Security sector purge only skin-deep in the Philippines

By Kevin Nielsen M Agojo

Barely a year into his administration, Philippine President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr has undertaken a major reorganization of state security institutions.

Marcos Jr appointed General Andres Centino as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), a position that Centino held under former president Rodrigo Duterte. Some analysts believe that his return to the AFP is due to his track record in combating armed insurgencies, which remains a top security issue.

But his reappointment was not without controversy. Jose Faustino Jr resigned as officer-in-charge of the Department of National Defense (DND) after being kept in the dark about Centino’s appointment.

Carlito Galvez Jr was appointed as Secretary of National Defense following Faustino’s resignation, having served in various capacities under Duterte. Clarita Carlos, who admitted that she was confused and uninformed of these changes, was also subsequently replaced as National Security Adviser (NSA) by Eduardo Ano.

Like Galvez, Ano handled different offices during the Duterte administration such as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and AFP Chief of Staff. Progressives slammed Ano’s appointment, arguing that it was during his time at the DILG that false accusations against activists intensified.

While these appointments may suggest Marcos Jr’s confidence in Duterte’s ex-cabinet members in steering the security sector, this reshuffle transpired amid an alleged destabilization plot in the military and the mass resignation of DND officials.

Galvez dispelled reports of military unrest, although he acknowledged discontent over delays in promotions and official designations. Critics also claim that this shake-up is part of a “widespread ongoing purge” of appointees linked with Marcos Jr’s former executive secretary Vic Rodriguez, who resigned in September 2022 following a string of controversies.

After being instrumental in shaping local politics and operationalizing the brutal but popular war on illegal drugs during the Duterte administration, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is also now under heavy scrutiny.

Current DILG Secretary Benjamin Abalos Jr called for police generals and colonels to submit their “courtesy resignation” in an attempt to purge the “deeply entrenched” illegal drug problem within the PNP.

This development came at the heels of disreputable episodes of police involvement in the narcotics trade. By mid-January 2023, 928 out of the 953 generals and full colonels had tendered their courtesy resignations.

Despite these troubles, the bloody drug war continues. A total of 175 casualties were recorded in the first six months of the Marcos Jr presidency, a slight increase from the 149 casualties during Duterte’s final six months in office.

stark difference between the two leaders regarding the anti-drug campaign is that Marcos Jr is not outwardly vocal in encouraging the police to kill unlike Duterte, who even bestowed the police with a “license to kill” by assuring them of protection from prosecution.

The continuation of drug-related killings and the absence of a concrete strategy towards his promised “new approach” in the drug war indicates that the Marcos Jr administration has effectively allowed Duterte’s bloody approach to continue.

Given how the PNP has veered away from its professional duties, it seems that greater reforms than an internal cleansing and a new strategy in its anti-drug campaign are necessary.

The saga in the Philippine security sector unfolds amid persistent social injustice. In December 2022, hundreds of activists gathered in Manila to protest the alleged rising numbers of extrajudicial killings and political prisoners. The rights group Karapatan documented at least 17 cases of extrajudicial killings and the arrest of 25 political prisoners under the current administration.

Activism also remains under siege. The Supreme Court of the Philippines recently ordered the military and police to prove that they did not violate the rights of two peasant organizers, Elena Pampoza and Elgene Mungcal, who have been missing since July 2022. Both were allegedly subjected to harassment by uniformed personnel before their disappearance.

In a more recent case, development workers Dyan Gumanao and Armand Dayoha were found after a week’s disappearance. A video of their abduction later surfaced, in which the abductors reportedly introduced themselves as police officers. The PNP said that an investigation is underway.

But seeking justice under the Marcos Jr administration may be challenging. Marcos Jr is unapologetic and makes false claims about the brutalities of his father’s dictatorial regime.

He also made no explicit mention of his human rights agenda during his first State of the Nation Address. Earlier in his term, he ruled out the possibility of the Philippines rejoining the International Criminal Court, which plans to resume its probe of the drug war.

While the onset of 2023 saw the acquittal of human rights activists on a perjury case filed in 2019 by a former NSA, the verdict that made bigger headlines was the acquittal of Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla’s son over illegal drug possession charges. The latter drew criticism for its speedy trial when thousands of other cases involving underprivileged Filipinos are left languishing.

Much is expected from Marcos Jr given the majority victory he earned in the 2022 election. But with a great mandate comes great responsibility. Rather than the unifying leader that he claimed he was back in the campaign period, Marcos Jr is allegedly acting more like a figurehead, which may explain the unaddressed ills within the security forces and the justice system.

With eight foreign trips in under seven months, he also may have been too occupied to attend to domestic problems. Should Marcos Jr fail to act on public concerns, the plight of the masses will worsen — and the vicious cycle of injustice will continue unabated.

Kevin Nielsen M Agojo is a PhD student in the Department of Public and International Affairs, City University of Hong Kong.

This article, republished with permission, was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.