THE confirmation by Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. in a Senate hearing that there are rumblings in the military vindicated the contents of the eight articles I wrote and published as a series in this column. I had opined that the demoralization and discontent in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were triggered by a chain of events.
First, by the enactment of Republic Act (RA) 11709 with two versions of Implementing Rules and Regulations issued by the DND; second, by the removal of Gen. Andres Centino as AFP chief of staff; third, by how the Board of Senior Officers and the Board of Generals used the infirmities of the law to recommend the appointment and promotion of classmates and other senior officers whom the law considers to be of "low potentiality" for general and flag-rank positions; and fourth, by political accommodation. All of these remain virtually unaddressed even with the resignation of DND Officer in Charge Jose Faustino Jr. and the designation of Galvez as secretary. The deluge of promotions and designations to general and flag-rank positions is, if at all, a stop-gap measure, if only to quell restiveness in the ranks.
The first misstep of President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. was ordering Centino's removal as AFP chief while the latter had more than six months to serve prior to his compulsory retirement date. It created the first ripples of what would become the waves leading to the rumblings that Galvez admitted before the Senate Committee on Defense and Security. This first exercise of the President's prerogative to choose Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro over Centino was ill-thought, albeit incontestable. It was ill-advised as it was ill-timed. Besides being inconsistent with the letter and spirit of RA 11709 that allows "a longer period to implement reforms and institutionalize sound polices" by giving a sitting AFP chief a fixed term of three years, President Marcos installed Bacarro, who is supposed to bow out of the service in a little over a month. Both Centino and Bacarro belong to Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1988.
The AFP suddenly found itself in a problematic situation because of the replacement of Centino by Bacarro, as their fates hang in the balance. The military has a four-star general stripped of his post and placed on "floating status" and an incumbent three-star chief of staff who will never become a full-fledged general until his predecessor retires six months down the road. Meanwhile, an ambassador's post to India was dangled before Centino by Malacañang to entice him to file for optional retirement, but he refused. Because, among other reasons personal to him, filing for an optional retirement is a voluntary and personal act.
Taking the post will mean retiring early and forfeiting the full benefits due him if he retires on his compulsory retirement age. He thus held on to his rank and continued his military service without any position, duties and responsibilities. After all, retirement is just six months away.
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Then it came to pass. The once unfathomable came true when the President reappointed Centino. The ceremony for this unprecedented event in AFP history was as confined in a private office in Malacañang as it was unknown to both Faustino and Bacarro. The Chief Executive's acceptance of Faustino's irrevocable resignation and the whirlwind appointment and acceptance of Galvez as the new secretary hardly provides a good glimpse of what is to come.
What is in store for Centino? What could have been the deal behind this never-before-experienced phenomenon of reappointment even if he will be 56 year old in 13 days? Could there be more than what meets the eye other than it was meant "to restore seniority" in the AFP? After all, the President had that chance to preserve the status quo when, on July 6, 2022, he declared in a media release that he will retain Centino out of respect for the new law. Could the reappointment of Centino be the President's other way of admitting that he committed a gaffe in appointing Bacarro and this last act of reinstalling Centino in the AFP's top post is his second chance to adhere to the law? I doubt the second reason because it will not solve the problem.
The 'ruling class' syndrome
The problem could not be Bacarro, a Medal of Valor (MoV) awardee with a reputable service record, and thus an epitomé of what an AFP chief should be. His taking over as the top AFP honcho is supposed to be a welcome development because it sends an inspiring message, especially to junior officers, that being a MoV awardee is a premium in the selection for the AFP's highest post. Because, among the few living MoV awardees, Bacarro was the fourth to become the military leader since 1935, when the AFP was founded. Maj. Gen. Paulino Santos, Maj. Gen. Mariano Castañeda and Gen. Cirilito Sobejana were the other three recipients of the MoV who became AFP chiefs. If Bacarro's selection is both an encouragement for company grade officers and a recognition of his heroism, then why the controversy?
Centino's appointment and retirement as AFP chief is governed by Presidential Decree 1638 as amended that pegs compulsory retirement at 56 years old. His successors-apparent belonging to PMA Class of 1989 expect him to retire six months later sans any reason for him to be extended. But as it was and to everyone's surprise, Centino was replaced instead of being allowed to finish his term. And to the chagrin of the aspirants to the top post, Bacarro was installed as his successor. Media reports heralding Bacarro as the first recipient of the fixed three years under the new law added fuel to the blaze. Because if he will be in that post for three years, he will outlast all frontrunners of Class 1989 and his successor will potentially be from the PMA class of 1990 or 1991. Class 1989 will then lose the chance to be the "ruling class." Hence, the stake on Bacarro's short stint. And the reappointment of Centino only delays the assumption of the next ruling class.
Last quarter of 2023
Galvez's appointment, which had been heralded as Defense secretary, turned out to be as senior undersecretary, which was the same position that Faustino resigned from. But while there is no explanation on the sudden change in his appointment, Galvez, to his credit, seems undistracted by it, and his rounds in military camps and his work continue. As a matter of fact, he expressed optimism that the rumblings in the military would be fixed by March this year. He did not say how. His basis is the Commander in Chief's commitment to him that he will sign the promotions and designations of general and flag officers, per the endorsement of Faustino, that remain unsigned, presumably, in the Office of the President. On January 13, four days after Faustino resigned, the Commission of Appointments revealed that it had received a deluge of nominations for confirmation: three three-star, five two-star, and 15 one-star ranks. Also on the same date, the designation of 31 senior officers to positions ranging from one-star to three-star ranks were also signed by the Commander in Chief. The signing of this big number of designations and promotions by the President in just one day is phenomenal. Observers inside and outside the AFP see this as a move to avert the growing restiveness in the military.
But much as I join the jubilation of many who were on the list for CA confirmation and designation to sensitive positions in the AFP, if the real issues remain unsolved and solved correctly, these will all be band-aid solutions.
The provision in RA 11709 that general and flag officers who have been promoted during its effectivity will automatically have a fresh three-year tenure in grade is still there. That section on the removal of the one-year bar on promotion to brigadier general and higher remains in effect. And the provision barring lateral movements among key positions stays. These are but few of the infirmed provisions of RA 11709 bear directly on the career of senior officers which are up to now not properly addressed. While the Senate is hell-bent in correcting the controversial provisions of that law in correcting it, it should not be done in haste like the law itself and House Bill 6517 which is, the amendatory law that was passed by the House of Representatives in a hurry.
The legislators and the country's political leaders should be mindful of the laws they passed and the actions they make on the affairs of the AFP, where positions and ranks were earned through innumerable sacrifices, of sweat and blood. They are not inanimate chess pieces that can be moved by trial and error, because in the military, even seemingly innocuous mistakes can bring colossal repercussions.