At the PMA, a thin line between instilling discipline and inflicting abuse

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 26 2019 05:55 PM

Retired AFP chief Dionisio Santiago recalls being hit by a senior cadet during his time at the PMA. “Pagkatapos mo ng plebe years, parang superman ka,” he says. Ramiltibayan, Wikimedia Commons

MANILA—The death of a plebe allegedly tortured over a missing pair of boots has put a spotlight on the Philippines’ top military school, where cadets tread a fine line between instilling discipline and committing outright physical abuse.

Hazing and other forms of maltreatment are not tolerated by the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), its officials insisted, especially following the death of 20-year-old Darwin Dormitorio.

But the practice takes place just the same involving plebes subject to different forms of punishment by older cadets, in a “tradition” supposedly intended to build character but can also be fatal in some cases.

Police are investigating at least 5 cadets who allegedly electrocuted Domitorio in his private parts with a makeshift taser. The victim complained of stomach pain and later died.

In 1981, scandal also hit the Baguio City-based academy founded in 1903, following the hazing death of Andres Ramos Jr., son of a Philippine Constabulary general.

“It’s a system that only the cadet corps can correct,” said retired armed forces chief Dionisio Santiago, who admitted also taking a beating as a freshman.

Santiago pointed to an L-shaped scar behind his head, a painful remembrance of an “accident” in 1966.

FLOOR WAX

An upperclassman summoned the young Santiago, while another one instructed him to take the can of floor wax on his way out.

“Yes, sir,” he said, sticking to what was supposed to a plebe’s automatic response, but didn’t know where it was.

“Yes ka nang yes, di mo pala nakita,” the older cadet said before unleashing a right cross that dropped the freshman flat on his back.

Santiago‘s head hit the concrete floor, requiring 7 and costing his attacker a year in the academy.

Five others were also “turned back” or made to repeat the academic year, he said, for not stopping their peer under the PMA’s “honor” system.

“Dapat you should stop them. Kung hindi, equally guilty ka,“ Santiago told ABS-CBN News. “Nandu’n sila nu’ng ginulpi ako.”

SUPERMAN

More than 5 decades later, Santiago, a member of PMA Class ‘70, made light of the incident and his difficult year as a plebe.

Like him, his upperclassmen went on to hold important positions in the police and the military and later, the government following their retirement.

“Pagkatapos mo ng plebe years, parang superman ka. Di ka tatablan ng bala. Kaya mo lahat. Kaya mong makipagbakbakan sa mga kanto d’yan,” he said, citing how the experience helped build his self-confidence.

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, a member of PMA Class ‘86, earlier argued that cadets were being trained to become “warriors,” arguing that universities also had hazing.

Santiago said the PMA experience was different from fraternity hazing because it’s intended to “toughen your gut.”

Tasks given did not always involve inflicting physical harm, he said, recalling the time when he was made to copy by hand the entire front page of a broadsheet.

ABUSIVE

But while that exercise, squeezed within his tight academic schedule, taught him the value of “compliance” and time management, others did not necessarily involve any logical reason.

“May mga plebo d’yan, pagmumukha mo pa lang, malas na,” he recalled in jest.

“Ako naman, ang malas ko, ’yung kapatid ko nasa top 10. Kaya naiinggit sa kanya yung ‘goat’ na company-mate ko.”

Santiago rejected the idea that abusive practices victimizing first-year cadet was part of the PMA culture.

But he said the academy should institute more regular physical and psychological examinations on cadets.

Judging by his years in the PMA, he said a plebe’s experience could turn one into a rather brutal upperclassman or one that opted never to inflict the same physical abuse on those who came after.

“Minsan kasi, ’yung experience mo changes your attitude . . . maraming nagiging abusado,” he said.