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Mandatory ROTC: Why Was It Abolished and Why Revive Now?

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Vice President-Elect Sara Duterte hopes that Congress will prioritize taking up a bill re-mandating the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for Filipinos aged 18 years old and up.

“The executive and legislative agenda will be decided between the president and the Congress. I hope that will be included since marami namang pending bills diyan sa Congress with regard to that, iba-iba ang pangalan, iba-iba ang titlesm so sana masama siya,” she told reporters on Monday, Jun. 20.

She first pitched the idea during a ‘UniTeam’ caravan on Jan. 19, noting that other countries like Singapore, South Korea and Israel are implementing it for their citizenry.

The presidential daughter has not yet released specific details about it.

Mandatory ROTC was abolished in 2002 in response to a complaint filed by Mark Welson Chua and Romulo Yumul, two mechanical engineering sophomores from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) who exposed the corruption and abuse in the university’s ROTC program.

In the exclusive “Struggle Against The System” published by The Varsitarian, UST’s official student publication, cadets would suffer under the scorching sun without learning anything and pay fees for unclear expenses and undelivered items.

“Combating the alleged corruption and inefficiency of UST’s Reserve Officers’ Training Course program appears a futile task better left undone,” the article stated. “Through the years, most ROTC cadets have complained that they would sit for hours each training Sunday just to get burned under the sun while learning almost nothing. Despite fulfilling the attendance requirements and paying numerous fees, some cadets would even get unexplained failing grades at the end of the semester.”

At one point, a military officer pointed a gun at a cadet for merely complaining about the practices inside the program.

Anomalies inside UST’s ROTC program were unearthed dating back to 1999, but only Chua and Yumul were the courageous cadets who filed a formal complaint.

A month after the article was published, Chua’s body was found floating and rotting in Pasig River, with his head wrapped in packaging tape, hands tied with a shoestring and legs bound by packaging tape.

Chua’s family believed that his death was connected with his exposés on Mandatory ROTC. In April 2001, then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo ordered a speedy investigation of the incident.

Three years later, in 2004, Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 18, presided by Judge Romulo Lopez, handed a death sentence to four suspects – Arnulfo Aparri Jr., Paul Joseph Tan, Eduardo Tabrilla and Michael Von Rainard Mangangbao (The death penalty was abolished in 2006).

Lopez found that the suspects’ “actuations denote sadism and marked degree of malice and perversity.” Chua was made to suffer, he said, “for the assailants’ satisfaction.”

It was vindictiveness, the judge ruled, that led to the barbaric act as a result of the magnitude of the exposés.

As Chua’s gruesome killing sent shockwaves across tertiary institutions, then-Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Diomedio Villanueva and Department of Education, Culture, and Sports Secretary Raul Roco vowed to abolish Mandatory ROTC.

Schools located at the University Belt (U-Belt), led by UST, called on the government to “excise the cancer,” describing the further continuation of the program as “ultimately self-destructive.”

Later on, those outside U-Belt joined the growing calls. Students walked out of their classrooms and burned ROTC uniforms as a sign of protest.

Mark Welson Chua (Photograph from Manila Bulletin)

Their cause came into fruition in 2002 when Arroyo signed Republic Act 9163 or the “National Service Training Program (NSTP) Act of 2001.”

All college students are required to undergo for one year any of the three components of the NSTP: ROTC, Literary Training Service (LTS) and Civil Welfare Training Service (CWTS).

“Finally, college students are now given a choice on how to participate in nation-building through civic consciousness aside from the ROTC which was imposed 76 years ago,” then-Sen. Renato Cayetano, the principal sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said. “The law recognizes the youth’s vital role in nation-building with programs that aim to develop their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual and social well-being.”

More than a decade later, policymakers say the time has come for Mandatory ROTC to be back to instill patriotic values to the youth, now soaked on social media.

“I assure you that this administration will remain unrelenting in its mission to realize a comfortable life for all Filipinos, and I firmly believe that the values learned from the ROTC Program are vital towards achieving this goal,” President Duterte said in 2019, noting that it would “invigorate their sense of nationalism and patriotism necessary in defending the State and further promote their vital role in nation-building.”

Besides war, reservists are called upon during disasters and socio-economic activities.

But for former defense correspondent Manuel Mogato, conspiration is a “crazy idea” that would be a “total waste of precious resources.”

“The country needs modern equipment, not warm bodies to fight the 21st century war. It has a larger standing army than most Southeast Asian neighbors. Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Thailand have Southeast Asia’s largest armies in terms of size,” he wrote in his column for PressOne.Ph in January. “Just imagine the annual budget needed to put up more garrisons and a huge pool of army trainers to handle the new recruits. It could be much bigger than the actual defense budget every year.”

He argued that the Philippines is not facing an existential threat like Singapore, Israel and South Korea, countries that are mired in circumstances that necessitate them to train the citizenry for battles.

“Although the maritime dispute in the South China Sea is a constant reminder of a real external threat, the Philippines, unlike Israel, is not surrounded by enemies wishing to erase it from the map,” Mogato, a lecturer at UST’s journalism program, said.

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