The dictator Ferdinand Marcos kept Gen. Romeo Espino for nine years as chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to enforce martial law, causing deep division and disenchantment among the military officers and men.
The rumblings eventually reached tipping point. Then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and the AFP vice chief of staff, Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, joined by a band of disgruntled soldiers who called themselves the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), broke away from Marcos in the runup to the February 1986 people power revolt that toppled the strongman from power.
It’s a page in history that Marcos’ son and namesake, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., would do well to read again, according to Rodolfo Biazon, a former senator and military chief.
Biazon spoke with CoverStory.ph following the intriguing turn of events in past weeks that saw the President remove an incumbent AFP chief, Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro, and appoint a former one, Gen. Andres Centino, in an apparent breach of the spirit of the new law fixing a military chief’s term to three years.
The move has sown confusion among the public and, reportedly, among AFP officers and men. It has also prompted Department of National Defense (DND) officer in charge Jose Faustino Jr. to quit, after being kept in the dark about the “rigodon’’ involving Bacarro and Centino.
As though to compound matters, National Security Adviser Clarita Carlos announced over the weekend her resignation and her move to an0ther government agency. Carlos had also not been told about the changing of the guard at Camp Aguinaldo.
Eduardo Ano, a former interior secretary, has been sworn in to replace Carlos.
Lesson for presidents
“It’s a lesson to all the presidents. They should be very careful in the exercise of their power to hire and fire,’’ Biazon told CoverStory.ph by phone. “Otherwise, they would face the possibility of destabilization.’’
Espino served as military chief from January 1972 to August 1981, the longest in AFP history. He was part of a cabal of military officers and civilians who advised Marcos on martial law and who came to be called the “Rolex 12,’’ a reference to the luxury gold watches they were gifted with by the strongman. Enrile, Ramos and Gen. Fabian Ver were part of this elite group.
Marcos had thought of replacing Espino but had difficulty choosing between Ramos and Ver, who were both his relatives, to replace him, according to Biazon, then a Marine officer.
So he had to extend Espino’s tour of duty, but he didn’t stop there. He also extended the term of more than 60 generals “beyond the law,’’ Biazon said.
“That was a big issue with the RAM’’ and gave rise to destabilization moves against Marcos that culminated in the 1986 people power revolt in 1986, he said.
Ver eventually replaced Espino in 1981.
President Marcos Jr. reappointed Centino as AFP chief in a surprise move last Jan. 6, mere months after booting him out of the same post for undisclosed reasons, virtually putting him on a floating status before naming him as ambassador to India.
Bacarro, whom the President appointed as AFP chief in August 2022, or a month shy of his retirement in place of Centino, was suddenly shown the door, fueling rumors of unrest in the military.
The move was meant to correct an earlier mistake, Malacanang said.
Writing in his Jan. 8 column in the Manila Times, retired AFP spokesperson Edgard Arevalo wondered: “Was the reappointment of Centino meant to correct the perceived miscues of then Executive Secretary Vic Rodriguez under whose stint Bacarro was appointed to succeed Centino? Is this a way of restitution for Centino and finally retiring Bacarro who could have retired on Sept. 18, 2022?”
The President finally broke his silence on the matter on Sunday, while en route to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We are rationalizing seniority [in the AFP]. Andy Centino has four stars and Bob Bacarro has three stars,’’ he told reporters.
This had to be fixed lest it “create trouble in the bottom ranks,’’ he said.
Centino was appointed by then President Rodrigo Duterte to the top military post on Nov. 12, 2o21. He held the post until he got the boot from Mr. Marcos on Aug. 8, 2022. He will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56 on Feb. 4.
Bacarro turned 56 on Sept. 18, 2022, while still serving as AFP chief; his appointment was extended until he was replaced this year.
He would have been the first military chief to benefit from Republic Act No. 11709, which was passed on April 13, 2022. The law sets a fixed term of three years for the AFP chief of staff and other officials appointed to key positions to cure the “revolving-door policy,” or the rapid succession of AFP chiefs who often serve short stints because they have reached the mandatory retirement age.
But Biazon wondered: “Didn’t they commit a mistake by committing another mistake? I’m not questioning the President’s power to fire and hire, but this has to be explained.’’
The new law also states that the term is fixed “unless sooner terminated by the President.’’
Malacanang has yet to clarify if Centino will serve a fresh term under RA 11709.
In Biazon’s view, the confusion that arose from the shakeup in the military brass could have been avoided had there been a clear and immediate explanation from Malacanang.
“It’s just a confusion. It doesn’t amount to the level of destabilization that hit Presidents Marcos, Aquino, Estrada and Arroyo,’’ said Biazon, who played a key role in foiling the December 1989 coup attempt against the administration of then President Corazon C. Aquino.
“The AFP—and even the public—have learned a lot of lessons from those past experiences. These were useless, destructive destabilization moves,’’ Biazon added.
Amid rumors of restiveness in the military, the Philippine National Police placed its troops on “full alert status.’’ But police officials later clarified that they were preparing for the feast of the Black Nazarene in Manila on Jan. 9.
On Jan. 7, Faustino tendered his irrevocable resignation as DND officer in charge. He had been caught unaware of the shakeup, and said he learned of the turnover of command between Bacarro and Centino only a day earlier from news reports and social media posts. The turnover was held at the general headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo and was presided over by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin indoors, devoid of the traditional military honors and parade.
It was the second time Faustino was kept clueless about a major appointment. The first was the replacement of Office of Civil Defense administrator Raymundo Ferrer by Bureau of Customs executive Ariel Nepomuceno last month. Ferrer himself was coordinating relief operations in flood-stricken areas in northern Mindanao on Dec. 29 when news of his removal broke.
“[F]ully cognizant of the selfless sacrifice and courage of our troops and civilian human resources, I cannot allow the AFP’s reputation to be tarnished, maligned, or politicized,’’ Faustino said in a statement after his resignation.
In a gesture of solidarity with Faustino, three undersecretaries, six assistant secretaries and a director of the DND filed courtesy resignation. But they were told to stay put by the new defense chief, former “vaccine czar” Carlito Galvez Jr.
Faustino, Bacarro and Centino are members of the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1988.
On Saturday, Malacanang announced that Carlos had resigned as national security adviser (NSA), supposedly to continue to pursue “scholastic endeavors’’ and join the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department of the House of Representatives.
In her own statement, Carlos said: “I have realized that it is no longer politic to continue as NSA to the President and so, I have decided to migrate to another agency where my expertise on foreign, defense and security policy will be of use and I shall continue to help build a Better Philippines.”
In a TV interview, she said she had not been notified of Centino’s return as AFP chief.