Philippines' Military Academy, Stained by Marcos Years, Is Going Back to Basics

Times Staff Writer

On a mountaintop campus here, Col. Rodolfo Biazon, a ramrod-straight marine, was warming to the task of change at the Philippine Military Academy.

"If we mean to produce military leaders, they must be professional soldiers, not scholars, not men of letters," he said. "The day of the warrior-gentleman is over."

Biazon, the new superintendent, was not deriding graduates of the academy. He is one himself. But as a veteran of the Muslim and Communist insurgencies in the south, the colonel believes that the armed forces and the academy have a new role to play. External enemies are no longer the threat.

Insurgencies will be the major problem for President Corazon Aquino, as they were for Ferdinand E. Marcos, as long as the economy cannot provide enough jobs, and "this government is not Superman," Biazon said. He added: "It's a soldier's problem as well. He has to protect our people."

Visits to the Field

Biazon intends to prepare the academy's future graduates with first-hand exposure to the problem, taking cadets to the field, where the action is.

Meanwhile, past graduates of the 80-year-old academy have moved to the forefront with the change of government in Manila, taking command of the nation's troubled armed forces.

Under Marcos, the armed forces chief, Gen. Fabian C. Ver, and the commanders of the army, air force and navy all began their careers as reserve officers. None were academy graduates, and all were promoted on the basis of political loyalty to the president.

The exception was Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, deputy chief of staff, a West Point graduate and a leader of the revolt that overthrew Marcos 3 1/2 months ago. Now, as chief of staff, Ramos heads a military establishment in which all but one of the service commanders are academy graduates.

Role in Rebellion

The traditional academy class ties played a pivotal role in the military rebellion that brought Aquino to power. Academy graduates at Camp Crame, the rebel base, telephoned classmates at Camp Aguinaldo, the loyalist stronghold across the highway, and implored them to settle the conflict without combat.

"In many ways the whole thing was a PMA (Philippine Military Academy) play," a high-ranking officer said.

Even the cadet corps at the academy took a stand, voting overwhelmingly by petition to side with the forces of Ramos and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile against Marcos and Gen. Ver.

Trying to Repair Image

Now, 5,000 feet up on the pine-covered slopes of Baguio in the northern Philippines, some of the players of February are molding new officers, trying to repair a military image damaged under Marcos, instilling a sense of discipline, patriotism and allegiance to the new government.

Twenty-five years ago, image was not a problem for an academy graduate, or for any other Philippine military officer.

Col. Maximino Bijar, the academic dean of the academy, said: "We studied Hannibal, MacArthur and his Inchon landings. We wanted medals, wanted to become generals."

Many academy graduates, from poor families, sought social advancement, perhaps marrying the daughter of a wealthy landowner at some distant posting.

In the 1970s, careers were made and medals won in the war against Muslim secessionists on the southern island of Mindanao. It was a time of rapid expansion of the armed forces.

2 Factors Plague Military

But in the 1980s, the military has been plagued by twin factors:

--The growing Communist-led insurgency and the abuses of anti-guerrilla warfare.

--The 1983 assassination of Benigno S. Aquino Jr., husband of the woman who is now president and political nemesis of her predecessor. Ver and 24 other military men were tried and acquitted of complicity in the killing, but the verdict did not convince many Filipinos, and the military's image suffered as a result.

"Ramos and EDSA changed all that," Biazon said in an interview in his office here, referring to the February revolt that pitted rebels against loyalists, separated only by the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who jammed Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila.

"Now," said Col. Lisandro Abadia, "soldiers have been given on a silver platter the opportunity to change the bad image created by a few."

Allegiance of People

Abadia is the academy's commandant of cadets, the man in charge of tactical instruction, which is the soldiering aspect of a cadet's life.

Biazon's aim is to teach the 850 men of the cadet corps to defeat an insurgency, and to do it in a way that wins the allegiance of the people, particularly the rural Filipinos who often find themselves caught in the middle.

"The Philippine soldier is not expected to fight enemies alone," Biazon said. "He must fight a situation."

A month ago, Biazon shipped the first- and second-class cadets (seniors and juniors) to the city of Davao, an insurgent hotbed in the south. In a program he calls Barangay Immersion, the cadets went into urban and rural neighborhoods (barangays) to see the problem at first hand. They debated with radical student leaders at a local university; they joined patrols with the military.

Credibility Improved

"The idea is to make the cadet more understanding," Biazon said. "He must learn to work with the priest, the teacher, the barangay official. The problem of credibility of the government has been removed to a great degree by the change (in the presidency). The challenge now is to sustain."

A successful strategy, he argues, will not only win the support of the people, it will draw some guerrillas away from their Communist commanders.

A highly regarded student of Communist tactics, Biazon has an eye for the little things that make a difference.

"The guerrillas," he said, "will come into a village and ask for money and food, and the first time the villager will provide. But when he comes again, there's resistance. We want our soldiers (and cadets) to learn to take their own chicken and their own kettle into the field. When they do that and protect the villagers, the image will change."

According to Abadia, the rural people of Davao thought the cadets were regular soldiers.

Communist Theory, Practice

"When they found out they were cadets, the boys they see on Saturday parade in newspaper photographs, they were touched," he said.

Bijar's professors teach communist theory at the academy, but Biazon insists that they also teach the practice.

"We point out the Berlin Wall and the Vietnamese boat people" as examples of what communism can mean, the superintendent said.

He has asked Bijar to cut back on the academic term at the end of the senior year so the cadets can be turned over to Abadia for a rigorous quarter of field training.

"They must be soldiers first," Biazon said, noting that upon graduation the young second lieutenants will be sent to front-line units.

Eager for Action

Most of them are eager for action.

"The tendency is to ask for the combat arms," Abadia said. "They want excitement. They want to be marines or scout rangers."

Cadets are chosen on the basis of a nationwide examination. Most come from urban schools, where the level of education is higher. At present there are more than 5,000 applicants for the 450 openings in the freshman, or plebe, class.

To stay at the academy, they must meet tough physical and academic standards as well, and adhere strictly to the honor code. This last means discipline, a high priority with Biazon (29 cadets recently resigned in a cheating scandal when faced with ostracism by their classmates).

The faculty numbers 180, including several women who will probably be eased out by the new superintendent.

Men Recount Exploits

"When I was at the academy (in the early 1960s), the teachers were all men, military men," Biazon said. "They'd talk about the service, little side remarks about heroes and their exploits. That instills patriotism, professionalism. Women can't do that."

The training staff also includes several members of Marcos' Presidential Security Command and Ver's National Intelligence and Security Agency, units closely identified with the ousted president.

"They're very good men," Abadia said. "They're doing their job. No problem."

Since it began in Manila in 1905 as an officers school for the Philippine Constabulary under American rule, the academy has never dominated the military, except in terms of prestige. Today, only 18% of the armed forces officers are academy graduates. They seem to be forceful and intelligent young men (unlike the U.S. service academies, this one has no women cadets).

'I Want the Challenge'

The regimental commander, the top cadet, is Giovanni Bacordo, 20, of the central Philippine city of Iloilo.

"I wrote in my high-school annual that I wanted to be a high-ranking military officer," he said. "I still do, and I want the challenge of leading men."

Another first-classman, Angel Evangelista, 20, said he appreciates the emphasis on field training under Biazon and Abadia.

"By the time we get out, we will not be that scared," he said.

Anton Pineda, 17, a fourth-classman, said the physical training is tough, but he is bearing up.

"You have to show respect (for upper-classmen)," he said. "Bracing up excessively (standing at attention in exaggerated fashion) is part of plebe life."

A major complaint is common at academies anywhere: tight control on the cadets' social life.

"We can leave on the weekends if we get a pass," Evangelista said, "but we have to be back by 10:30. Cinderella had it better."

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