Philippines stuck in cycle of vicious dictators and failed democracies

By Joel Lanceta

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency on February 24 because of reported coup plots from leftists, rogue army officers, and political adversaries. In doing so she heaved the troubled country into a state characterized by: ransacked news media offices, troops in the streets, arrests without warrants, and general disarray. For foreign observers, this is a horrible violation of civil liberties and people’s rights. For Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, like myself, unfortunately, this kind of political turmoil is becoming normal.

A coup toppling Arroyo would be the third time in 20 years that a president has been overthrown. The first was the celebrated 1986 nonviolent revolution called the “people’s power” that overthrew the corrupt regime of Ferdinand Marcos. After being freed from a 21-year-old dictatorship that imposed martial law for nearly a decade, Filipinos hoped for peace and prosperity. But a rigid, oligarchic elite still controls most of the power in the Philippines through cronyism and massive graft, and for a relentless procession of political and economic upheavals have left the Philippines one of the poorest nations in the world.

Having risen to power thanks to a popular of her own in 2001, Arroyo promised to improve government finances, tackle corruption and cut the country’s heavy debts. But she has done very little to relieve the suffering of the 30 million Filipinos living below the poverty line, and quite possibly is as corrupt as her predecessors, having been accused of rigging an election in 2004.

And now with this crackdown in place, security forces have expanded their power. They are conducting arrests without warrants. The rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of the press, and free speech have been curtailed. To the Filipinos who lived during martial law under President Marcos, the fear is that Arroyo is using all available means to exert her control and stay in power. Although some measures may have been warranted, the extent to which she gave unrestricted powers to security forces will not have any effect on the corruption, the rebellious military, and the elitist politics that hamper any positive developments.

As such, you may be thinking I advocate the resignation or removal of Arroyo. Pragmatically though, I think she needs to stay in power, if only because there is not any viable alternative to her right now. Removing Arroyo would be self-defeating for democracy in the Philippines because it would attack the legitimacy of elections and the constitution of the Philippines, the tools that democracy needs to work. And the people’s power movement would devolve into a mob rule: The people have the power to elect a president but the power to remove a democratically elected president. There is no strong, charismatic, and ideal candidate to replace her. The options are either to continue Arroyo’s presidency to preserve democracy and risk chaos and mob rule, or to open the possibility a military regime. For a country so destabilized and in such desperate need of foreign investments, that is not the road the Philippines should follow.

What this example should show to the world, and the United States, is that the ultimate consequence of full restrictions on civil liberty for the sake of security is not stability, but further internal volatility. Here we may clamor about the Patriot Act, debate what defines freedom of the press, and challenge the issue of wiretapping, but the fact of the matter is we still have the ability to argue against these issues. If President Bush were to even initiate any of the emergency measures Arroyo has done this past week under the guise of national security, he would meet extensive resistance from our checks and balances, from the American people, and from its representative government and courts.

In the end, it is the Filipinos who bear the burden of their beloved, but troubled homeland. Many Filipinos present the fatalistic view that the Philippines will never change for the better. Taking away their civil liberties may further erode the hope they had when Filipinos first overthrew a corrupt government 20 years ago, only to have the same thing happen over and over again.