POSTSCRIPT / April 4, 2019 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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AFP must protect Pinoy fishers, but…

OUR “what if” experts are busy speculating, roused by the pro-China stance taken by President Duterte and the defense department’s signal to Filipinos not to be afraid to fish in Philippine waters infested with foreign interlopers.

We gathered meanwhile the considered opinion of colleagues who had covered the defense beat so long that some star officers, by force of habit, still call them “sir.” We share in the lower half of this column their thoughts on the armed forces’ duty as “protector of the people and the state.”

The discussion rages even as some points stand out for being missing: NO firm assurance that the military will accompany fishermen, NO indication if statements made have prior clearance from the President, and NO authority for the presidential spokesman to also speak for China.

Firing a statement Tuesday unmistakably referring to the hundreds of Chinese boats harassing Filipino fishermen of Pagasa (the largest in the cluster of islands composing the Kalayaan town of Palawan), the defense department said:

“Just as the Philippines honors our international obligations and protocols, we also expect other countries and their vessels to do the same especially when sailing and fishing in international waters. Having said that, we encourage our fishermen to continue their fishing activities in our waters and Exclusive Economic Zone.”

For a while there we thought that the Armed Forces of the Philippines has finally waken up to its constitutional mandate to protect the people. Then we noted that the statement was without attribution to any defense official and no link to Malacañang.

We dread to see again a situation similar to President Duterte’s recently disowning to Chinese officials the communication (complaint) filed against President Xi Jinping with the International Criminal Court by Filipino fishermen and two respected former Philippine officials.

Duterte did not have to explain to them, yet he did. He has been overly careful not to give Beijing, a big creditor, any reason to take offense. China’s ambassador has been allowed direct access to Malacañang instead of threshing out questions with the foreign office.

It has been noticed also that presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo always tiptoes around China issues or defends his boss’ friends to the extent of sounding like an apologist of China instead of the Philippines.

 Top brass unlikely to break AFP chain

WE DIDN’T have the kind of spy camera used on Jim Paredes doing some private exercise, so we can share only tangled notes on the exchange of old geezers on the defense beat. We leave it to the reader to figure out where one leaves and another butts in, sometimes with conflicting opinion:

Article II of the Constitution says: “Section 3. Civilian authority is, at all times, supreme over the military. The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State. Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”

The AFP is bound by a chain of command, with the President as Commander-in-Chief at the top. When the President orders the AFP through the chain, the armed forces moves as ordered.

This presupposes that the orders flowing through the chain are legal and validly issued. If I understand it right, a soldier is not supposed to follow an illegal order.

Can a situation arise where the armed forces — or some combat units — move by themselves because the commanders believe the action is in compliance with the higher constitutional mandate to protect the people?

I’m not yet talking of a coup d’etat situation, although we can drift into an academic discussion of that possibility.

Hypothetically, if some of the top brass believe the President has been making “traitorous” decisions, may their oath justify breaking away from the chain to militarily protect Filipinos from foreign aggressors (or domestic oppressors)?

For instance, may the Navy (or the Coast Guard although it is no longer under the AFP) send on its own armed teams to accompany and protect Filipinos going to fish in Philippine waters heavy with Chinese presence?

Under Standard Operating Procedures, how high up should something like that mission be cleared? Puede bang gawin outside the SOP, justified as military action protecting harassed citizens?

Commanders who have direct control of their men and materiel, may just do it — but will they? Based on observation of the kind of commanders we now have, they will not.

Most commanders now are careerists who treat soldiering as just a job, almost like Boy Scouting for adults collecting medals, patches and badges. Not many will allow patriotism or nationalism to get in the way of their careers.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the likes of Antonio Luna or Gregorio del Pilar, Pattons or Halseys, who are willing to cut corners or even violate certain regulations to accomplish their mission.

The case of the SAF 44 is a classic example. Can you imagine a brigade commander refusing to “fire for effect” his artillery to stop the carnage? He didn’t want to displease the MILF! Was he sanctioned? No, he was promoted by Noynoy Aquino III.

The “civilian supremacy” clause merely means that the President is supreme, he being the Commander-in-Chief. All the other civilians, from the Vice President down, are not in the chain of command. The chain goes from the President to the Chief of Staff.

The Secretary of National Defense is not the Vice Commander-in-Chief. (Fidel V. Ramos then had a document supposedly signed by President Cory Aquino declaring the SND as Vice Commander-in-Chief, but the camp of Joker Arroyo, then the Executive Secretary, shot it down).

So now, we expect the military to send troops to protect Filipino fishermen and claimed islets?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 4, 2019)

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