End of a Philippine General's Ugly Career

Retired Philippine Armed Forces General Angelo Reyes committed suicide in front of his mother's grave Tuesday as he faced a bitter Senate investigation into allegations that he obtained P50 million (US$1.15 million) as pabaon, or a "parting gift" when he left the post of chief of staff of the armed forces.

Reyes, who somewhat ingenuously said he didn't remember receiving the money, is just one of a flock of high-ranking military officials at the center of the widespread investigation, which alleges the mishandling and diversion of funds, a huge portion of which went to the pockets of senior officers. Former budget officer Colonel George Rabusa testified that Reyes was receiving a monthly take of P5 million, plus the P50 million‘send-off money. The House Of Representatives has begun its own probe into the mess.

Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago has stated that the 65-year-old Reyes' death has extinguished his legal and political accountability, but the fight to define his record as a general and political leader has just started. The worst traditional politicians and their corrupt partners in the military should not benefit from Reyes' death. They would likewise be able to flee their accountabilities only if we Filipinos forget. And what is there to remember? Plenty, including a long list of names of Filipinos who perished in extrajudicial executions and abduction from 2001-2006. During that period, Reyes was consecutively AFP chief of staff, secretary of national defense and secretary of the interior and local government.

No appraisal of Reyes' political record would be complete without mentioning the brutality that in 2006 attracted national and international outrage not so much because President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Reyes failed to stop the killings, but that they were authorizing and masterminding them as part of a policy of annihilating government critics and so-called subversives. Throughout the de facto presidency of Arroyo, Reyes was there as her most favored and most loyal general who started Operation Plan Bantay Laya, the internal security program that mistakenly included unarmed, civilian activists in the order of battle by tagging them as "enemies of the state."

I am speaking here about murders and too many of them. I know some of them. Most, if not all, were denied their day in court and were instead summarily executed by death squads who roamed both cities and towns on board motorcycles, with the killers donning ski masks so they wouldn't be identified. Reyes was unapologetic about these killings, as defensive as the Melo Commission who investigated the incidents who could only trace accountability up to the level of a certain Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan, nicknamed the Butcher of Bantay for his bloody campaign against rebels on Mindanao, and some low-level officers and some more foot soldiers.

Come to think of it, Reyes was a champion of human rights, but only of Arroyo's. For the rest, especially those who thought they could freely express themselves about and against government, they had to hide to escape from the fury of the death squads. It is thus no coincidence that many journalists also died while performing their professional and democratic duties in the same period of 2001-2006.

If you were among those who marched in the streets to protest the famed "Hello Garci" recording, in which Arroyo was heard on tape discussing rigging the 2004 election with Election Commissioner Virgilio Garcilano, and her other crimes, you would remember the "calibrated preemptive response." That was a policy aimed at preventing opposition rallies and politics, one of Reyes' contributions to Arroyo's near-tyrannical rule. The Supreme Court would later find the policy unconstitutional for violating citizens' civil and political rights.

Apart from Alberto Romulo, Reyes served Arroyo in her entire stay in the Malacañang Palace in Manila. The politically-isolated Arroyo, who was the biggest beneficiary of the People Power uprising, depended on the likes of Reyes as her last line of defense in the many upheavals that marked her presidency. Other generals got promoted despite or because of their roles in Hello Garci. Others were given ambassadorial post. For Reyes, he got a long string of cabinet portfolios – defense, interior and local government, national anti-kidnapping task force, environment and natural resources and, finally, energy. He dug his own political graveyard for nine long years under Arroyo.

It is in this context that the activist group Bayan, whose members and affiliates endured the brutality of Oplan Bantay Laya, reminds us that the alleged corruption of and by Reyes and other military officials implicated in the in the "pabaon" incident.

"The pay-offs were likely done to buy the loyalty of the generals and ensure their cooperation even after retirement," Bayan said "Considering that the Arroyo regime had many crimes to cover up, the loyalty of the generals was important. Arroyo needed the support of her generals to undertake the rigging of the 2004 elections, the cover-up of the Hello Garci scandal, the cover-up of the widespread extrajudicial killings, and the suppression of the movement seeking Arroyo's ouster," the group said.

Yes, today, most pay tribute to Reyes' service as a soldier and as a general. But to help us render a complete picture, we have to ask: Who did he serve?

Tonyo Cruz blogs for www.asiancorrespondent.com, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement