Philippines: More Pressures on Arroyo


James Chin

When Thaksin was removed after massive street protests, there was joy in Manila as well. President Arroyo's opponents were asking Filipinos to do the same. After all, it was People Power that removed Marcos and restored Philippines to democracy (or 'demo crazy') in the late 1980s. It was also People Power that removed a properly elected president, Joseph 'Erap' Estrada.

Hence some opponents of Arroyo were hoping that the Thai contagion would spread to Manila and unleash People Power or EDSA-3. After all, the crowds seem to be getting bigger because Erap, the popular movie-star president, has been in court for the past several weeks. His supporters, supposedly representing the poor, were outside the courthouse whenever he was due to appear in person. Erap 'played' the role of a martyr to the best of his ability. All the charges against him were naturally a 'conspiracy'. At a mass marking Erap's 69th birthday at the Saint Peter's Church in Quezon City, not only did all his political allies (along with several TV and movie stars) show up with his family, Bishop Antonio Tobias of Novaliches issued an apology for the role played by the Church in ousting him in 2001. He praised the former president for 'bowing out of power to prevent bloodshed'. The birthday boy's wish was for his name to be cleared and for the Philippines to be 'to be free from poverty, repression and to seek justice and truth'.

Meanwhile, Arroyo also faced disgruntled elements in the military. 1st Lt. Sonny Sarmiento, one of the three fugitive Oakwood mutineers, appeared on prime time TV's Probe programme, claiming that his group, the Makabayang Kawal Pilipino (MKP), 'would make its presence felt in the coming days'. In hiding after escaping from a detention center inside the Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio in mid-January, he further claimed that once they capture power, they will appoint former Sen. Gregorio 'Gringo' Honasan as one of the members of a transition council. Honasan, who led a series of coup attempts against President Corazon Aquino in the eighties, has remained at large since February.

The inability of the authorities to track down both the key leaders of MKP and Honasan suggest that perhaps the key elements of the intelligence service may want them on the outside to permanently destabilize the Arroyo government. While the main opposition still sees Erap's star power as the best bet to oust Arroyo, she has tried to stir up controversy to deflect public opinion. She commuted death sentences on more than 1200 convicts on the eve of Easter Sunday and says she will do what she can to get rid of death penalty. The death penalty is a highly emotive issue in the country and the press had a field day. The reality is that she cannot get rid of the death penalty given that Congress will never agree to it. Many ordinary Filipinos subscribe to 'an eye-for-an eye' viewpoint and wholeheartedly support the death penalty for serious crimes such as child rape and murder. Moreover, the moratorium on executions was actually put in place by Estrada in 2000. She is also trying to push another controversial policy, a national ID card system. All government agencies issue their own ID, thus allowing for massive fraud and easy access to multiple identities. Civil libertarians have vowed to fight the national ID plan and they are being supported by several powerful senators.

WATCHPOINT: The political gridlock in the Philippines is getting worse by the day. Arroyo appears to have lost support even among the business elite. Her big idea of changing the presidential system to a parliamentary system appears to be heading in the same direction as her political fortunes - South.


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