Philippines: The Magdalo Uprising In Makati And The Breakdown Of The Military Chain-Of-Command


Julius Bautista

President Gloria Macapagal-Aroyo came to power in 2001 amidst a national outcry against corruption at the highest level of government. Her self-professed mandate since then has been founded upon a war against poverty, corruption and moral decadence in government. The armed rebellion of three hundred Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers, who on 27 July 2003 wired explosives to Makati's Oakwood complex, has again brought that mandate into sharp focus. In calling for a hike in basic pay and for the resignations of Arroyo and other top military officials for corruption, the uprising of the Magdalo group demonstrated the extent to which that 'war' under the President's leadership remains distressingly far from won.

In her State of the Nation Address shortly after the uprising, the President announced a plan to increase military wages and to undertake separate investigations into the Magdalo group's grievances. As the trial of the soldiers proceeds in Manila, Congress is faced with the onerous task of identifying the 'real' perpetrators behind the uprising. The mutineers are believed to be loyal to Senator Gregorio 'Gringo' Honasan, himself a pardoned coup plotter and avowed presidential candidate in next year's elections. Though the Magdalo group called for the enactment of Honasan's National Recovery Program, the Senator has denied government accusations that he was personally involved. While constituents close to former President Joseph Estrada have also been linked to the mutiny, Honasan has since made himself 'inaccessible'.

Regardless of what may be uncovered in these investigations, however, the Magdalo rebellion has brought to the fore some severe misalignments in the AFP's chain-of-command. The soldiers' actions demonstate a lack of faith in Arroyo (their comander-in-chief) and in other high-ranking military officials. And while the President has since claimed political kudos for ending the rebellion without bloodshed, policy makers cannot assume that significant long lasting progress can be made while a chasm of bad faith exists between AFP commanders and the front line. This is particularly significant in the ongoing regional war on terror in Southeast Asia where inroads made can be offset by the breakdown of the chain-of-command. The recent capture of Hambali in Ayuthaya, for example, is counterbalanced by the 'escape' of Jemaah Islamiyah operative Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi from Camp Crane earlier in July, the latter being widely attributed to corrupt practices within the AFP.

During a state visit to the US in 2002, Arroyo appealed for support in her crusade against poverty, corruption and terrorism. The US response was the provision of logistics training for the AFP in tackling Islamic insurgency in Mindanao. Yet while Arroyo lent her full support to the ensuing 'Balikatan' exercises, many in the Philippines remained convinced that the solution lay not in enhancing the AFP's combat skills, but in tackling the issues of military collusion with insurgent groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf. In spite of American military involvement in Mindanao, Filipino soldiers on the front line continue to bear the brunt of great physical, institutional and public pressure. Many of these rank-and-file are the same ones who made their grievances felt in the Makati siege, and public opinion is now largely sympathetic to their grievances, in principle if not in method. The Magdalo uprising demonstrates that any progress in fostering a highly skilled armed force is frequently refuted by the reality of poverty, corruption and low morale among its ranks.

The Philippine situation often goes beyond the bi-polar terms of Washington's 'with us or against us' war, one which has come to be solely focused on fighting the evils of terrorism, fundamentalism and radicalism. Indeed, the Magdalo rebellion signifies a need to realign perceptions about the contours of a 'War on Terror' in the Philippines context. Talk of institutional 'links' with militant Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda must not come at the expense of addressing the issues of poverty, corruption, collusion and morale within the military's own ranks, constituting some very real terrors beneath the 'isms'.

WATCHPOINT: As Australia and the US reconsider strengthening their links with the Indonesian military, the Philippine experience might provide some valuable insights.


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