As the academic year winds down in the Philippines and university students elect their representatives for next year, the hottest topic of debate on campuses is the possible return of mandatory military training.
Nathan Agustin, the sitting student council president at the University of Santo Tomas, says any candidate who indicates support for the reinstitution of drills, called Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), faces a backlash from their fellow students.
As President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. draws his country closer to the U.S. and steels for the possibility of conflict with China, he has recently made it a legislative priority to bring back the mandatory training, ostensibly to help prepare for a faceoff with the regional power.
Agustin describes ROTC as “archaic” and an unwelcome throwback to the dictatorship of Marcos’ father. He is among the many student leaders and organizations across the country who are protesting the legislation.
“Our officials say it’s for nationalism and discipline,” Agustin told Nikkei Asia. “Why don’t we improve community service programs rather than going back to an outdated tradition that has proven to be harmful to students?”
ROTC generally involved cadets learning military survival and leadership skills. Cadets practice rifle training, infantry operations and close-quarter combat. The training usually happens once or twice a week, for several hours.
The ROTC Act is currently on the Senate floor, with Senators Ronald Dela Rosa and Sherwin Gatchalian among its chief backers. Dela Rosa is hopeful of implementing the law by year’s end. The bill would mandate a two-year period of training for university students.
The resistance to mandatory training stems from past incidents. In March 2001, ROTC cadet and UST student Mark Welson Chua was killed days after exposing violence and corruption in the program. His death sparked outrage in the Philippines, prompting the government to make military training in schools optional the following year.
Reports of violence in the armed forces have also emerged more recently. In 2019, a student cadet in the military was allegedly beaten to death by officers in a hazing ritual.
The administration says military exercises for youths are essential to safeguarding the country as South China Sea tensions fester between the Philippines and China.
Last July, Marcos outlined ROTC’s reinstitution for “national defense preparedness.” The measure would require all male, female and even foreign students in tertiary education to undergo training prescribed by the Department of National Defense (DND).
“Our country can be easily taken over if we aren’t ready,” Dela Rosa said in a statement. “Let’s not wait for a state of war before doing something.”
Agustin hit back at ROTC supporters, saying, “Security forces should find other means to defend the country that don’t endanger young people.”
Sarah Raymundo, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines, believes ROTC is not about China and more about the government’s efforts to expand the military for the purpose of targeting critics. She says it is intended to stifle “legitimate dissent.”
ROTC has a planned three-year budget of $1.09 billion and, under the proposed law, universities can collect training fees from students for implementation.
Jeann Miranda, national chairperson of the activist youth group Anakbayan, said the government ought to allocate funds to education. “Instead of improving education by adding more classrooms,” she said, “they’re focused on teaching young people to repress their peers.”
In a Pulse Asia survey commissioned by Sen. Gatchalian in April, around 78% of respondents favored the revival of mandatory ROTC. He said the whole country would benefit from “young people bettering themselves to be leaders.”
Agustin insists ROTC still presents students with risks of violence and abuse.
“It hasn’t outgrown its problems,” he said. “It’s scary to think that students could be put in harm’s way.”
Source: Nikkei Asia