Fri, Feb 02, 2001 - Page 13 News List

Lessons from the Philippine coup

The ousting of President Estrada points toward the future of globalization

By Antonio C. Hsiang 向駿

Illustration: Mountain People

Even before the resignation of Philippines' President Joseph Estrada on Jan. 20, The Economist selected the first Asian leader's impeachment as one of the most important political events of the year 2000 (Dec. 23, 2000, p.6).

In Feb. 1986, thousands of Filipinos stopped tanks sent to quell a military rebellion against dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. This time, the military, together with ex-Presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos, and Cardinal Jaime Sin, defended the people and the democracy won in 1986. The media called it "People Power II."

After the charges against Estrada for months, Philippines economic confidence has swooned. The peso has hit an all-time low, the stock market has dropped more than a third and foreign investment has slowed to a tickle. The chorus of voices asking Estrada to resign includes top business executives, church leaders, even Vice President Gloria Arroyo.

The protesters formed the "Jericho March,"after the biblical story in which the Israelites marched around Jericho with trumpet-playing priests until the walls came tumbling down.

Estrada grudgingly left office on Jan. 20 after much of his Cabinet resigned and the army and police sided with the opposition. His successor, Arroyo, faces immediate tough decisions, including the prosecution of Estrada as a criminal.

There are at least three lessons we can learn from the people of Filipinos.

-- First, the so-called "new generation" leader can not necessarily bring democracy and competence to public office. Estrada, once a popular movie actor, started out in 1998 with the biggest popular mandate ever given to a Philippine president. The direction of his policies was pretty much determined by his predecessors, Aquino and Ramos, who did much to dismantle Marcos' corrupt crony system and reform the flagging economy.

Ironically, the target of "people power II" was not a dictator but Joseph Estrada, a constitutional executive who had received more votes than any previous presidential candidate and who remained popular among the country's poor. "People Power II" showed how much Filipinos' determination to put their democracy at risk to remove officials who follow the money rather than the people's will.

-- Second is that high-tech plays an important role. On Jan. 17, the Senate voted 11-10 to prevent an envelope, containing records submitted to the court by Equitable PCI Bank, from being used in charges against Estrada's corruption. Within hours, thousands of opposition demonstrators had gathered on the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, known as EDSA, to express their disdain for the Senate and demand Estrada's immediate resignation. High-speed electronic text messages sent by cellular phones called for protest and spread like wildfire. The Internet was also used to rally public causes. High-tech products help people, who feel normal political channels are so tainted by money that their voices can't be heard, to oust their democratically elected but corrupted leader.

-- Third, the most lasting effect of the judicial pursuit of Estrada may well be its international dimension. Legal advocacy groups such as the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption (VACC) say they want to begin a much broader campaign of prosecuting other politicians and affiliated profiteers suspected of wrongdoing over the past decade. It is a warning signal to all the dictators that justice won't sleep.

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