These times, one may think that the idea that “civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the the military” is no longer relevant or fashionable, considering the growing role of retired and active generals in our national life.
In this time of rampant red-tagging, some might even go as far as claiming that that idea of civilian supremacy over the military is an activist, radical, socialist, or communist belief. But the thing is, it is a principle contained in the Constitution, the same Constitution that the military and civilian officials swear to obey, defend, and uphold.
In most democracies, military officials refuse to be dragged into overt political issues, especially partisan ones. In fact, in most jurisdictions, they are prohibited by law and by tradition from engaging in politics, because they are the armed forces of the republic or commonwealth that established it — not of any party, prime minister, or president. Their loyalty is to the constitution, not to any person.
True, individual soldiers are citizens too and rightfully possess the same rights as everyone else. But soldiers, generals, and the military establishment they belong to bear and wield arms, making them different from any other citizen. Any hint of partisan or political loyalty would lead to abuse by them or their perceived political principal, and thereby damage the people’s trust in them. We’ve seen such happen on a grand scale under a fascist dictatorship in 1972. Thus in 1986, the framers of the new Constitution explicitly declared military supremacy over civilian authority anathema to democracy.
Now, what’s supposedly anathema is fast becoming the rule.
This constitutional precept comes to mind as we face a challenge to the UP-DND Accord and the PUP-DND Accord, as the Supreme Court tackles the Anti-Terrorism Act, and as the nation continues to face an apparently worsening pandemic. In all these issues, the military appear to trump civilian authority, sometimes mendaciously, and at other times facetiously.
The questionable unilateral termination of the UP-DND Accord has quickly escalated into an attempt by the military and pro-military elements to mutilate academic freedom. Now, the military wants a leading role on how the University of the Philippines and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines are being run: who is allowed entry, what is taught, what activities are allowed to be conducted.
More and more people are seeing the UP-DND Accord’s abrogation as an attempt to divide and conquer the broad opposition to the administration, given that many UP students, faculty, administrators, and alumni have been critical and vocal, and play key roles in mass demonstrations, alliances, relief operations, and in providing sanctuary to survivors of military operations, like the displaced Lumad schoolchildren.
The military and police could have gone to UP authorities and to leaders of Congress to articulate their concerns and seek remedies. They could’ve gone to prosecutors and the courts as well to sue and prove their claims against persons and parties they allege to be committing crimes. The generals themselves had to do it, in bold steps and dangerous words.
The Anti-Terrorism Act’s Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), which is dominated by active and retired generals, now holds powers that appear to have been taken away from the courts and the judiciary: make possible the arrest, seizure, surveillance, and designation of persons and organizations as terrorist.
In real life, the ATC may not want or need to bring matters to any court; the ATA questionably gives the ATC the widest possible latitude to do whatever they please.
The military’s avowed targets nowadays are quite clear. The generals themselves have named their targets: activists and former justices, dissenters and lawyers, teachers and journalists. One general may have been fired for mistakenly branding former government officials and a former Integrated Bar of the Philippines as captured or slain rebels, but another general has declared that a journalist may face terrorism charges simply for doing her job of reporting about Aetas charged by the military with terrorism. The civilian prosecutor in the case is silent, the general is most definitely not.
Then, there’s the pandemic. The official response to it is by no means dominated by the nation’s best minds and practitioners in public health, medicine, and science known for credibility, excellence, probity, and non-partisanship. Retired and active generals hold sway whether in mass vaccination that has not started, or in mass testing which the government refuses to implement in a free, massive, and effective manner. With the public health emergency being turned into a peace and order problem, no wonder the pandemic has not been controlled.
The military should let the the university authorities manage the universities, let civilian courts determine the guilt of the alleged terrorists and alleged terrorist organizations, and let the civilian public health and scientific experts lead the efforts to contain the pandemic.
The Constitution sets the goal of the military and is quite clear about it: “Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”
Thus, we hope the generals would recalibrate, and ask civilian authorities for the military to be assigned the task of securing Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, Benham Rise, and the military camps where a combination of Chinese telecommunications infrastructure and American military bases have been strategically placed. We want to see the generals direct the Marines and the Navy to make sure Filipino fishermen and Philippine fishing vessels could go out freely in our own Philippine waters without being harassed and turned away by foreign military forces.
Securing sovereignty and territory is a tough, life-and-death mission that most, if not all, Filipinos gladly support. It is why we as a country built a military in the first place, and what we expect civilian authorities to be on top of as a true national priority, worthy of the bravery of soldiers most of whom hail from poor families eager to build free country and with a history of revolutionary courage to look back to.