October 29, 2004 (STAR) By Marichu Villanueva - The new military chief got his marching orders yesterday from his commander-in-chief: Stamp out corruption that is destroying the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

President Arroyo, swearing in Lt. Gen. Efren Abu as her seventh military chief, also ordered him to speed up the court martial of Army Maj. Gen. Carlos Garcia, who was sacked as AFP comptroller last April for alleged unexplained wealth.

The President issued her first order immediately after Gen. Narciso Abaya turned over command of the AFP to Abu at the parade grounds of Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City.

"Now the weight of promulgating military justice bears heavily on the shoulders of the new chief of staff. He will oversee the court martial of Garcia as well as the investigation of other officers similarly suspected of graft," President Arroyo said.

The President stressed that like all Filipinos, she demands "the truth about corruption, whether in the military or outside the military. But like General Abaya so emotionally appealed, neither would I allow the entire AFP to be dishonored."

The military has said Garcia will be charged with unbecoming conduct for false declarations of his assets and possession of a "green card" as a permanent resident of the United States.

"I know this to be true: the majority of our soldiers and officers are men and women of courage, integrity and devotion to duty. I am proud of the Filipino soldier and I am optimistic about our nation and our people," Mrs. Arroyo said.

In her speech after the turnover ceremony, the President expressed her "full support" for Abu’s declared decision to promptly abolish the office of the deputy chief of staff for comptrollership or J-6, a post that Garcia held for three years and where he allegedly amassed nearly P200 million in unexplained wealth.

Mrs. Arroyo said Abu, with his "political will" and "decisiveness" has the "singular mission of transforming the insidious attempts to besmirch the command to an opportunity to execute our fresh wave of sweeping reforms."

"As I congratulate you, I urge you to maintain that steady and straight line behind the flag," she told Abu.

The President also vowed yesterday to recover ill-gotten wealth amassed by corrupt military and civilian officials.

"We must collect stolen riches and put people on trial on their criminal behavior — whoever they are, wherever they work and live," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo pointed out that "we cannot ask the people to sacrifice if the government and the rich get away with crimes that hurt the people and the nation."

She cited the case of Garcia and other ranking military officers implicated in corruption cases.

The Office of the Ombudsman has asked the Sandiganbayan for a temporary global freeze on all the assets of Garcia, his wife and their three sons.

Government investigators are also gathering evidence to determine if Garcia can be charged with plunder, in which he must have embezzled at least P52 million in public funds. Plunder is punishable by death.

This was after the Anti-Money Laundering Council obtained from the Court of Appeals a 20-day writ of preliminary attachment on Garcia’s assets, which will lapse on Nov. 3.

If convicted by the civilian court, Garcia’s assets will be forfeited in favor of the government. He will also be put in jail and be made to pay punitive damages.

The President exhorted Filipinos to help her administration fight graft and corruption in the government.

"We are all part of the cycle of corruption and despair. And we must join hands to root out this evil that is strangling our nation. The nation will grow and prosper tomorrow for the tough decisions we make today," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo gave Abaya credit for his efforts "to clean up the military bureaucracy" through institutional reforms he implemented when he took command of the AFP in April last year.

"But to fight poverty and (help the economy grow), we must purge the system of corruption, whether inside or outside the military. We must eliminate government waste. As Abaya has shown, it can be done in the military," she said.

The President pointed to the "festering and entrenched culture of corruption" as the root cause of the nation’s current problems.

"Like a cancer, it must be cut out if the patient is to survive and I’m glad that Abu gave words as strong as that," she said.

Destabilizers warned

With the abolition of the J6, Abu said the finances of all three branches of the military service — the Army, the Air Force and the Navy — will now be handled by "independent and credible" officials who will directly answer to him.

But several military insiders described Abu’s move as merely cosmetic. They said that to institute reforms, the entire bureaucracy must be completely overhauled, not just the AFP.

Abu said the AFP has no place for corrupt soldiers and officers "who taint its honor and break its noble tradition" and stressed that he himself will lead the march toward this goal.

A graduate of Philippine Military Academy Class 1972, Abu took over from Abaya, a West Point graduate who retired yesterday after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56, at a time when the AFP’s integrity is under intense scrutiny.

"The AFP is experiencing critical and defining moments. It is unfortunate that the integrity and honor (of the AFP) has been placed under a cloud of suspicion because of misdeeds of a few," Abu said.

He also warned that at the height of these challenges the AFP must face, "the enemies of the state... (who) watch our every move and threaten to strike at the slightest opportunity." He assured that he will not hesitate in acting to stop these groups from destabilizing the country.

"I warn those who are entertaining thoughts of destabilizing and destroying our institutions, you will not succeed," Abu said.

The turnover of command triggered minor changes in the military hierarchy.

The President named Lt. Gen. Generoso Senga as Army commander while his post as Southern Command chief, according to sources, is likely to be given to National Capital Region Command chief Lt. Gen. Alberto Braganza, who was also reportedly being groomed as the next Army commander.

AFP getting ‘shabby treatment’

Some lawmakers have used Garcia’s example to lambast the entire military command, alleging they must be involved in corruption as well.

Saying that the AFP is "getting this shabby treatment even from fellow workers in government," Abaya warned that "coup attempts, like corruption scandals, have a way of catching fire," especially when fanned by a sensationalist media.

This has led to speculation of a military destabilization attempt against Mrs. Arroyo similar to the short-lived military mutiny in July 2003 by junior officers who accused their superiors of corruption.

Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, who chairs the House committee on national defense that grilled Abaya, said the AFP is being damaged by a "small group of corrupt of corrupt generals, past and present, who have methodically raided the AFP treasury," not by lawmakers seeking to expose corruption in the military.

Abaya also criticized the lawmakers’ dangling political confirmation in exchange for favors.

But Muntinlupa Rep. Rufino Biazon, son of former AFP chief and now Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, said politicians would not use the carrot-and- stick approach if the officers were not too willing to please them to get ahead in the "rat race."

"He should have been more vocal when he was still in the service," he said. "The fact that he reached the top means he played with those he accused."

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said the House will move to reduce the AFP’s budget based on "conservative estimates" of how much is lost to corruption. Independent anti-graft watchdogs estimate that as much as 40 percent of the military’s budget is lost to corruption or unauthorized allocations.

Opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, said he is hopeful that Abu will be successful in implementing reforms. Citing his own experience as a former chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP), he said Abu, whom he regards as a professional soldier, should be transparent in dealing with people.

"You know, a lot depends on the commander. When I was PNP chief, I instituted reforms and I succeeded because I was leading by example," he said.

Lacson, who was PNP chief from 1999 to 2001, said the PNP gained its highest approval rating under his watch.

‘Reject military junta’

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., for his part, urged Filipinos to reject any proposal to replace the civilian government with a military junta, claiming there is an ongoing verbal battle between those who favor military domination and the advocates of civilian supremacy.

He also urged Biazon to identify the three retired generals allegedly plotting a new coup attempt "so the government can take appropriate action."

Pimentel said it is possible that a cabal of military officials spread the rumor to perpetuate the perception that the President is beholden to the military.

On the other hand, former President Fidel Ramos, himself a former AFP and defense chief, said Garcia’s case is a "very shameful fiasco" but warned that "there is a deeper syndicate" behind him.

Ramos said he hopes Garcia will not protect any accomplices he may have and "take up the punishment all by himself." He said Garcia, if convicted of plunder by the Ombudsman, "may be hanged by the neck."

He also pointed out that private businessmen should also clean up their act since if there are bribe takers in the AFP, "there are also bribe givers" from the "civilian side of our society." — With Jaime Laude, Paolo Romero, Jose Rodel Clapano, Sandy Araneta, AFP

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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