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Commentary: Corruption pays in the Philippines

December 28, 2007


Corruption is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. Mention the name Marcos and associations with corruption, along with human rights abuses and impunity, will most likely spring to mind. Although the nation has had several presidents since Marcos first became the country's leader in the mid-1960s, little has changed today. Tragically for people in the Philippines, corruption, human rights abuses and impunity are now as much a part of the daily national life of the Philippines as they were four decades and two people power movements ago. Another fact of national life has not changed either over this period--poverty.

In short, the "Philippine system" is characterized by corruption, human rights abuses, impunity and poverty. These facets of the political, economic and social life of the nation, of course, are linked: people are poor to a large extent because of widespread corruption; those who wield political power violate people's rights to attain and maintain that power; a lack of judicial punishment in the courts ensures impunity that permits corruption and human rights violations to continue. The cycle has sadly repeated itself for decades.

It is in this context that the executive clemency granted to former president Joseph Estrada by the current resident of Malacañang, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on October 25 for the crime of plunder must be seen. Arroyo's pardon overturned the verdict of the Sandiganbayan, the country's anti-graft court that sentenced Estrada to life in prison, disqualified him from public office and ordered the forfeiture of his corruptly attained wealth of 731 million pesos (about US$17 million) and a mansion in Metro Manila. Pardoning Estrada 43 days after being sentenced to life in prison and without the former president expressing any sign of regret, Arroyo, in effect, told the nation, as well as the international community, that some people in the Philippines are above the law, that corruption does pay and, in the case of Estrada, pay handsomely!

Upon being pardoned, Estrada thanked "President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo"--he had never addressed Arroyo as the president previously--and said that he would help her government combat poverty. Estrada's statement raises another important element in the context in which Estrada's pardon must be viewed--the widespread poverty of the Philippines.

According to the Human Development Report 2006 prepared by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), almost half of the population of the Philippines in 2004--47.5 percent--earned less than US$2 per day, and 36.8 percent lived under the national poverty line set by the government in the same year.

Statistics, however, can sometimes mask the reality of poverty and the way it touches people's lives. Examples are often much better. Unfortunately, a vivid example is readily available to describe an impoverished way of life in the Philippines; for on November 2--All Souls' Day on the Roman Catholic calendar--Marianeth Amper, a 12-year-old girl, hanged herself in her home in Davao on the island of Mindanao because of poverty.

In an unsent letter to a reality TV program Wish Ko Lang, she said that she wanted a new pair of shoes, a bag, a bicycle she could use to ride to school and better paying jobs for her parents--a father who was an unemployed construction worker for the past year because of health problems and a mother who was a housewife that did laundry for the neighbors to earn extra money for the family. With dreams to be a nurse, education was important to Marianeth, and she lamented in her diary that she could not attend school for a month recently because the family did not have money for her transportation costs to school and school allowance.

Isabelo Amper and his wife originally had 10 children, seven of whom now survive.

"She might have thought that's [committing suicide] the best thing she could do to help," her father Isabelo was quoted as saying in the Mindanao Times.

Tragic tales like those of Marianeth and others in the Philippines make corruption in the country and Arroyo's pardon of Estrada even more morally obscene. Arroyo has forgotten that she was ushered into Malacañang in 2001 by the country's second people power movement due to Estrada's addiction for corruption. Moreover, Arroyo herself and her administration and family have become embroiled in their own corruption scandals since September over (1) the award of a government contract to the Chinese company ZTE Corp. for nationwide government broadband services, (2) alleged bribes to opposition congressmen by a member of Arroyo's party to support an anemic impeachment motion that, after failing to pass, would have constitutionally prevented Arroyo from being impeached for a year and (3) the improper distribution of bags of money to hundreds of congressmen, governors and other local officials that were each filled with hundreds of thousands of pesos. Like the pardon of Estrada, the latter two incidents are believed to be attempts by Arroyo to ensure that she will not be successfully impeached by freely sharing either public money and/or the proceeds of past corruption with others.

Maintaining power, however, is not just a case of generously dispersing money to other corrupt officials, but it is a deadly game as well as hundreds of people have been extra judicially killed or have disappeared in the past six years of the Arroyo government. While the victims have had diverse backgrounds as labor and peasant activists, journalists, church people, lawyers and opposition politicians, the common denominator that appears to bind most of them together is that they were advocates for people like Marianeth and thousands of other impoverished families like hers. After six years of such violence, few, if any, perpetrators have been tried and convicted. This lack of justice naturally spawns impunity that only results in more extrajudicial killings and disappearances as well as further corruption.

What is evident from the above illustrations is that these incidents of corruption and violence are not isolated individual cases but are symptoms of a corrupt and violent system. Unless steps are taken to flush corruption and violence from the system, they will only continue. These steps must include punishment in the nation's courts for those who are corrupt and who murder and abduct the country's citizens. No one, including the president, can be above the law. Otherwise the law has no meaning.

In addition, a constitutional amendment should be considered that would require another appendage of the government, such as the Senate, to approve any act of executive clemency to prevent future plunderers from further plundering.

Moreover, citizens who have a conscience must be encouraged to seek public office, and the people must have enough faith in them and the political system to elect them to bring about change. This prescription, while bordering on the utopian, offers a different path forward. What is evident is that the Philippines and its people cannot suffer any longer by treading on the same corrupt and violent path.

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

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