[ANALYSIS] Don’t mess with the military

Glenda M. Gloria

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[ANALYSIS] Don’t mess with the military
To drag your armed forces into this political game is to spook it. And the consequences of that will come in painful increments.

The trigger-happy civilians in the Duterte administration blinked in their standoff with the Philippines’ most media-savvy mutineer. What happened in the last 5 days illustrates their shallow understanding of military culture and processes, shows their utilitarian mindset toward the armed forces, and unmasks – yet again – a disturbing norm in the bureaucracy: sloppy work.

President Duterte signed Proclamation 572 on August 31, but it was published only last September 4 in the government-friendly Manila Times while Duterte and his security top guns were in Israel. The order voids, ab initio, the amnesty granted in 2011 to Senator Antonio Trillanes IV by the previous Aquino administration.

This might be the first of its kind in recent Philippine history that amnesty has been taken back by a president.

Amnesty is a tool of governments to settle conflicts and rebellions that are caused by legitimate grievances. It erases, obliterates from memory past political offenses. Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada (even in his short-lived presidency), Gloria Arroyo, and Noynoy Aquino had granted amnesties to various shades of rebels – communists, Muslims, soldiers. (LIST: Who’s been granted amnesty?)In the Philippine military, thousands have benefited from it, such as Armed Forces chief of staff General Charlie Galvez and his academy batch mate, Army chief Lieutenant General Rolando Bautista.

Many amnestied soldiers were involved in bloody coup attempts that killed hundreds of troops and civilians. In contrast, the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny and the Manila Peninsula siege in 2007 led by Trillanes have even been derided as merely marathon press conferences, not mutinies – as the young turks did not fire a single shot or attack any camp in these incidents.

Following Duterte’s order, the government sang one tune on Tuesday: because the charges against Trillanes, the soldier, have been resurrected, naturally the institution that he had wronged – the armed forces – now has automatic jurisdiction over him. 

Return to barracks

It is a line propagated not by military lawyers (in which case they probably would have been forgiven) but by those whom our top universities have produced and who are supposed to know by heart not only the Constitution but the essence of civilian supremacy over the military. 

Solicitor Jose Calida, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo, presidential spokesman Harry Roque – all lawyers – said one thing: the military now can try Trillanes in its own court and revert him to his old status as a Navy officer.

Not only that. Since civlian courts are slow to respond, the military can muscle its way through the Senate, where Trillanes is holed up, and arrest him without a warrant. (READ: DOJ to seek warrant vs Trillanes in another court but ‘court martial faster’)

This is an insult to any military officer worth his salt, because he knows how inane it is.

It defies logic, makes a mockery of military rules, and destabilizes long-standing norms and practices in the armed forces. Worse, it unnecessarily creates a battle zone that is not even there in the first place.

Taking the cue from these learned lawyers, however, defense department spokesman Arsenio Andolong (a civilian, incidentally) boasted on Tuesday that Camp Aguinaldo has, in fact, already spruced up the detention cell of Trillanes at the custodial center.

Then Andolong proceeded with his “yessir!” logic: the military has deployed its military police and legal officers to the Senate to “acquire custody [of Trillanes] for the purpose of returning him to military control and for the purpose of him facing a court martial.”

This return-to-barracks scenario for a senator is wrong on 6 counts:

First, the basis of the proclamation makes the military look stupid and inefficient. It may not be winning its intermittent wars with state enemies, but the military wins big in one thing: record-keeping. The meticulous, painstaking, annoying kind of record-keeping. You only have to enter a military camp through a military-police guard house to know what I mean.

Yet, Calida chose to call up just one obscure office in Camp Aguinaldo to get a certification on the non-existence of Trillanes’ amnesty application: the Discipline, Law and Order Division, which is under the Office of the deputy chief of staff for personnel, or J1.

On August 30, division head Lieutenant Colonel Thea Joan Andrade issued a certification that said (as partially quoted in the Duterte proclamation) “there is no available copy of his application for amnesty in the records.” 

There’s no available document to show, either, that it was Calida who sought for that certification. So how did the public know about it? The military spokesman, Colonel Edgard Arevalo, volunteered that information on the day the news broke on Trillanes.

Read between the lines, Mr SolGen: the military is pinning you down for this fiasco.

Without any further legwork, the government then used Andrade’s certification to make Duterte sign the proclamation a day after, that declared Trillianes “did not file” his amnesty application. 

This smacks not only of lack of due diligence but malice. The military keeps a record of everything about a soldier: family, properties, assignments, awards, medals, conferences, schooling, combat hours, punishment, resignation, retirement, amnesty application, amnesty approval, dishonorable discharge, death, heirs.

The Office of the Adjutant General at Camp Aguinaldo, for example, has all this. So of course Camp Aguinaldo has records of Trillanes’ amnesty application. And the military knows that.

Second, Trillanes resigned from the Philippine Navy 4 years before he could even be granted amnesty, the same amnesty that Duterte voided. He did not become a civilian on the basis of that amnesty. He became a civilian because he ran for the Senate in 2007 – and won.

It was even National Security Hermogenes Esperon Jr, as chief of staff at the time, who acknowledged the resignation of Trillanes from the service. Now Esperon clarified with Rappler that despite this, the military still has jurisdiction over Trillanes because what Esperon merely signed was the senator’s resignation from the service, which happened 4 years before his amnesty. 

But that is precisely the point! How can a void amnesty put Trillanes back in the jurisdiction of a military that he left before that voided amnesty was issued? Truth to tell, my brain has fried in trying to find logic in this.

Third, before the military can even convene a general court martial to try Trillanes for violation of Articles of War, it has to first establish that the senator is now in fact a soldier. 

Does the military have existing rules and processes that allow a resigned soldier to return to the service? Yes, but this assumes one thing: that the resigned soldier is volunteering to return. We have no doubt that becoming a Navy officer again is farthest from Trillanes’ mind.

Still, Esperon argues that when Trillanes committed those crimes, he was a soldier. Ergo, if the amnesty that voided these crimes had been likewise voided, then he has to be tried by the military that ought to have punished him in the first place. 

Let’s follow this logic for one second and imagine a court martial proceeding against Trillanes.

After, say, 4 weeks of hearing, the court martial declares Trillanes guilty of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman for plotting against Gloria Arroyo. The court will then cite the punishment for that based on the Articles of War. 

Court martial: Lieutenant Senior Grade Trillanes, you will be removed from the service for being a dishonorable officer and a gentleman!

Trillanes: But, sir, I had long ago left the service. In May 2007, to be exact. And I have records to show for this, signed no less than by the honorable National Security Adviser, General Esperon, sirs.

Court martial: Ah, yes. In any case, we will detain you then!

Trillanes: But, sirs, I have already spent 7 years in jail. And records will bear me out.

Court martial: We can always extend that sentence. 

Trillanes: On what charge this time, sir?

The military judges will be left scratching their crew-cut heads. Or, Trillanes can do them a favor by mounting a mutiny right there and then and botching it – again.

Does the military honestly want to go through that?

Fourth, does the President, as commander-in-chief, have the power to revert a civilian to the status of a soldier? No. Precisely because that’s beneath him, a task that diminishes the office – like crumbs in a huge plate.

Fifth, how can the military try one ex-soldier for a crime committed by hundreds of others, some of whom not only helped Duterte campaign for president in 2016 but continue to prop his regime today? Spinning his wheels, Roque cockily said, yes, the government will review the amnesty given to all Oakwood mutineers. This will be like spitting in the wind.

Sixth, a military court cannot try a sitting senator without risking its reputation before its own troops and the outside world. The last time they tried civilians in their own regimented courts was during Martial Law, which the current military command never served. They joined the service in the dying years of the Marcos dictatorship – and basked in its death.

Yet Duterte’s so-called law experts in his inner circle did not grasp the folly of dragging the military into this political game. They charged on and pandered to his militaristic view that he can do anything to his critics. 

What was this administration thinking? That an institution that benefited the most from amnesty would, eyes closed, take it back from one of its own? That the military would throw away common sense just to let into its jurisdiction an ex-soldier who they consider a recidivist, having mounted a mutiny not once, but twice?

There is no love lost between the armed forces and Trillanes. Why would this administration ask the military to suffer his presence in the cramped walls of a court martial? Let him fry in a civilian court.

Change in tune

On Friday, after what Roque described as a “long discussion” with the Cabinet, President Duterte abandoned his order for the military to jail his critic and will wait for the courts to decide on the warrant against the senator. The defense department and the military followed suit, in statements that said they were deferring to the civilian courts. 

Indeed, to drag your armed forces into a shabby play is to spook it. And the consequences of that will come in painful increments: rumors, speculation, loyalty check, and God knows what.

To drag your armed forces into this is to spook the other sectors long traumatized by a destabilized institution – the courts, the business community, the stock market, to name a few.

This is not about the “arrogant, megalomaniac” Trillanes (Esperon’s adjectives). This is about a government that, cocksure of its power and too lazy to do hard work to jail a critic, thinks the military can be at its beck and call to finish off a sloppy start – despite all the hard, painful lessons it has learned as an institution.

Last time I checked, that’s not the military I know. (READ: Where does the military stand with Duterte?)

Let me humbly eat my words in the coming weeks, if proven wrong. – Rappler.com

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Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria co-founded Rappler in July 2011 and is currently its executive editor.