Philippines: Tradition And Revolt Against Globalisation


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

While open markets, the free movement of capital, and the privatisation and foreign ownership of national assets seem to be the mantras of this age of globalisation, the Philippines has appeared to be marching the other way. On 8 January, President Estrada backed off from his pet project called Concord, or 'Constitutional Correction for Development'. Among the proposed amendments was the lifting of constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership of land, media outfits and public utilities. While Estrada did not categorically drop the idea of a charter change, he conceded that Concord 'must for the moment yield to more urgent, more short-term and, yes, more feasible concerns, to efforts that are more likely to produce results in less time and at less cost to national unity.'

Quite obviously it was the issue of national unity that provoked Estrada's decision. A survey by the reputable Social Weather Stations showed that 92 per cent of the population opposed constitutional change, particularly the proposals regarding foreign ownership. This issue was linked to Estrada's drop in popularity to an all-time low of 52 per cent. Last year, hundreds of thousands of people opposed to Concord marched in the streets of Manila and other major cities. Attempts to blame this on 'Leftist' agitation belie the fact that Cardinal Sin and his bishops were among the most vocal oppositionists. Threats of more rallies and strikes this year no doubt forced Estrada to rethink his strategy of drastically opening up the economy to global forces - a move that Australia has made largely without fuss in recent years.

While the Estrada government's turn-around may seem to be reactionary and detrimental to the country's recovery from the Asian financial crisis, the whole scenario has deep roots in the Philippine past. Catholic religious rhetoric, specially when articulated in the vernacular, has readily promoted 'fundamentalist' teachings about the evils of money and profit. The Filipino clergy's dogged opposition to Spanish and United States colonialism was not just about perceived racial discrimination. There were also grave fears about the destructive effects on morality and social cohesion of the unbridled circulation of money and the inevitable concentration of wealth in foreign as well as local corporations. The 1896 revolution, 1935 Sakdal and 1947 Communist-led Huk rebellions, the 1970s student movement, and even the 1986 'People power' uprising were political manifestations of moral arguments against the marriage of money and power.

This attitude persists today. For instance, at a Bishops-Businessmen's conference in Manila recently, the Church was encouraged to 'please teach their flock that making profits is neither immoral nor inconsistent with assuring one’s eternal reward in heaven. Profit-making is what powers globalization.' Can the vestiges of the past be so readily erased? On 1 December some 30 Filipino activists sustained mild injuries during the fracas that marked the opening of the WTO convention in Seattle. Most of the issues they brought to the WTO site had been voiced at anti-Concord demonstrations.

The day before the 'battle of Seattle,' the Philippines commemorated the 136th birth anniversary of Andres Bonifacio, the founder of the secret society that rose against Spain in 1896. Estrada had won the presidency in 1998 partly on appeals that he would be a latter-day Bonifacio leading a revolution against poverty. On 30 November, he made a last-ditch plug for Concord by arguing that like Bonifacio, the people should fearlessly initiate 'bold and far-reaching self-corrective measures in the body politic to make us globally competitive in this new millennium of borderless economies and competing job markets.' But apparently few found the argument persuasive - it certainly clashed with the popular understanding of Bonifacio's role in history. The President himself avoided public appearance on that day.

WATCHPOINT: Can Estrada reinvent himself or his policies?


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