Saturday, June 26, 2010

General Bangit's Farewell & the President's Oath

In his farewell address to the troops General Bangit, outgoing Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, expressed his concern that what happened to him might set a bad precedent that can politicize the Armed Forces. (Not that there has been no previous history of politics in the military!)

But what did happen to him? Amid talks that he would not be retained as Chief of Staff and would be replaced by the incoming President, he chose early retirement. Obviously his perception was that his place in the military service was being determined by political considerations. If you ask him whether Gloria Macapagal Arroyo chose him on the basis of personal loyalty to her (translate “political consideration”) I am not sure what he would publicly admit. Nor, I believe, would he publicly admit that his having been made Chief of Staff was a bad precedent. He was, I suppose he would claim, appointed purely on the basis of merit.

As I see it, however, the situation General Bangit found himself in was not unusual and, in a sense, has been made unavoidable by the Constitution itself. Consider the provision on the tour of duty of a Chief of Staff as found in the Constitution: “The tour of duty of the Chief of Staff of the armed forces shall not exceed three years. However, in times of war or other national emergency declared by the Congress, the President may extend such tour of duty.”

It will be noted that what the Constitution prohibits is the extension of the tour of duty of a Chief of Staff beyond three years. Commissioner de Castro, a former military man himself, expressed the reason behind the prohibition:

“It is very necessary that a Chief of Staff shall not be extended by the President, because if he wants to be a dictator, that would be the very reason why he would keep that man under his thumb so that he can command. . . . Remember [that] the Chief of Staff is the Commanding General of all the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the President is the Commander-in-Chief. Pag nagkasundo iyang dalawang iyan, patay na ang bayan. That is the very reason I would like that the tour of duty of the Chief of Staff shall be for a three-year period without any extension.”

De Castro’s total prohibition of extension was not accepted by the Constitutional Commission, but it was made clear that, in order to avoid what de Castro feared, extension could be done only “in times of war or other national emergency declared by the Congress.”

The obverse of de Castro’s argument, of course, is that the country cannot have a Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces who is at loggerheads with the President, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. For that reason, the Chief of Staff has not been given security of tenure. The law expresses the length of the tour of duty in negative terms. It does not say “the tour of duty shall be three years;” rather it says “shall not exceed three years.” And this is what General Bangit seems to lament.

General Bangit is not the only one who laments the state of the law. Since the law has also given rise to a “revolving door policy,” it is also lamented by those who fear that harmful effects can flow from the revolving door policy. The next time we get around to amending the Constitution, this policy on the tour of duty of the Chief of Staff will very likely be examined.

Incidentally, the United States whose military tradition has profoundly influenced our own, has only recently grappled with the problem of a conflict going on between a military General and the White House. General Stanley McChrystal, the commanding general of the US forces in Afgahnistan, was summoned to the White House and was eventually relieved of his command because of remarks critical of White House policy. McChrystal himself has apologized but his offer to resign was accepted.

The President’s Oath

I guess there is no more retreating from the President elect’s decision not to take his oath before Chief Justice Rene Corona and to do it instead before Associate Justice Conchita Carpio Morales. The reason given is that the President elect does not accept Corona’s support for the power of the President to appoint a Chief Justice during the constitutionally prohibited period and agrees instead with Justice Carpio-Morales’ strong dissent. The President-elect is making Corona responsible for the act not of one person but of a majority of the Court. Very awkwardly, however, the entire Court is being invited to attend the presidential inauguration!

Admittedly there is no law requiring that the President take his oath before the Chief Justice. But there is something symbolic about the head of the Executive Department honoring the highest officer of the Judiciary. It represents not just respect between two persons but respect between two important institutions.

The message the President-elect seems to be sending is that we might be having a President who will not only disagree with Supreme Court decisions not to his liking but might even act according to his dislike. I just hope that, for the good of the nation, this is just a temporary emotional aberration which will not be determinative of other Supreme Court decisions in the future. We will see what happens if the decision in the Hacienda Luisita case will not be to his liking. The case is now in the division chaired by the Chief Justice.

28 June 2010

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