COMMENTARY: COVID-19 and Civil-Military Relations in the Philippines: Getting the Balance Right

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MindaNews / 29 June) — The appointments of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, and Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., as chair, vice chair, and chief implementer, respectively, of the National Task Force against COVID-19 reignited discussions on civil-military relations in the Philippines. Together, these three civilian officials oversee the strict compliance by both the public and private sectors to the guidelines and protocols issued by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). Furthermore, Lorenzana, Año, and Galvez all share similar ethos, training, and mindset of having spent careers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and rising to ultimately serve as General Officers.

The selection of retired military personnel for civilian positions is not unique to the Duterte administration. Most Philippine presidents in the post-World War II period have appointed veterans to fill cabinet positions. They do, after all, return to civilian life with the same duties and rights as other citizens and are free to take part in partisan politics. They bring useful expertise and experience to management roles across the government. However, in other important ways, they differ from their counterparts who bring civilian professional backgrounds to government service. In the United States, there is a debate on whether a significant difference can be observed between civilian and military inclinations over policy issues.

Mobilizing the Armed Forces

Events such as natural disasters and pandemics have often generated demand for civil-military cooperation in the Philippines.  To many Filipinos, the use of the military during a crisis is not new. The AFP, despite its logistical limitations, has extensive experience in responding to typhoons, earthquakes, and landslides. The AFP, likewise, has unique capabilities and resources, including a national command and control network with manpower as well as reserves that can be mobilized to supplement civilian frontline services. It can provide a more rapid response with its C-130s, utility helicopters, trucks, as well as landing and logistic vessels for relief operations especially in areas that are more difficult to access. AFP units are often the first ones to reach people struck by calamities, delivering food and medicine when local government resources are inadequate. Troops also remain involved during reconstruction efforts, such as the Army’s Engineer Brigades which have contributed to the construction of classrooms, bridges, and clinics in relocation areas.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte strikes his signature pose with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) following a meeting at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on Monday (11 May 2020). Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (4th from right) is chair of the  National Task Force against COVID-19. Its vice chair is Local Governments Secretary Eduardo Ano (2nd from right) and Secretary Carlito Galvez (3rd from left) is Chief Implementer. PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

On the other hand, some are concerned that giving the AFP a leading role in the pandemic response could threaten civil liberties. Fears of a “martial law-like” approach were triggered when President Rodrigo Duterte chose to be flanked by uniformed AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) officials when he announced the decision to raise the alert system to Code Red Sublevel 2 on March 12. This was exacerbated with his “shoot them dead” order to the police and military if people do not follow orders. Similarly, statements from public officials regularly described COVID-19 using war metaphors, further reinforcing perceptions of a militarized approach.  In a democratic society such as the Philippines, the use of the military and militarized language to combat the spread of COVID-19 speaks volumes about the state of the country’s civil-military relations, which appears to be more heavily weighted towards the military than the civil. Now, more than ever, a deeper conversation of civil-military relations is critical.

Points of Friction and Convergence

The AFP is consistently rated as one of the most trusted public institutions in the Philippines. Since 2015, public satisfaction of the AFP has been on the rise. In the last Social Weather Stations poll, conducted in December 2019, 79 percent of respondents expressed “satisfaction” with the performance of the AFP. Filipinos’ confidence in the military is important for healthy civil-military relations. However, for a country that has experienced three periods of martial law and several coup d’états in recent decades, this delicate line has been tested and weakened on many occasions. While it is reasonable to say that the role of the AFP in the government’s COVID-19 response has been substantial, there are two risks that could affect civil-military relations during this pandemic period.

First is the military’s expanding role in the pandemic response. Upon the reactivation of IATF-EID, the AFP was directed to supplement the PNP and other law enforcement agencies to support the effective implementation of the community quarantine. By and large, this “supporting” role conforms to the prevailing pattern of civil-military relations. As the situation worsened, however, the AFP operational tempo increased, and so did the warlike narrative discourse which spoke in terms of “defeating the invisible enemy”, “lockdown”,  and a “national security threat”. Such additional requirements on the AFP come with an opportunity cost as these resources and units cannot be tasked to traditional missions including territorial defense and counter-terrorism.

President Rodrigo Duterte holds a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on April 23, 2020. Duterte has extended the enhanced community quarantine in the NCR and parts of Luzon until May 15. TOTO LOZANO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

The second involves the danger of “groupthink.” Malacañang’s decision to appoint the three retired General Officers to lead the government’s plan in battling the health crisis came from the belief that members of the AFP and the PNP are “silent workers and follow orders without question.” Broadly speaking, this view might generate patterns of behavior detrimental to sound decision-making. In his 1972 seminal work, Victims of Groupthink, Janis Irving referred to the term as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” In order to mitigate this, it is important to ensure that policymaking and implementing groups are heterogenous in terms of experience, background, and expertise.

All of these are part of a broader tendency to think that the military can solve wider societal problems. While interagency coordination is vital, greater focus must be on building civilian capacity and having Filipinos look to their civilian elected leaders—in national and local government—to help deal with the public health crisis and, ultimately, invest in relevant solutions.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ava Patricia Avila is a Strategic Fellow at Verve Research, an independent research collective focused on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia. She holds a PhD in Defense and Security from Cranfield University, UK. Born and raised in Davao City, with experience working on gender and development issues across Mindanao, she currently resides in Washington, DC.
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