Another “surprise witness” surfaced during this week’s Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigation into the alleged corruption in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Retired Lt. Col. Romeo Mateo was presented before the senators in order to confirm reports that conversion had been taking place in the military system.
Surprise! Surprise! That news is already as old as the M16 rifles that your average soldier hauls around in the jungles of Basilan. But then at least those old rifles are of better value: aside from being noisy, they are still able to hit quite a few targets in the hands of a competent soldier. By comparison, this new surprise testimony generates more noise and smoke without hitting any real targets.
Conversion, of course, has nothing to do with computing the peso value of your shrinking stash of dollars and yen. It is the long-standing practice in the military of converting budgeted items into ready cash in order to fund other expenses that are not in the authorized budget. It is certainly illegal. But to a military that has long been used to the “make-do” attitude, the morality of the practice of conversion has long been lost.
The public first began hearing about conversion as early as 2002, when some media groups (PCIJ included) exposed some of the irregular practices in the military. But the issue really came out in the open after the Oakwood mutiny, when Lt.jg. Antonio Trillanes III and his merry band of rebels seized the former Oakwood apartments in Makati to complain about high level corruption in the military. After that, conversion was on everyone’s lips.
But long before the issue became public, everyone in the military (yes, everyone) knew about conversion. And like it or not, virtually everyone in the military accepted it as a fact of life, just like old ammunition, non-exploding mortars, crotch rot, and millionaire jet-setting generals. In fact, many military officials had told the PCIJ that conversion was not really the problem; it was really just the symptom of an even bigger attitude problem in the military.
“I admitted I converted too,” says retired Commodore Rex Robles, who was a member of the Feliciano Commission that investigated the roots of the Oakwood mutiny in 2003. “We have converted items into cash that we can use.”
The admission is interesting since it comes from one of the founders of the former Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), that snazzy rebel group that swore honesty, integrity, and reform in the armed forces in between bouts of serious coup plotting and testosterone-filled media photo and video ops.
Robles admits that the problem of conversion is so widespread in the military that many unit commanders take it as a fact of life.
Robles thinks the problem of conversion arises from the inflexibility and inefficiency of the military. If, for example, a unit is given reams of bond paper when it really needs more boots, a field commander will resort to conversion in order to get the equipment he needs. Inevitably, there is a “cost of money” involved in the conversion.
“It became acceptable because of the restrictive policies,” says Robles. “Kung wala sa budget ‘yan, gagawan mo ng paraan (If it’s not in the budget, you find a way).”
Converting unnecessary items into things more urgently needed for military operations of frontline units is actually the “good” or more practical side of conversion. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it the lesser evil. The other, darker side — the one that is more abusive and malicious — is the conversion of budgeted items for the simple goal of making money on the side. This, unfortunately, is the one that involves greater amounts, and involves logistical, quartermaster, or non-frontline units.
The fact that it has become so widespread and accepted within the ranks speaks volumes of the military mindset. Soldiers who have long been used to abuse and neglect begin to see administrative rules and regulations as mere “suggestions” to be followed only when convenient. This is more evident in frontline units, where actions are governed by mission orientation: get the job done with the little resources that the pencil pushers in the airconditioned offices send us.
“Mababaw pa nga na problema ang conversion (Conversion is actually a smaller problem),” says Brig. Gen. Benito de Leon, head of the AFP Management and Fiscal Office that is tasked with the disbursement of funds to line units of the AFP. “The bigger problem is the culture that you encourage, ang lokohan. We are making them more inured to the idea of corruption.”
It does not help that this military mindset is reinforced by non-military officials who also flout the rules.
One retired officer related how a former president once gave his armed forces chief of staff P20 million in thick wads of P1,000 bills, apparently as a reward for a high profile mission that was accomplished. Obviously, there was no paperwork that came with the reward, and no need to liquidate. Apparently, the president did not even say what the money was for. It was just handed to the military officer in a large box, with the unspoken understanding that it was for a job well done.
To the military chief’s credit, he went around the country distributing portions of the reward to his fellow officers who took part in the mission.
“Ang tagal pala ipamigay ang P20 million (P20 million takes a while to give away),” the retired officer quoted that armed forces chief as telling him. Not all of the money was given away, of course; a substantial amount went to the original recipient.
“Should he have felt guilty about it? Should he have reported it? From his point of view, he was not really involved in corruption,” the officer told PCIJ. To the non-military mind, that would have been a curious, even alarming, argument. But for the troops, perhaps, it was just another day of making do with the scraps that fall from the table.