The Philippine Ambassador to the US, Alberto del Rosario, is said to be frantically negotiating for "equal time" with the New York Times today after the following editorial critical of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's turn to authoritarianism was published in yesterday's edition (available on the paper's newly-redesigned website and short enough to quote in full here) --
Dark Days for Philippine DemocracyThe Palace reacted with official nonchalance as Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said that Democracy was alive and well in the Philippines. But the Palace will most likely put a lot more attention to its Public Relations in the United States because the Filipino American community could represent a major source of ongoing criticism. As it is, relations with the US Government have not been warm at all since President Arroyo abandoned the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq during the Angelo de la Cruz fiasco. She can ill-afford to lose the support of Filipinos in America, who've been split so far, but could easily represent a major problem for the beleaguered President.FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM SUFFERS But the New York Times makes the most important point that Washington and the US Government really should take note of: President Bush has repeatedly hailed Mrs. Arroyo as an important ally against international terrorism. He now needs to warn her that by undermining a hard-won democracy, she is making her country far more vulnerable to terrorist pressures.
Filipinos thought they had put an end to electoral chicanery and governmental intimidation when they overthrew the Marcos dictatorship two decades ago. Unfortunately, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has completely lost touch with the ideals that inspired that 1986 "people power" movement.
Mrs. Arroyo is no Ferdinand Marcos, at least not yet. But this onetime reformer is reviving bad memories of crony corruption, presidential vote-rigging and intimidation of critical journalists. Unless the Philippine Congress and courts find ways to rein in her increasingly authoritarian tendencies, democracy itself may be in danger.
This was not the outcome people expected five years ago when Mrs. Arroyo, then the vice president, was swept into power on a wave of popular discontent with her discredited predecessor, Joseph Estrada. In those days, Mrs. Arroyo, a professional economist, was seen as an earnest reformer. She won further credit by pledging not to run for a new six-year term in 2004.
But then she changed her mind, and her style of government as well. Her narrow re-election victory became tainted after a tape revealed her discussing her vote totals with an election commissioner while ballots were still being counted. She survived an impeachment attempt over that incident. But she was forced to send her husband into exile over charges that he took bribes from gambling syndicates.
Earlier this year she briefly declared a state of emergency in response to allegations of a coup threat that others disputed. Since then she has been intensifying pressure on a wide range of political critics and especially on the press. Government officials have warned news outlets that they will be held to restrictive new guidelines, the justice secretary talks darkly about a journalistic watch list, and the staff members of a well-known center for investigative journalism have been threatened with sedition charges. No Philippine government has made such efforts to muzzle the press since the Marcos era.
President Bush has repeatedly hailed Mrs. Arroyo as an important ally against international terrorism. He now needs to warn her that by undermining a hard-won democracy, she is making her country far more vulnerable to terrorist pressures.
(I've made this same and related points in the post, America's Interests and the Fate of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and also in America Should Withdraw Support for GMA's Mob Rule.)
Take the Anti-terrorist Bill that is up to the Senate for deliberation. During her birthday celebration speech, the President called on the people to help her fight "not just the terrorists" but also "the political destabilizers" -- both as the enemies of freedom and democracy.
No wonder the Opposition fears the Anti-Terrorism Bill will be used against them, since "destabilizing the government" is apparently one of the proposed terrorist crimes in the proposed measure. Even Rep. Roilo Golez (Independent, Paranaque, PMA and US Naval Academy, former National Security Adviser of Gloria!) told ABSCBN News last night, that he did not support passage of the Anti-Terrorism Bill now because he was convinced the President would use it against the Opposition. I thought this was most unfortunate, but the chances of the bill passing the Senate seem small to me, considering that the President and her allies are trying to ABOLISH the Upper House with that Charter Change movement. Politically, the Senate is almost unanimously against President Arroyo, with the Senate President Frank Drilon, the Majority Leader Francisco Pangilinan, and the Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel, calling today for the prosecution of police and government officials involved in the warrantless arrests and raids under Proclamation 1017 last February 24. The stepping down of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has also reinvigorated calls for President Arroyo to do the noble thing and sacrifice personal circumstance for the good of the country.
But Dr. Antonio Contreras, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the leading Philippines academic institution, De La Salle University in Manila, also excoriated Bunye's position on ABSCBN News this afternoon, saying that it was because the Media and civil societies are resisting the Palace pressures and fighting back to preserve press freedom and other democratic rights. Dean Contreras is absolutely right and I believe his views are representative of academe throughout the Philippines. DLSU, along with the Christian Brothers that run the De La Salle system of schools all over the archipelago, deserve a lot of credit for being on the front lines of the fight. Dean Contreras is right! Are we supposed to thank the Palace that Democracy is still alive in the Philippines?
FILIPINO AMERICANS, especially their upwardly mobile social and political leaders, have always come in for special love and care from the President on her official and unofficial trips to the United States. Many of them will be reconsidering their positions though as a result of this editorial.
UPDATE:Wow, despite a studious nonchalance from Ignacio Bunye about the Times editorial, the Palace acted quickly enough on damage control. I just heard Philippine Ambassador to the UN Lauro Baja tell Ces Drilon they've submitted a Letter to the Editor of the New York Times saying the editorial was "looking through a glass darkly" in describing the situation in the Philipines.
UPDATE:Newly appointed US Ambassador to the Philippines, Kirstie Kenney, has reportedly told Senate President Franklin Drilon only that the New York Times is private media and that President George W. Bush does read the NYT editorial. (Well we know all THAT Ma'm, but what do YOU think? Okay, settle down and scope it out for a couple of months. You'll see what everyone's talking about...)
Related recent posts at the New York Times (requires registration but it was painless.)
- Filipinos Find It Easy to Deride, But Not Depose, Their President (March 6, 2006)
- Peaceful End To Standoff In Philippines (February 27, 2006)
- Political Turmoil Again Thwarts Progress in Philippines (February 26, 2006)
- Emergency Rule in Philippines After Failed Coup Is Cited (February 25, 2006)
UPDATE: The Letter to the Editor from Philippines UN Ambassador Lauro Baja is covered by PDI: Yup, a brave and sunny forecast and steadfast denial of storm clouds gathering. I can see we're in for a season of duelling METAPHORS now.