[PHOTO AT LEFT - WOMEN POWER: Women soldiers march during the 72nd anniversary celebration of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at Camp Aguinaldo yesterday. - Photo By AP]

MANILA, DECEMBER 22, 2007 (STAR) By Jaime Laude - Words were not enough, but President Arroyo made sure she let the Armed Forces know she appreciated its efforts to protect democracy and uphold the Constitution.

“If we have seven percent growth today, if we have a P12.7-billion surplus today, it’s in large part because of you, the men and women in uniform, who are 100 percent behind the Constitution and our democracy. Thank you,” the President said at the 72nd founding anniversary of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at Camp Aguinaldo yesterday.

“In the aftermath of the Manila Peninsula Hotel standoff, it has become clear that 99 percent of the troops remain loyal to the Constitution,” she added.

The Chief Executive also extolled the troops for being the first to be around in times of natural and man-made calamities.

“In behalf of the entire nation, thank you for always saving the country from the dangers brought by calamities like storm, flood, volcanic explosion and the threats of terrorism and rebellion,” the President told the soldiers.

Several times during her speech, the President thanked the troops for their dedication to duty and their loyalty to the flag and the Constitution.

“We laud your valor, your sense of duty, and your loyalty to the flag and the Constitution,” she said. “In defending the Republic and the Constitution, our democracy and institutions remain strong.”

She proceeded to describe those behind the Nov. 29 Makati caper as desperate and out of touch with the dreams of the average Filipino.

Without naming them, the President was obviously referring to the group of former Navy junior officer and now Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and former Scout Ranger chief Brig. Gen. Danilo Lim.

“It is clear that the actions of those few desperate men revealed just how out of touch they were with the hopes and dreams of the average Filipino,” the President told the assembled troops under the command of Marine commandant Maj. Gen. Ben Dolorfino.

Mrs. Arroyo said the Filipino people want political stability, a bright economic future and social justice. The Peninsula Manila incident, she said, only undermined the genuine aspirations of the Filipino people.

“Instead of working to bring the nation together with the democratic processes, Trillanes and Lim’s actions were fueled by selfish motives for personal gain,” she said.

The President said the Peninsula culprits would be meted the severest penalty under the law.

Winning the war against insurgency

The President, who is also the military’s commander-in-chief, took note of the AFP’s accomplishments in the anti-insurgency campaign.

“I’m very happy to hear the report that the insurgents’ strength has been brought down to about 6,000 from 12,000 in 2001 and 7,100 a year ago. In other words, you have brought down their strength to one half of what they used to be,” she said.

Mrs. Arroyo added she is pleased with the military’s efforts in dismantling the remaining 80 guerilla fronts all over the country before her 2010 deadline.

“And I am happy to hear that out of 107 New Peoples Army (NPA) guerilla fronts in 2005, continued dismantling of their structures in barangays has eliminated 20 fronts. At the rate we are going, I feel we are on track to put an end to the insurgency by 2010, congratulations,” she said.

She said it is high time for the NPA to be put to rest so that the country can move forward.

“The communist rebels, as Gen. (Hermogenes) Esperon said, have spent years as a low-level threat. It is time for their disruption and violation of human rights to be put to rest so that the nation can move ahead,” she said.

“They impede the progress and development of a number of rural areas. They are responsible for a wide range of human rights abuses. If we are to become a First World country, we have to put a stop to their ideological nonsense and their criminal acts once and for all,” she added.

As the President spoke, security around Camp Aguinaldo was very tight, with snipers and heavily armed military guards manning posts inside the camp.

Plainclothes security personnel also mingled with civilian guests and the media.

“Because of the soldiers’ steadfastness to the chain of command, the country has become stable resulting to the current surge in economic stability,” she said.

“Our economy has reached a new level of stability and maturity with some of the strongest macro-economic fundamentals in many years, including a seven percent growth rate,” the President declared.

AFP modernization

“We have invested heavily in new and better equipment, more training and more cooperation with our allies, some of whom are represented today by our ambassadors, to professionalize our military,” she said, referring to dignitaries who graced the occasion, led by United States Ambassador Kristie Kenney.

The President also informed the troops that the Philippine Defense Program (PDR) is now on its full implementation stage, as she gave emphasis on the defense Capability Upgrade Program (CUP).

She said that during her term as acting defense chief, she ordered the rollout of all the 10 PDR programs leading to acquisitions of additional helicopters and fighting vehicles, and the much needed squad automatic weapons for the troops.

She also assured the troops that in the very near future, the military will have light utility vehicles and night attack helicopters, which would be acquired through the government’s special allotments.

She also told the troops that her government’s concern over soldiers’ welfare in the frontlines led to the putting up of a forward field medical support system.

She said no soldier bled to death because of this support medical system put up near areas of conflict.

Aside from this, military hospitals are now being upgraded to accommodate and treat wounded soldiers as well as their sick families.

“This is for you and your families, and also for the surrounding communities,” she said.

The President also reminded the troops that it is under her administration that the soldiers’ salaries were upgraded and matched the salaries given to public school teachers.

“Well, all she said were true,” one soldier said.

Another officer, however, said that it’s still a long way to go for the country to see a modern military.

“With all the distractions, such as the increasing threat of terrorism, the insurgency problems and the continued military resentments, the AFP has no choice but to address these concerns first before embarking on a higher level of modernization,” the officer, who asked not to be named, told The STAR.

“We could always modernize along the way. In terms of armament, we are sufficient in land but we lack so much in terms of air and sea assets,” he added.

Esperon is ready

Meanwhile, Esperon said that while there are rumors that his tenure as AFP’s top honcho may be extended, he is looking forward to a good vacation with his wife, Lorna.

“Again, honestly, I have plans of having a vacation in February. I haven’t visited Ilocos and Cagayan. I haven’t returned that often to my hometown in Pangasinan,” he said.

Also on top of Esperon’s wish list is to go back to Mindanao, where he earned his first combat credentials. But this time, he is going there as a tourist and not as chief of staff.

He also said he is not closing his doors to other possibilities, such as the extension of his term, since the prerogative of making such a decision lies on the President.

Esperon said those who would possibly succeed him are also competent to handle the top military post.

“We may have different styles of doing things but certainly they also know what to do,” he said.

Asked if he would accept an offer to hold a government position after he retires, Esperon said, “You know I will cross the bridge when I’m given the choice. It seems discourteous if nothing has been offered yet and you will immediately refuse,” he said. –Paolo Romero, James Mananghaya

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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