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Saturday, October 21, 2000

Associated Press
Protesters hold aloft "Resign!" posters as they march
along a main avenue in Manila's financial district of
Makati to demand the resignation of Philippine
President Joseph Estrada on Wednesday.

Showdown in the Philippines

Presidential scandal rocks
the nation and threatens
stability of the region

The case for impeachment

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin

In the Philippines several months ago, an American visitor remarked to a Filipino business executive that talk about ousting President Joseph Estrada seemed to have quieted down. "Yes, all that talk has calmed down," the executive said, "but that doesn't mean it has gone away."

He turned out to be painfully right. Months of murmuring against President Estrada have erupted into chaos that threatens to turn the Philippines into another Indonesia, adding to political instability in Southeast Asia and hampering an already lagging regional recovery from the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997.

Associated Press
Philippine President Joseph Estrada scratches his head
before addressing poor residents at suburban Quezon City
Wednesday. Estrada is facing the most serious scandal
of his presidency following charges that he received
millions in payoffs from illegal gambling operations.

For the industrial nations of Asia, North America, and to a lesser extent Western Europe, the upheaval in the Philippines on the eastern flank of the South China Sea, coupled with the turmoil in Indonesia on the southern flank, could jeopardize the vital sea lanes in the South China Sea. It is a virtual canal through which passes more shipping than through the Suez and Panama Canals combined.

"The nation is not only in distress. It is sinking," said Teodoro Benigno, once a spokesman for former President Corazon Aquino, in a column in the Philippine Star newspaper. Another prominent columnist reached by email in Manila, Amando Doronila of the Philippine Inquirer, lamented, "The Philippines is probably following in the turbulent footsteps of Indonesia."

Indonesia has been wracked with economic troubles for three years, with corruption that forced former President Suharto to resign in 1998, with continuous wrangling among political leaders, with disputes between civilian authorities and military leaders, and with several violent separatist movements.

On the Philippines, conversations in Manila, Cebu, with Filipinos in Hawaii, and with American business executives and officials informed about the Philippines all pointed to an inevitable conclusion: The cause of the revolt was a wide perception that President Estrada is incompetent, corrupt, and a playboy who has carried his flamboyant ways as a movie actor into Malacanang, the presidential mansion.

Associated Press
Philippine Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo,
above, resigned from her cabinet post and drafted an
"alternative agenda" to unite the opposition.

The reasons for the consternation in the Philippines was underscored by President Estrada himself during a large dinner when he visited Honolulu recently. The president gave a nearly incoherent speech in which he mocked recent meetings with Chinese and Japanese leaders, randomly switched from English into Tagalog to leave the American audience in the dark, and asserted that he had corruption and terrorism "under control."

More than one person leaving the dinner was overheard to mutter, "Bizarre."

The eruption in Manila began several weeks ago when Luis Singson, the governor of a northern province, accused President Estrada of taking $11 million in payoffs from illegal gambling. Immediately, the leader of the influential Roman Catholic Church, Jaime Cardinal Sin, called on President Estrada to resign.

In a nation where family connections count, Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, daughter of former president Diosdado Macapagal, resigned as secretary of Social Welfare but retained her post as vice president to succeed President Estrada if he resigns. Other powerful politicians broke with the president. Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr., son of perhaps the most popular president since independence in 1946, asserted, "We have become the laughing stock of the world."

Associated Press
Gov. Luis "Chavit" Singson made the first claims
of wrongdoing against his former friend,
President Estrada.

Opposition political leaders filed a bill of impeachment even though the president's party controls the Congress. Business groups withdrew their support as the peso plummeted to a record low in value against the dollar, the stock market hit a 52-week low, and economic advisers cautioned foreign investors to avoid the Philippines.

In rebuttal, the president asserted that he would not resign. "My conscience is clear," he said. "I am not hiding anything from our people." Even so, he canceled a trip to South Korea for an Asia-Europe summit meeting and over last weekend appeared on national television to apologize.

After a career as a movie actor, President Estrada was elected in 1998 by appealing to the poor; about one third of the Philippine population lives in poverty. Almost immediately, however, he was roundly criticized for appointing his family and friends to lucrative positions in government. Allegations of bribery and payoffs became commonplace.

In particular, critics pointed to what they considered to be the president's inept economic management and a routine of late-night parties and equally late arrivals to work in the morning. Last winter, rumors flew that critics led by former president Fidel Ramos and his national security adviser, Jose Almonte, were seeking to revive the "people power" that drove dictator Ferdinand Marcos from office in 1986.

Filipino political observers said, however, that those opponents had second thoughts, asserting that forcing President Estrada out by extra-legal means would damage the nation's fragile democracy. Instead, they looked to congressional elections in November 2001 to produce a majority that would impeach the president.

Meantime, muttering continued at social or business gatherings. The president was criticized for failing to bring drug smuggling, much of it from China, under control. The Philippines, according to a report from U.S. Central Intelligence, has become a transit point for heroin and crystal methamphetamines. Some stays there, while more is shipped to the United States.

Critics condemned orders to the armed forces to employ naval gunfire and air strikes in an attempt to rescue hostages held by Muslim insurgents on the southern island of Jolo. The attacks resulted mostly in civilian deaths, destroyed villages, and few releases.

American military officers, noting that the Philippines had declined offers of U.S. training, were dismayed. "That's not the way you do it," said one, asserting that specially trained, stealthy commandos should have been used.

Allowing Libya to pay an estimated $25 million to the Muslim rebels as ransom to obtain the release of hostages was seen by many Filipinos as a way to funnel funds to terrorists. The Philippine Star printed 90 enraged letters to the editor in mid-September. "We allowed ourselves to be used by Libya in propagating terrorism," wrote Rolly Croistobal.

Then Governor Singson, who had been a political ally of President Estrada, evidently decided that enough was enough.

Richard Halloran , former Asia correspondent
for the New York Times, is a freelance writer
based in Honolulu.

The case for

MANILA --- Here is the list of charges against Philippine President Joseph Estrada specified in an impeachment motion filed against him by the opposition in the House of Representatives on Wednesday:


Bullet (That) from November 1998 to August 2000, Estrada received 10 million pesos a month as bribe money from jueteng (gambling) lords.


Bullet (That) Estrada directly or indirectly received for his personal benefit 130 million pesos out of the 200 million pesos released by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno for tobacco farmers.

Bullet (That) he participated directly in the real estate business through a family controlled corporation which constructed 36 townhouses in the Manila suburb of Antipolo. Estrada also committed perjury and the offense of unexplained wealth because records show he and his wife and mistresses and their children have other interests in other companies outside of the three firms listed in his statement of assets and liabilities for 1999.


Bullet (That) Estrada betrayed public trust and violated his own oath of office when he unduly intervened in the Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into alleged stock manipulation of gaming firm BW Resource Corp. involving a presidential ally.

Bullet (That) he disobeyed the constitutional mandate to avoid conflict of interest when he approved a 100-million-peso donation of government funds to a private foundation organized by his wife.

Bullet (That) he violated his own official pronouncement that he would not favor relatives and friends by appointing them to government posts.


Bullet (That) he violated the law and his own oath of office when he ordered the customs commissioner to turn over 52 luxury vehicles it had impounded from smugglers to the presidential palace for distribution to cabinet members and other senior officials.

Bullet (That) he violated the constitution when he appointed certain members of his cabinet and their deputies to other posts in government contrary to a constitutional provision that says cabinet members shall not hold any other office.

Since the gambling payoffs scandal broke out, Estrada has specifically denied receiving money from gambling lords and a part of tobacco subsidies.

He has also said the accusations were a "political hatchet job" by his rivals ahead of next May's congressional elections. "My conscience is clear," he said.

Estrada and the presidential palace have either categorically denied all of the above charges or said no law was violated in the presidential acts, such as in his appointment of some cabinet members to secondary posts or in the distribution of smuggled vehicles to members of his cabinet for their official use.

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