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Philippines: Failed Mutiny May Lead to Government Reforms - 2003-07-30


The Philippines is picking up the pieces from a failed military mutiny earlier this week. The grievances voiced by the renegade soldiers have struck a nerve among many Filipinos. Political analysts say, more than ever, the government should listen to the public's long-time clamor for change.

The day-long mutiny collapsed, the soldiers returned to barracks and the government of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo remained in power. Ms. Arroyo considered the incident a "blip" in the country's history, as the soldiers received little public support during the mutiny. But many observers say some of the grievances of the 296 soldiers, who stormed a commercial complex Sunday, are real and are no different from the grievances of ordinary Filipinos.

The soldiers complained of low-pay, lack of housing, and inferior supplies. But their main protest was against corruption -- the kind that allegedly has allowed some members of the armed forces to sell arms and ammunition to enemies of the state. They say soldiers and civilians are dying from the same bullets used to defend the nation.

Corruption in the Philippines is considered endemic and is rarely punished. The Philippines is largely poor. There is little opportunity for work, forcing millions of its citizens to find jobs overseas. Corruption here is seen as another way by which an elite few enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

The fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 in a popular uprising commonly referred to as "EDSA One" heralded for many Filipinos a new beginning for their country, an end to cronyism and corruption that characterized Mr. Marcos' 20-year rule.

Yet 15 years later, Filipinos once again found themselves in a similar uprising, known here as EDSA Two, to topple then President Joseph Estrada because of his alleged corruption. He was replaced by then Vice President Gloria Arroyo.

Many are asking, will there be an end to this cycle of uprisings against corrupt governments?

Some analysts say governments failed to listen to the true message of past uprisings and seize upon the momentum to execute sweeping changes in the bureaucracy. In the end, they say, the public was left feeling betrayed.

Kalayaan College President Jose Abueva says some have used extreme measures like mutinies and coup attempts to get government's attention. "The promise of EDSA One and Two has not been fulfilled to the satisfaction of many people - the fight against poverty, against corruption and injustice," he says. "As long as injustice, poverty, unemployment, low economic growth and poor governance are there, there are always this unrest, this resort to short cuts."

Analysts say this is compounded by the seeming immunity of wrongdoers in the government and even in the private sector who go unpunished.

Mr. Marcos' widow, Imelda, accused of stealing millions of dollars of public money during her husband's regime, is facing charges, but has yet to be convicted. Former President Estrada is currently in government custody while on trial.

Previous governments have attempted to cleanse the bureaucracy, including lifestyle checks for senior government officials and reorganizations. But as many Filipinos would tell you, that has yet to put a "big fish" in jail.

"There are samples of wrong-doings in other parts of our society, which go unpunished," says Guillermo Luz, executive director of Manila's Makati Business Club. "We have errant taxpayers who go unpunished in the business community. We have politicians who accept "balato" [concessions] openly, and nothing happens to them. We are a country that is just reluctant to punish anybody for any wrongdoing. In a way, some sort of a warped way, it reinforces this type of behavior, and in fact, some people get rewarded for it."

Analysts say governments after Marcos' lacked the political will to reform from within, and have compromised some reforms in the face of political pressure.

So Sunday's crisis is being seen as yet another chance for the government to redeem itself.

University of the Philippines' political science professor Miriam Ferrer says the government needs to get serious. "We need really a strong government. But is the government really strong, or is it one that continues to compromise with all the vested political and economic interest?" he asks. "How can it be strong, if its institutions that enforce the law are also suffering from the weight of their own corruption, and complacency?"

In her state of the nation speech before Congress Monday, President Arroyo promised to investigate the soldiers' grievances. She vowed to continue the fight against corruption, but asked for patience in this process.

Next year, Filipinos will choose another president and a new Congress. But if the thousands of people rallying against her government outside Congress Monday were any indication of what the pulse of the nation really is, Ms. Arroyo's battle for their hearts and minds seems far from victory.

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