- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Senior army officers in the Philippines and South Korea have become disgruntled with their respective presidents, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Roh Moo Hyun, but they differ on what to do about it.

In Manila, the city is awash with rumors of an impeding coup to replace President Macapagal Arroyo with a junta. That revolt has so far been staved off by the president’s supporters led by former President Fidel V. Ramos. He has warned the army a coup would weaken the nation’s fragile democracy.

In Seoul, displeased army officers appear to have decided to wait out President Roh whose term expires in February 2008. Under Korean law, he is limited to one five-year term. In the past, the army has intervened frequently in politics but democracy has evidently become rooted deeply enough that Koreans citizens would rise against a coup.

These episodes underscore the pervasive influence of Asian armies — not overall military forces or navies or air forces but armies that often go beyond soldiering to become the arbiters of power in politics, the economy, diplomacy, and the social order. Only in Japan, Singapore, and India are armies clearly subordinate to civilian authority.

This role of armies is part of the legacy of Asia’s post-World War II anticolonial movements that led to independence. In many countries, the army was the only institution with cohesive leadership. Some armies were almost immediately fighting, as South Korea was against North Korea and the Filipinos against the Hukbalahaps, which reinforced their standing.

For the United States, the power of Asian armies underscores the vital necessity of military-to-military relations. The Pacific Command in Hawaii and other commands in the region prepare and execute military operations but their political-military responsibilities are equally demanding as they seek to enhance alliances and to deter potential adversaries.

Army leaders in the Philippines, the Manila press reports, have become enraged by what they consider President Macapagal Arroyo’s failure to overcome economic stagnation, to end a Muslim insurrection in the south, to clean up government and business corruption and avoid election irregularities.

In response to open speculation about a coup, the president’s spokesman, Ignacio Bunye, felt compelled this week to dismiss the recurring threat. “We have undiminished faith in the professional loyalty of the [Armed Forces] and the full capacity of the command to deal with these controversies,” he said. “Rumors of a coup can be set aside, as the discipline and morale of our troops is high and the chain of command, solid.”

In contrast, dissatisfaction among South Korean army officers has been largely expressed in private whispers. They are dismayed by President Roh’s anti-American political stance and worried he has so damaged South Korea’s relations with America that the United States will withdraw most of its military forces and dilute its security commitments.

Those officers say they consider President Noh’s accommodation with North Korea close to appeasement, giving away aid without something in return. They are distressed by the president’s apparent tilt toward China and fear South Korea, as in ancient times, will become a vassal of China.

President Roh has called for reform of the armed forces, which army officers argue means cutting budgets, reducing the forces, and slowing efforts to modernize. They also point to the dismissal of senior officers out of favor with the president and appointment of cronies to top positions.

Even so, Koreans who know army officers and U.S. officials with access to intelligence say they have seen no evidence army officers plan to intervene as they might have a few years ago.

Elsewhere, the People’s Liberation Army in China is a pillar of communist rule. The North Korean People’s Army benefits from an “army first” policy. The Vietnamese soldiers who conquered South Vietnam have faded away but their influence remains. All across Southeast Asia and South Asia, armies in democratic or noncommunist nations wield varying degrees of power.

In this context, the commander of U.S. forces in Asia, Adm. William Fallon, talked about military-to-military relations when he was in Beijing in September, telling correspondents that open, reciprocal exchanges were “really, really critical.”

While he spoke about China, his thoughts could apply everywhere else, saying good dialogue between the U.S. and other militaries would help “to reduce the anxiety, to reduce the fears of the unknown, and the suspicions that come from lack of knowledge.”

Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.

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