Philippines: Déjà vu All Over Again


Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

The Philippines has experienced three interwoven events of great import since June: First, the transfer of power to a new set of national leaders. Second, the climax of the centennial celebrations of the declaration of independence against Spain. And third, the local consequences of the region’s financial crisis. President Joseph Estrada was elected on a populist platform. His slogan was 'Erap para sa mahirap' (Comrade Estrada for the poor); some commentators dubbed his victory a 'revolt of the masses.' Much of Estrada’s public behaviour should be understood in reference, not only to the world of cinema where he emerged from, but to the renewed historical consciousness produced by the centennial. Estrada took his oath of office in historic Barasoain church, where the first Congress had convened in 1898. He was the first president ever to deliver his inaugural speech in the dominant language of the revolution: Tagalog-based Filipino. He spoke of a new era, redemption, and the promise of the good life for the downtrodden - all echoes of revolutionary discourse during the historical 'revolt of the masses.' But there is a tragic side to 1898. Scholarly studies show how crisis-stricken the first republic really was. Revolutionary President Aguinaldo made compromises right and left in order to forge a nation-state. Even former collaborators of the Spaniards were recruited to serve in his government. And eventually Aguinaldo had to deal with the greatest crisis of all: the arrival of U.S. occupation armies. The redistributive and nearly utopian dreams of 1898 were soon lost in the struggle for survival against foreign attack and local unrest. History is strikingly repeating itself. The national carrier, Philippine Airlines, is heavily in debt, and the region’s financial crisis brought matters to a head as the airline attempted to reduce its workforce by retiring pilots early. In early June PAL pilots went on strike, preventing many Filipinos from flying in for the peak of the centennial celebration on 12 June. The strike action spread to other PAL employees as well; some quipped that this was one way of remembering the 'revolt of the masses.' Even before Estrada took his oath, it was clear that the new 'leader of the masses' was going to make compromises. Indebted to Imelda Marcos for her election support, Estrada acceded to her request for Ferdinand’s corpse to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes Cemetery). This triggered a furious debate over whether Marcos should lie beside 'heroes.' Massive 'people power' protests were absent, however. The new generation of youth has generally not been well informed about Marcos; many older people called for Christian forgiveness of his sins. Nevertheless, the timing of Imelda’s petition was bad, since the centennial had brought discussions of history and patriotism to the fore. Could Marcos be compared at all with true heroes like Rizal, Bonifacio, and Aguinaldo? Estrada had to back down. In the months to come, we will see the current account deficit worsening, banks closing, and the future of the economy dependent on regional and global trends. However, Filipinos know all too well that crisis is almost a constant of their national existence. The Philippine response to the 'Asian crisis' must be put in this context. As a new leader, Estrada is able to relate in a rather down-to-earth fashion to a public that is, for its part, primed by the centennial to look increasingly to its own resources for survival. Estrada will be juggling his priorities, playing the role of 'leader of the masses' while repaying debts to patrons and acting on the advice of his diverse cabinet. Mistakes will be made, to be sure, but those who are aware of the Philippines' long, colonial past will surely notice that the nation is now marching to its own tune. There is something to ex-President Ramos’s assertion, in his 12 June speech, that the Filipino people 'have come of age.'

WATCHPOINT: The Philippines' experience of compromise could be an asset in dealing with the effects of the economic crisis.


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