Discover more from Asia Sentinel
What's Behind the Philippine Army's Musical Chairs?
The sum of all fears
By: Manuel L. Quezon III
A politically intriguing firing and hiring took place in the Philippines last week while President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was in Beijing. It was announced that the incumbent Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro, was stepping down, and that Marcos had appointed Gen. Andres Centino to take his place. a
Two things were surprising about this: the first was that the incumbent chief of staff, Bacarro, had only been appointed last August and that, while he reached retirement age on January 7, had also been the first appointed according to the provisions of a new law signed into law on May 16, 2022, little over a month before former President Rodrigo Duterte’s term ended, a fixed term for the armed forces chief of staff.
A similar measure had been vetoed by President Benigno S. Aquino III back in 2011 on the basis of two objections: first, that the Philippine constitution (responding to Ferdinand Marcos’ repeated deferment of the retirement of favored officers) disallowed the extension of service, and that the position is one that requires the full confidence of the chief executive.
Bacarro had thus been expected to serve a full, three-year term. The second surprising thing was that Centino, who suddenly replaced him, had been the immediate previous chief of staff. Appointed by President Duterte in November 2021, he’d been replaced by President Marcos who, however, nominated him to be ambassador to India. Some military observers noticed, however, that despite relinquishing the position of chief of staff, Centino did not retire from the armed forces, and, as former chief of staff, continued to occupy the sole slot in the military hierarchy for full general.
In turn, this prevented Centino’s successor from being promoted to full general; and then Centino was recalled to active service to re-occupy his previous post. This represented a fundamental break with tradition: since the modern position of chief of staff was created in 1935, not a single officer who’d once held the post, had been reappointed to it.
On January 7, the day the change of command ceremony was to take place in the military’s headquarters, golfers at the military’s Camp Aguinaldo golf course found it closed, the caddies instructed not to report to work: things are tense indeed when not even Covid-19 restrictions could stop generals from playing golf. This was a sign of trouble that went unnoticed by the public at large; but something else played out on social media: a spurious image of a police memorandum declaring a high alert in response to possible military mischief circulated with enough traction that a vigorous official denial had to be made the police.
The curious state of affairs affecting the armed forces took place even as the police themselves were in the midst of a leadership crisis and when senior officials in the civilian leadership had suffered major humiliations at the hands of its own agents. Back in October, the son of the Secretary of Justice was arrested and charged with trying to import marijuana. Three months later he was acquitted. It is fair to say the only thing surprising about the outcome of the case was that it came so swiftly. But then again, what was most surprising about the case was that it was filed to begin with. The position of Secretary of Justice is one of the most powerful in the government; it would require nerves of steel –or pretty serious political backing—to inflict such a potentially career-killing humiliation on an incumbent secretary. A government agency implicating the son of the Secretary of Justice is the kind of action that is more than a surprise, it’s a provocation.
The question, then, of means, motive, and opportunity – all other considerations of the case aside – has been grist for widespread political scuttlebutt. But the context that matters most is suggested by a contemporary analysis of the Marcos administration at that point in time, when it was poised to mark the politically-auspicious hundredth day in office milestone. Veteran journalist Glenda Gloria back in October asserted based on her sources that “It’s in the PNP and the armed forces where the Dutertes are well-entrenched.” She characterized the “persistent and evolving plans to move this general, promote this other one, demote another” as “a low intensity conflict” because “this is an administration that is purging like it won a revolution, not an election.”
This, in turn, points to the nature of the ruling coalition that swept to power with the first majority mandate in close to two generations: while President Marcos and his Vice-President Sara Z. Duterte proved an unbeatable tandem (a deal often attributed to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as powerbroker), former President Rodrigo Duterte hasn’t been shy about his dissatisfaction with the deal and his contempt for the incumbent president. The same October 2022 analysis of the Marcos administration zeroed in on Marcos Jr. wanting to adopt a different tack in the so-called war on drugs, a policy in which the Secretary of Justice would have a role to play (in general he has toed the Duterte-era party line rejecting the authority of the International Criminal Court to investigate former President Duterte and others). Most of all, Marcos has rapidly repaired relations with the United States and other Western countries, which brings up the question of what he might do in terms of Duterte’s defiant dismissal of human rights, one of the foremost irritants with the West.
The public saw the civilian side of post-victory purges during the first hundred days of the Marcos administration, not least with the rebuff to the Vice-President even before they both assumed office, when she demanded, and he rejected giving her, the defense portfolio. Independent power blocs in the administration were eliminated, as shown by the fall from power of the President’s first Executive Secretary; but as Glenda Gloria mentioned, if a purge of the police and military has been afoot, then provocations in the form of allies of former President Duterte expressing alarm over what they say is the return of drug syndicates (implicitly criticizing Marcos’ anti-drug policy) or agents being emboldened to arrest the relatives of members of the cabinet, aren’t surprising.
Nor is the administration raising the ante, in turn. Two days before the Secretary of Justice’s son was acquitted, the Secretary of the Interior made a surprising announcement: he asked the entire senior leadership (colonels and generals) of the Philippine National Police, to submit their courtesy resignations by the end of the month. Two days after that, on the same day the acquittal occurred (and the offending anti-drug authority issued a statement it would take heed of the court’s declaration it had bungled the case) the majority of the police top brass announced they’d comply. The purpose of the demand for resignations? The possibility senior police officials are implicated in the drug trade. The president for his part doubled down on the idea, which after all affects 429 senior officers who, on the whole, owe their current ranks and promotions not to President Marcos, who has only had the opportunity to promote a few, but instead, President Duterte, who’d raised police salaries but also undertaken repeated revamps and promotions during his presidency.
The day after that (last Saturday) President Marcos's wife, Liza Araneta Marcos, recorded a video message vigorously denying that she interfered in the appointment of military intelligence officials. She then threatened anyone engaging in such rumor-mongering with a veto on their appointment by her husband. There has certainly been no shortage of agenda-setting announcements, formal and informal, by the administration.
Meanwhile, by February 6, the recently-returned armed forces chief of staff will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56, and, on his successor-predecessor’s short stint, law or no law providing for a fixed term, Marcos can put him out to pasture and the real test of presidential fortitude concerning the officer corps will take place. Because whoever Marcos appoints to succeed Centino can then enjoy a fixed term, which in turn represents a permanent veto on the ambitions of a whole slew of generals who will be deprived of the closing career prospects that the revolving-door policy used to offer. It kicks the problem of the military leadership to the Marcos mid-term election in 2025, and it takes out of the running, entire PMA classes who’d enjoyed the patronage of Duterte and who might harbor residual loyalty to him. It puts their juniors, in turn, on notice that their prospects depend entirely on the incumbent president and no one else.
If the sum of every president’s fears over close to forty years has been how to tame the military, it may be that the acid test of Marcos’s presidential chops is the systematic dismantling of the networks of loyalty invested in and relied upon by his predecessor’s assiduous cultivation of entire generations of the military and police top brass, who are about to find themselves put out to pasture.