Fri, 04 May 2001

Test case for justice in Philippines

SINGAPORE: Is the Philippines going back to the bad old days of coups d'etat? President Gloria Arroyo's declaration of a 'state of rebellion' bodes ill for a government that has just marked its 100th day in office. She felt compelled to order the arrest of leading opposition figures, among them Senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan, both seasoned coup-makers, and a former national police chief, for instigating rioters to storm the presidential palace on Monday.

The new tensions, amid talk of a power grab, will hinder the country's economic recovery. Arroyo has no choice but to act tough when her opponents exploit the poor masses for their own political ends.

Did she mis-time the arrest of Joseph Estrada? This is debatable. But this pathetic sight is easily exploitable: father Estrada, erstwhile president of the Philippines, getting finger- printed, photographed for police mugshots and bundled ignominiously with his son into a police cell to await trial for economic plunder, a capital offense.

Locking up Estrada has created new problems for President Arroyo, but the massive street protests notwithstanding, his trial must proceed. Pathetic or not, the case is a test of President Arroyo's resolve to deal with corruption. A fair trial for the disgraced leader will also set an important new benchmark for Philippine justice, whatever its shortcomings. Properly handled, it will demonstrate that no one is above the law.

Sure, cynics will say that the late corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos got away with his loot, and that he, with his family, had eluded the law. But this is hardly an argument to stop the wheels of Philippine justice. Indeed, the prosecution of Estrada, who was hounded out of the presidency last January by extra- constitutional means for massive corruption and misgovernment, will show that Filipinos believe in the rule of law after all.

The street protests that erupted after Estrada's arrest last week show that he still has popular support among the poor. Mishandled, his prosecution could deepen the political divide. Even if a class war sounds far-fetched, the class divisions in Philippine society are real, deep-seated and enduring.

President Arroyo has to grapple with the fact that Estrada was swept to power by the millions of poor Filipinos who exalt him as their champion battling against the entrenched and selfish rich. To win them over, she must do more to lift the poor out of their grinding poverty.

A former movie actor, Estrada's screen persona is a myth, but he animates and excites the masses. Their poverty is the stuff for exploitation. Backed by the military and the Catholic church, Arroyo is well-placed to deal with the trouble-makers. But she has the May 14 local government and congressional elections to worry about. Estrada's arrest could work against the candidates she supports. Battling misperceptions about the former president is Arroyo's problem.

The prosecutors charge that he pocketed US$82 million (S$149 million) in payoffs during his 31 months in office. They must prove his guilt beyond any shadow of doubt. Whatever the outcome of the case, Estrada must be treated fairly and squarely if justice is to be served. However distorted, his mythical persona is real for the poor in the Philippines. This makes it all the more important for Arroyo to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.

-- The Straits Times/Asia News Network