MANILA,  October 24, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva and Jaime Laude - President Arroyo hosted a dinner for about 20 military commanders Thursday night at Malacañang where she assured them that the military justice system would prevail against any erring member no matter how high the rank.

The dinner was held even as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), on the President’s directive, set in motion the court martial of Army Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia and other military top brass accused of corruption, and rumors of a coup hung thick in the air.

A former inspector general of the AFP warned yesterday of a military coup if authorities failed to handle the Garcia case properly.

Retired Brig. Gen. Angel Sadang, former AFP inspector general, said retired military generals were restive over the Garcia controversy, which is being investigated by the House of Representatives, the AFP and the Office of the Ombudsman.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye disclosed yesterday the President’s hosting of the dinner for Army officers from the rank of sergeant to lieutenant colonel.

Although he was not present at the dinner, Ermita clarified that Mrs. Arroyo was not conducting a "loyalty check" among junior officers of the AFP amid fresh coup rumors following the corruption scandals that have rocked the military establishment.

"The President has regularly been meeting with her troops," Ermita said. "So she has to talk with them, not necessarily with the generals, but also with Army officers, just touching base with everybody to give them guidance."

In fact, Ermita said, Mrs. Arroyo met with the infantry battalion in Cebu during her visit there last week.

He added that the executive cannot get to the bottom of "these things if we do not conduct such consultations."

A battalion commander present at the gathering said, "we were there from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m... but before the dinner, there was a dialogue" in which the officers conveyed to Mrs. Arroyo that they were monitoring developments in the Garcia case even as they kept watch over the nation.

Sadang, meanwhile, also called for the resignation of Inspector General Edwin Galzote and Office of the Ethical Standard for Public Accountability chief and vice chief of staff Ariston de los Reyes for foot-dragging the Garcia case. He said the two officials should face administrative charges.

"What is pilloried now is the AFP. Once the retired military generals and officials felt too much hurt, we could join the active military. We have the track record to oust a president and put in power a president," Sadang said, referring the people power revolts that sent former presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada out of the Palace in 1986 and 2001.

"We are hurt. Imagine, a general like us who is not even sentenced in court or in a court martial has been perceived to have committed the crime already. The civilians are looking at the military as the most corrupt in the country right now. The AFP is pilloried because of the fault of two or three persons," Sadang said.

Sadang also chided Congress for conducting too many investigations without putting in place legislative measures to correct problems in the military. He said it is important that those who are conducting the investigation are cleaner than those being investigated.

The retired general estimated the court martial to take three months.

"The majority of the rank and file are suffering the hurt in disciplined silence. This is aggravated by the inaction by no less than the President to prosecute bigger scams that are far greater in magnitude," he said.

In an official statement issued at the Palace, Bunye gave sketchy details of the Thursday powwow.

"The Army field commanders were in Fort Bonifacio for a seminar and the President decided to invite them for dinner last night to discuss with them the steps the military justice system is taking against high-ranking officers accused of graft and progress of ongoing reforms in the AFP," he said.

And contrary to reports of demoralization in the field, Bunye said the Army officers reported that "troop morale is high and that the high level of vigilance against all threat groups is being sustained."

"They (officers) also pledged to fight all attempts to divide the Armed Forces or to undermine the chain of command by any quarters disloyal to democracy," he added.

Neither Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz nor AFP chief Gen. Narciso Abaya was present at the meeting, in which grilled beef, vegetables rice and ice cream were served.

"Normally, she (President) would prefer to talk with no superior officers present (at a meeting with her troops)," Bunye said.

Bunye reiterated that court-martial proceedings against Garcia will commence shortly.

"The court martial is in place and we anticipate a speedy trial. All eyes are on how the AFP will continue to redeem itself as it cleanses its ranks," he said. "The military and justice systems are teaming up to consolidate the evidence and tighten the strategy of prosecution."

He said the President has not asked the House investigations to stop once the court martial assumes jurisdiction over the case. — With Jose Rodel Clapano

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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