REFORMING THE AFP MAGSAYSAY’S
Foundation Theory in Neutralizing Insurgency
by Peter Jaynul Villanueva Uckung
The Philippine government never faced a more dangerous era of insurgency than the late 1940’s.
The rebels, led by the Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB), had been attacking government targets with impunity and gaining more adherents as the government encountered failure after failure in their drive to combat the HMB. Town halls were occupied by rebels. They set ?re to a Philippine Constabulary camp in Tarlac (Camp Makabulos).
In 1948, when Ramon Magsaysay (then still a congressman) was appointed chairman of the committee of National Defense, defeatism hounded the ranks of the military. Defense Secretary Ruperto Kangleon, a former guerrilla (like Magsaysay), put the blame on the military itself, which was plagued with dissension and demoralization.
Defective policies and internal regulations discouraged professionalism and generated contempt, divisiveness, and graft in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It was ideologically divided into a group composed of old of?cers (who were mostly regulars even before World War II), and a group composed mainly of ex-guerrillas. There was a thinly disguised culture of favoritism in promotion.
To make matters worse, the Military Police Command (the military unit assigned to combat the Huks) committed abuses among the people in its operations against the rebels.
A prompt salvation of the AFP was due if it was to save the government from being overthrown by the Huks. Magsaysay worked out a list of remedial legislations designed to introduce reforms in the AFP. Some of these reforms were: the Personnel Act of 1948 which was about AFP appointments, promotions and retirements; Adjustment of Ranks Act; Integration Bill to include reserve of?cers into the new AFP master roster; and a bill to grant permanent ranks to guerrillas, veterans, and civilian volunteers with meritorious records.
When Magsaysay became secretary of National Defense, his effort to reform the AFP kicked into high gear. This time, he had the chance to get personal with the soldiers. His prime duty was to contain the Huk rebellion, and he intended to do just that. But ?rst, he must win the people’s con?dence on the soldiers. The soldiers must regain the people’s sympathy and cooperation through good behavior and willingness to help.
Magsaysay never ?inched in disciplining erring men-in-uniform. Abusive soldiers were quickly dealt with. He ordered soldiers relieved for cases such as manhandling, bribery, involvement in rackets ranging from illegal lease of rice lands to the collection of protection money from landlords. Magsaysay also entertained complaints from civilians against the army.
On the other hand, he recognized the needs of soldiers in the ?eld, as Magsaysay often visited them unannounced. There was an incident wherein Magsaysay sneaked into a camp and stole the guard’s gun. He had to ?re the gun for them to be noticed.
These surprise visits of the Defense Secretary kept the soldiers in a constant state of readiness. Magsaysay wanted not only to see the combat situation, but also to gauge the improvement of relation between the army and the people.
He also encouraged the soldiers to speak about their problems; promising them quick solutions. His sympathy to the plight of the soldiers was real. Once he got a telegram from a group of 700 soldiers in Iloilo who had not been paid for two months because of a circular. Disregarding the circular, he immediately boarded a plane with a ?nance of?cer and went to Iloilo. He personally saw to it that the soldiers get paid, even if it was in the middle of the night.
On December 23, 1950, riding with Magsaysay’s successes in military operations against the Huks, Executive Order No. 389 (reorganizing the AFP) was issued. It was the ?rst such reorganization of the Armed Forces since World War
But the most revealing of Magsaysay’s unstoppable drive to reorganize the AFP was the dismissal of General Mariano Castañeda, a World War II hero (and the man who kicked the grenade meant to kill Pres. Roxas) and now Chief-of-Staff of the Armed Forces. The General was widely believed to have used the military to insure Quirino’s victory in the 1949 presidential election (touted as the dirtiest and most violent election in Philippine history).
The General and Magsaysay had been at odds since Magsaysay became a congressman. Magsaysay saw Castañeda as a stumbling block in the reorganization of the AFP. Castañeda regarded Magsaysay as an intruder in his turf (the two nearly came to shooting each other). In spite of Castañeda’s closeness to Pres. Quirino, he was replaced as Chief-of-Staff. This in accordance to Magsaysay’s stern request to Pres. Quirino.
Magsaysay knew that aside from being efficient in ?ghting the Huks, the soldiers should embolden the people to cooperate with them in rooting out the rebels hiding among the civilians. Magsaysay’s brand of discipline had the people convinced of the soldiers’ concern to the welfare of the civilians. The people’s faith to the army was restored. The people, once again, began to trust the government. The imminence of defeat began to hover over the Huks.
Magsaysay, however, never really believed in the total victory of the army over the rebels. He knew that the roots of the uprising were countless years of agrarian unrest, dehumanizing poverty, landlessness, and the inequality of laws, wages, rights, and economic opportunities. As long as the government fails to address these problems, a rebel there will be, and he will not always be a Huk.
But his success in whipping the army into an effective ?ghting force, and his equally successful effort to gain the people’s con?dence jumpstarted the enormous trust that the Filipinos bestowed on him in the presidential election of 1953.
Magsaysay’s maverick style of governance, his direct approach and mobility, drew criticisms from other government officials; calling his style “to burdensome as the president wasted time on matters too trivial to require action above the departmental level of public administration.”
But it inspired a presidential leadership intently focused on the welfare of the common man.
The Nationalists may win points in criticizing his government for being too trusting and accommodating to the Americans, but they can never dent the good image of Magsaysay as an iron-willed, graft busting, ethical president.
Indeed, Magsaysay discouraged his family and relatives to work in the government while he is president. And woe to anyone who offer him monetary considerations in exchange for a favor (they get kicked out of his sight faster than a speeding bullet).
Magsaysay is an anathema to a political system relying on the assumption that all men in power are corruptible. His decision not to use power for personal bene?t would have ushered in a chain reaction that could have destroyed that system.
But he died while the going was high. There was no one to take his place and carry on his legacy. But still, the memory of Magsaysay mamboing in an era of genuine presidential propensity to social justice, however briely it is, is an inspiring episode in Philippine history.
It serves as a notice that his kind is possible here. And for a country perennially down in the quagmire of graft and corruption, his memory is Hope Eternal.