MANILA, January 30, 2004 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Sen. Panfilo Lacson had the most sensible reaction yesterday to reports that the administration had ordered soldiers to spy on opposition candidates. Lacson’s official reaction: Why am I not surprised?

Of course the administration is spying – not only on President Arroyo’s rivals for the presidency but also on personalities who may be plotting destabilization activities during the election period. And the administration is using government manpower and resources for this.

Naturally no one will admit this, even if you hang Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye upside down by his… uh… ankles and pour water laced with chili down his nose. Bunye in the first place probably wouldn’t be privy to such top-secret operations, conducted in the name of national security. Others will call such operations dirty tricks, but that’s a matter of perception.

We must keep in mind that Philippine laws allow wiretapping and surveillance under certain circumstances. The budget for this comes from intelligence funds, which require no auditing. Such operations can be tedious and expensive, and they are reserved usually for notorious criminals and top enemies of the state – or enemies of the administration, depending on your viewpoint.

Even journalists have to work under the assumption that our phones can be tapped and our movements monitored by certain groups. You need a sense of humor to survive in this kind of environment.

And it will be naïve for any politician hoping to govern this country to believe that political rivals will not resort to some form of surveillance.

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The best response to being spied upon is to learn the ways of counter-surveillance.

Panfilo Lacson should know. Back when he was a cop, he himself was accused of spying on rivals for the presidency of his boss, Joseph Estrada, at the time vice president. During the Estrada administration, Lacson was again accused of tapping phone conversations of perceived enemies of his boss as well as certain businessmen, civic leaders and journalists.

In the Arroyo administration, Lacson has accused government forces of spying on him. But since he’s no stranger to the ways of police surveillance and political espionage, I wouldn’t be surprised if Lacson himself is spying on his rivals for the presidency – not just President Arroyo but also the other opposition candidate, Fernando Poe Jr.

FPJ might want to take up Lacson on his offer of tips on counter-surveillance. Next to the administration, which has the entire government machinery at its disposal, the Lacson camp must have the most sophisticated surveillance and intelligence-gathering team.

Why, the Lacson camp even intercepted a text message from a prominent lawyer shortly after the disqualification case against FPJ was filed. The text: "Da King is dead; long live the Queen!" That, of course, could have simply been a text joke.

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You don’t hear Ping Lacson bellyaching about members of the uniformed services being used for political purposes. Surely he knows that both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police have been highly politicized for years – that’s the ugly reality in this dysfunctional democracy.

The politicization starts as soon as cops and soldiers realize that they need political patrons for their promotions and assignments. Ferdinand Marcos institutionalized this system of patronage in the uniformed services in an effort to buy the loyalty of military and police officers during his authoritarian regime.

Even the so-called reformist soldiers whose coup plot was discovered by Marcos in 1986, but who were protected by people power from being massacred by the forces of the dictatorship, were hardly apolitical. They were protégés of Juan Ponce Enrile, and they advanced his political agenda throughout the administration of Corazon Aquino.

All the presidents since the 1986 people power revolt had their own favorite military and police officers, and these officers in turn had their own cliques in their respective services. Those who belonged to these cliques rose through the ranks quickly, got all the stars they wanted and had the juiciest assignments.

EDSA II reinforced this politicization. Sure, it was a popular uprising. But you can’t deny the impact of the defection to EDSA of the military and police leadership. Joseph Estrada knew he was dead when he saw his secretary of defense, his military chief of staff and the major service commanders announcing their withdrawal of support from his administration.

Seeing the spectacular results of that uprising, there were several efforts to repeat it. Fortunately for the Arroyo administration, all the attempts fizzled out.

Because of EDSA II and all those destabilization attempts, President Arroyo is constantly reminded of her debt to certain military and police officers. And so she stands by them, even when there is public clamor for heads to roll due to police or military corruption, incompetence or even involvement in kidnapping.

These lucky officers – mga anak ng Diyos or children of God, as they are called by the less fortunate – are promoted ahead of others and their services extended despite grumbling from many officers. There is no meritocracy in the uniformed services, only palakasan, the strength of connections.

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And this system is sure to be perpetuated by whoever is elected president on May 10. Already there are military and police officers, both active and retired, who are working for frontrunner FPJ. They cannot be ordered to stay out of politics by their superiors who most likely are working for the President’s candidacy.

Defense Secretary Eduardo Ermita is in a particularly ticklish position, being the head of the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats for Southern Tagalog. Ermita, a former congressman, is vulnerable to accusations of using the military for political purposes – something that enemies of the administration have lost no time exploiting. There will be more accusations of politicking against Ermita as the elections approach.

EDSA I was supposed to have ended the politicization of the uniformed services. Instead here we are 18 years later, our currency and stocks battered by every hiccup in the military.

Will Philippine soldiers ever return to the barracks for good? Only if politicians can keep their hands off the uniformed services. That’s not going to happen any time soon.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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