plans for a 900,000-strong 'citizens' army'; defence spending has jumped from Pesos 584 million in 1972 to Pesos 5683 million, more than 14 percent of the national budget compared with education spending at 8.6 per cent and public works spending at 2.0 per cent. In 1977 the Defence Ministry announced a 10-year programme of 'revitalisation to meet the menace against national security'. This included the expansion of 'special warfare brigades', elite parachute units, rangers, urban action groups and paramilitary forces.

Senior Filipino generals see 'internal subversion' as the 'major threat' and, today, the Philippine army is essentially directed against its own people.

In 1978 General Romeo C. Espino launched a campaign to tighten discipline through political and ideological reorientation based on the idea of Isang bansa, isang diva (One nation, one spirit) - and visited China to see how it could be done. Times change.

Since 1972 military officers have run large government corporations and organised a network of military courts trying cases of 'subversion' that involve anything from criticising the president to possessing a proscribed book. They keep a tight grip on the media, operate camps for political prisoners and gather intelligence on anyone suspected of opposing Marcos.

To keep this loyalty, Marcos has evolved an elaborate system of rewards and appointments. In rural areas armed forces are omnipresent and in some places actually run provincial governments. Steadily the civilian population is being militarised and para-military groups in villages have been formed to act against 'subversion and terrorism'. An estimated 392,000 youths have been given military training.

Marcos defends martial law as the means to achieve a 'thorough reconstruction of society'. Modernisation and development are only possible, he asserts, with strong political leadership and in the 'transition' period Filipinos must accept 'basic discipline, the kind we have been subjected to as children'.

Less than 10 years ago the Philippines was a volatile democracy - some would say an example of democracy gone mad. Today it is an Asian version of the 'national security' regimes which dominate much of Latin America. And, as in Latin America, development strategy presupposes an elitist, corporate political system where the generals enforce development plans of 'technocrats' and Western-trained specialists. Their policies impose heavy sacrifices on peasants and workers and favour a foreign-dominated export-orientated programme at the expense of local enterprise.

Economic nationalists in business and university have been silenced by the military, trade unionism crushed, wages fixed, strikes banned and avenues of political opposition eliminated. Military officers, asked which should come first, development as a necessary basis for security or the reverse, had no hesitation in asserting that 'peace and order' had to come first. They felt a restoration of representative government was neither desirable nor possible for perhaps 10 or 15 years - and even then it would be dangerous to allow political opposition.

It's not simply anti-communist paranoia; it is a mentality which assumes national problems are best solved by direct action rather than bargaining between interest groups, compromise, indirect solutions and temporising.

Architects of the 'New Society' describe themselves as 'apolitical' - even 'anti-political' - asserting that economic decisions are objective and neutral rather than dictated by considerations of power and wealth. In practice they are highly political, some even being obliged to stand as candidates in the April 1978 'elections'.

The technocrats, like the generals, regard stability as the prerequisite for growth; unlike the generals, they lack the power base of the military and are at the whim of Marcos, his highly visible wife Imelda and those closest to them in palace politics. The demands of the inner circle intrude on economic decisions which might otherwise be determined by rational development economics. Even more pressure comes from international organisations - transnationals, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and the Washington and Tokyo financial centres. A comparison of the record of Philippines and Singaporean development experts is instructive. Though the Singapore model is elitist, it is an elitism founded on merit and economic rewards within a regulated and relatively uncorrupt bureaucratic framework. Philippine leaders have said they would like to emulate it. But the Philippines is largely rural, its society is fragmented and divided between very rich and very poor, between clannish regional and linguistic groups, and between a foreign-dominated modern economic enclave and a provincial subsistence economy. The Singapore 'solution' does not seem applicable to the Philippines.

Paradoxically, authoritarian rule in the Philippines is a symptom of weakness and political decay, rather than strength. Behind the rhetoric of 'nation-building', ,stability' and 'development', the primary function of the military is to compel obedience not to a constitution or generally respected institutions of government but to an individual.

Marcos swept away institutions of the 'Old Society' with a flourish. But replacing them with institutions acceptable to most Filipinos has proved beyond him.

He can keep the loyalty of some, reward others, and punish opponents, but, in the absence of impersonal, representative institutions, his authority, ultimately, is based on coercion. Hence his need to rely on the military. Distrust therefore exists in both directions making the Marcos system vulnerable to instability in the same way as similar Latin American regimes.

Authoritarian rule and militarisation encourage the arbitary and irresponsible use of power. Without effective checks and balances, authority recedes from the centre, leaving the ruler only the appearance of unlimited authority. Whatever the sincerity of Marcos, he cannot control the increasing corruption and abuses which have become apparent in the past four years in the military and civilian bureaucracies. Even Mrs Marcos has been accused of offering a massive bribe to attract Ford Motors into the Bataan Free Trade Zone.

The logic of authoritarian rule in a country which has enormous disparities in wealth and in the face of growing discontent is to intensify repression. This in turn forces more and more Filipinos to consider more radical solutions to their plight. The communist New People's Army, though not yet a real threat, hassteadily broadened its support since 1972 and is now active in 46 of 77 provinces. Other armed radical groups have appeared and elites, ousted in 1972, are now maintaining a nagging challenge to the martial law regime. Philippines society is starkly polarised and prospects for the eighties are direct military rule, violence and a widening revolutionary struggle.

Ultimately, Marcos, the military and technocrats rely on foreign support - a support indifferent to internal problems if they don't threaten the foreigner's own economic and strategic interests. Without United States military and technical aid Marcos could not have imposed martial law. US military advisers in the fifities laid the groundwork for the militarisation of Philippine society after 1972; US know-how and equipment has been provided since 1972; US advisers have helped re­organise the police forces; and US AID'S Office of Public Safety helped refine internal security and intelligence agencies in Marcos' first term as president in the mid-sixties. In 1979, while renegotiating its military bases agreement, the US agreed to provide $500 million in 'security aid' over the next five years. Though there has been some diversification, US support remains crucial to the survival of the martial law system.

Martial law did not create elitism in the Philippines. It has been a fact of life for 400 years. The 'Old Society' was corrupt with national, regional and local elites, using their authority to reward supporters and penalise opponents. But pre-1972 there was at least a regular alternation of office-holders and there was some degree of participation for the voter, particularly in municipal and provincial elections. More importantly there were signs that the Liberal opposition to the Marcos Nacionalista government was at last offering a coherent and reformist alternative.

But, after eight years of Marcos authoritarianism and martial law all hope of moderate, reformist political change has been destroyed. The Philippines is now a more polarised and brutalised society and the 1980s are going to be dangerous years.

Denis Shoesmith of the Asian Bureau, Melhourne,specialises in Filipino social issues.

New Internationalist issue 093 magazine cover This article is from the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop