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Saturday, January 27, 2001

Political games
in Manila brew
trouble for Asia,
United States

Turmoil throughout
Southeast Asia could
disrupt vital sea lanes

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin

IN the Philippines, Filipinos often play politics the way Americans play baseball -- it's the sport that is a national pastime. Unhappily, the political antics in Manila for the past week have not been amusing because they have serious consequences, not only for Filipinos but far beyond the shores of the archipelago for the rest of Asia and the United States.

After months of rising protest and weeks of an impeachment trial in the Senate for a raft of charges including plundering the national treasury, President Joseph Estrada resigned.

Or did he? It turns out that he had sought an agreement that would have given him immunity from legal prosecution. In return, said Filipino political analysts reached by email, Estrada would step aside in favor of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo

That deal evidently fell apart when the Supreme Court declared the presidency vacant and 30 minutes later Macapagal-Arroyo, the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal, was sworn in. Estrada then declared that he had not resigned, which confronted the Philippines with an apparent constitutional crisis. In reality, the argument was over whether Estrada would get a walk or would be put on criminal trial.

Whatever the case, Manila was thrown into turmoil, which has added to the continuing turbulence in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia to the southwest, President Abdurrahman Wahid has been unable to bring order out of economic, ethnic and political chaos. In Malaysia to the west, Malaysians seem increasingly restless and Thailand has just gone through an indecisive election. In Taiwan to the north, President Chen Shui-bian has not yet fully grasped the reins of power.

Taken together, these political disruptions may put into jeopardy the vital sea lanes in the South China Sea. More than one third of the world's shipping passes through that waterway, more than through the Suez and Panama Canals combined, and any large-scale disturbance would damage the economies of China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan -- and the United States and Canada across the Pacific Ocean.

The breakdown in law and order in the Philippines and Indonesia, and to a lesser extent in other Southeast Asian nations, has opened up what the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Dennis Blair, has labeled "a seam of lawlessness" that includes piracy, illicit drug running and human smuggling.

In particular, the Philippines has become a transshipment point for drugs headed for the United States and the tumult in Manila only makes the smuggling easier. American officials with access to intelligence reports say the Thai army has managed to stop much of the drug traffic flowing from the "Golden Triangle" in remote regions of northern Thailand, Burma and Laos, and out to markets through Bangkok.


Drug merchants have therefore diverted their shipments through Yunnan in southern China and ports on the southeastern coast of China to the northern Philippines, where they are repacked for clandestine shipment to the United States.

Those officials also suspect that China is seeking to take advantage of the agitation in the Philippines to expand its influence, especially through the large overseas Chinese community in the Philippines. Whether the long-term Chinese objective might be subversion or merely to sway the government in Manila was left unclear.

Lastly, what happens in the Philippines concerns Americans who trade with that nation or have investments there or who live there. Of the Philippines' $35 billion in annual exports, 34 percent go to the United States; of $31 billion in imports, 22 percent come from the U.S. The U.S. Embassy in Manila says it does not know the value of American investments in the Philippines, other than that it is substantial, because it is intermingled with other foreign investments.

For American military forces, the political disruption in Manila may jeopardize a recent agreement that permits the U.S. to send troops into the Philippines temporarily for training. After the Philippines kicked the U.S. out of Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base in 1992, the U.S. lost access to valuable training sites there and elsewhere in the Philippines. So far, the new access agreement has not been threatened but could be if Philippine domestic politics demand.

With Estrada out, even if his fate is undetermined, the new president faces a monumental task. Her country is stricken with pervasive corruption in government and business, grinding poverty among a third of all Filipinos, embedded feudalism among a handful of families with world-class wealth, and a half-dozen insurgencies, among which the Muslim uprising in Mindanao in the south is but the best known.

As a professor at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila, Juan Miguel Luz, said in a recent article, "Getting rid of a poorly performing president with immoral behavior and a dubious work ethic was in fact the easy part. Now the hard work begins."

Luz, who served in the administration of President Corazon Aquino from 1987 to 1991, after she replaced the deposed President Ferdinand Marcos, asserted, "We need to create a real revolution."

He contended that the Philippines should break up the haciendas or large landed estates that date back to the 300-year rule of Spain before the U.S. arrived. "We need to complete the agrarian reform program" that, ironically, was begun by Macapagal-Arroyo's father in the 1960s but was sidetracked under the Marcos dictatorship.

Luz called for reform in education to give the poor the same access to schooling as the rich, ridding the construction of roads and schools of graft, and fostering local governments that produce. "Too many of our local chief executives view public office as a way to enrich themselves," he said.

"Will this be a mere changing of the guard or a real revolution?" Luz asked. "Can we Filipinos stand up and deliver?"

Richard Halloran, formerly with The New York Times
as a foreign correspondent in Asia and military
correspondent in Washington, writes
about Asia from Honolulu.

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