Sunday, January 21, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 21, 2001

'People power' again rescues Philippines

Just as they did when they overthrew President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the people of Manila and other cities again massively seized the reins of power and deposed President Joseph Estrada.

It was, once again, a remarkable demonstration of democracy in its most fundamentally raw form. It was an awesome display for a young democracy, but, one must hope, not a process that will become institutionalized. Still, the restraint of the military in throwing in with the masses instead of launching a coup is admirable.

Estrada’s impeachment trial had been suspended when, by an obviously bogus vote, senators refused to look at bank records that, prosecutors assured them, would demonstrate conclusively the magnitude of his corruption. But by then it was too late to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

Figures such as Cardinal Jaime Sin first urged people to take to the streets and then found themselves unable to control what they had begun. When demonstrators began to move toward Malacanang Palace, nothing could stop them and the end was assured.

The reins of power pass to the vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who already must be reminded that she is not a popularly elected figure but more of a caretaker. She is a bright and well-connected elitist - yet another Filipino oligarch at a time when the common people are in dire need of genuine economic and social reform.

"The illusion of mass Filipino people power’ bringing social change will instead maintain a system that produces great wealth for a few but abject poverty for many," predicted East-West Center researcher Gerard Finin.

A period of calm and healing is now urgently needed. Institutions such as the Senate are in tatters and must be restored. The intensive use of the good offices of such respected figures as former presidents Corazon Aquino and - especially - Fidel Ramos is important.

The toughest immediate problem Macapagal-Arroyo faces is the disposition of Estrada, who appears to some be in denial about the revulsion he has inspired. If he doesn’t find a way to leave the country quickly, he most likely will find himself facing prosecution and a substantial prison sentence - an extreme change from the lifestyle to which he thought himself entitled.

The new Bush administration must quickly get up to speed on events in the Philippines, and look for appropriate opportunities to help with economic aid and expertise.

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