Top Philippines New Stories of 2003

To the surprise of nobody, it was another mostly-disastrous year for the Philippines. Here's the Chris Pforr Top 10:

Business As Usual
For a country chronically teetering at the cliff of disaster across the complete spectrum of political, social, economic, environmental, and spiritual issues, somehow the Philippines continues to operate on an absolutely Business As Usual basis. With the most powerful people setting the example, most everyone here is looking out for number one, and doing so in the "same old, same old" manner. That's a bad omen, considering the obvious need of this nation to make significant changes in order to avoid complete collapse during the next 20 years. It's my "Story of the Year."

Arroyo Presidency Survives Another Year

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

On December 30, 2002, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo vowed to not seek a second term as President, promising instead to selflessly focus on administering the country. On October 4, 2003 she reversed course and announced her intention to run for President again. Nobody was very surprised.
2003 was a very difficult year for the embattled President, but with wily political skills (some inherited from her father, the late Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal) she survived and is gearing up for the May 2004 Presidential election. Her most threatening challenger will probably be....

'Da King' is Running

Fernando Poe, Jr.

On November 26, Fernando Poe Jr., a movie actor with no political experience, announced that he will challenge President Arroyo in the 2004 presidential elections. The son of movie star Fernando Poe Sr., Poe Jr. dropped out of high school to work as a messenger for a film exchange office. By age 15 he landed his first starring role in a movie. Known as 'Da King', in the 1960's, 70's and 80's, Poe and deposed President Joseph Estrada were the biggest Filipino action movie stars. He has played the roles of soldier, cop, priest, Muslim and boxer. Known to millions as fast on the draw and deadly with his fists, he's also considered less than articulate, particularly with women. Most of his roles have portrayed him battling tremendous odds in protecting the welfare of the oppressed. Poe has absolutely no poltical experience, but as Arnold Swarzenegger proved in the California governorship race, the screen image of a maverick avenger can have a remarkable effect at the ballot box.

Makati Mutiny

Makati Mutiny Makati Mutiny

On July 27, 300 disgruntled junior army officers and soldiers seized the high-rise Oakwood apartment in Manila to demand the resignations of President Arroyo and Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes. The past several years have seen a surge in allegations of high-level corruption and gross mismanagement in the military, and the mutineers were reportedly seeking to call attention to the need for badly-needed reforms. For example, they claimed that the bombing outside the Davao airport earlier in the year had been stage-managed to draw more military aid. There are abundant allegations that the high-profile Abu Sayyaf hostage crises in 1999 and 2001 (the latter involving the American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham) were intentionally prolonged by the Philippine military leadership to attract more military funding, and to allow the generals to share in the ransom payments. And there are persistent tales of Philippine army brass building sumptuous retirement villas while earning small official salaries.
But the mutiny fizzled within hours (although the coup spokespeople insisted it had never been their intention to overthrow the government anyway.) The crisis did result in the almost immediate resignations of Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and military intelligence chief Victor Corpus, but there has been little subsequent reform of the military services. Most of the mutinous soldiers have been granted amnesties.

Davide Impeachment

Hilario Davide

The ordeal of Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide captured significant public interest and caused a near-constitutional crisis when he was nearly impeached by the House of Representatives. Charged with misuse of court fees earmarked for personnel benefits, Davide allegedly diverted funds intended as salary for regular Supreme Court staff, to the purchase of luxury items for mansions, used by the Supreme Court Justices, in the hill-resort town of Baguio. On October 23 the House of Representatives filed an impeachment complaint against the chief justice, with plans to debate and formally vote on the complaint shortly thereafter. However, on November 10, in a 13-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the impeachment complaint unconstitutional, it being the second impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice during 2003. This seemed to mollify all those concerned. Noticeable to me during the affair was the near-complete absence of discussion of the substance of the complaint; nobody seemed concerned about the diversion of salaries from the worker bees. Rather, the entire debacle appeared to have been an attempt by the Chief Justice's political enemies to "get him."

Leyte Landslides

Leyte Landslides Leyte Landslides

At least 200 people were killed and 3,600 made homeless when rain-triggered landlisdes buried several villages in mud on the central Philippines island of Leyte. The Environment Department blamed a "confluence of factors": record amounts of rain, steep slopes, highly fractured rocks, failure to keep human settlements away from hazarous areas, permanent conversion of forest lands, and lack of serious land-use planning for disaster-prone areas. The key factor appears to be the single word "deforestation." Forest cover in the Philippines has dwindled from 34 percent of total area in 1980 to just 18 percent in 2001. This is the result of a combination of pressure on eroded hills from poverty-stricken lowland immigrants and predatory loggers abetted by corrupt officials. This was probably just a dress-rehearsal for many future landslides.

Estrada Trial

President 
  Joseph "Erap" Estrada

2003 saw little progress in the ongoing criminal trial of former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada. Deposed in January 2001 by the "People Power II" EDSA revolution, Estrada has been on trial for almost two years on the charge of plunder, having allegedly stolen $80 million from the Philippines government while President. The latest twist in the saga is the recent decision by President Arroyo and the Sandiganbayan (Philippines Supreme Court) to allow Estrada to leave the Philippines for "emergency" medical treatment in the U.S. (Estrada reortedly wants to have knee replacement surgery at Stanford Medical Center in California.) However, government prosecutors are attempting to block Estrada's departure, believing that he would not likely return if allowed to leave the country for medical treatment abroad. (Note: this physical therapist watched a TV video clip of Estrada arising from a chair last week, and he didn't appear to me like a man suffering from severe knee arthritis.)

Ecleo Trial

Ruben Ecleo, Jr.

Speaking of long-running trials.....that of Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association Supreme Master Ruben Ecleo, Jr., drags on here in Cebu City. Ecleo is charged with murdering his wife, Alona Bacolod, then stuffing her body into a black plastic trash bag, and then dumping her into a ravine in Dalaguete, Cebu in January 2000. Following a shootout with police at the Ecleo mansion which killed 16 of his followers, then the grisly assasination of Alona's parents and brother, and finally Ecleo's arrest in May 2000, the trial finally began this past May 2003, and is proceeding very slowly (photos above include one of the chainsaw found inside his cell at the Bagong Buhay Rehabilitation Center in Cebu City.)

Priestly Scandals

Philippine Priests

Sexual scandals have rocked the Catholic Church around the world, and the Philippines has not been excepted. In July the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) officially apologized for sex abuse by its own priests. Archbishop Orlando Quevedo said that about 200 of the country's 7000 priests may have committed "sexual misconduct" - including child abuse, homosexuality, and affairs with female parishoners - over the past two decades. This includes two recently-implicated bishops.
In November the CBCP announced guidelines for sexual misconduct among priests. Under the guidelines, priests found to have fathered a child would not be automatically defrocked but those with two would be immediately asked to leave the Church.
So there you have it, priestly guys: one is OK but two is a bit much. Ain't it great to know that the Catholic Church is doing its own little part to rein in the Philippine population explosion?

Missing Cellphone Returned to Foreign Tourist

Chris Pforr

OK, here at last is a story with a happy ending. In Cebu one hears stories almost everyday about somebody's cellphone being stolen. It's almost like the national sport. In November I was riding a bus from Cebu City to Dalaguete. When I got off the bus I noticed my backpack was partially unzipped and my cellphone missing. Immediately I thought, OK, I finally joined the swelling ranks of cellphone snatching victims. But my friend Ana swung into action: using her own cellphone, she immediately called mine and, surprisingly, somebody answered. It was a PNP (Philippine National Police) officer who even identified himself. He said he was on the bus, going to Dumaguete, and would return the phone to me the next day. "Oh sure", I thought, "and pigs will fly to the moon."
The next morning up in Mantalongon I was awakened at 8am by somebody handing me my missing cellphone. The PNP officer had given the phone to a Ceres bus conductor, who carried it to Dalaguete and even jumped off the bus to carry it to a restaurant, where somebody passed it to a motorcycle driver, who brought it 13 km. up into the mountains to deliver it to me. Indeed, there are honest people in the Philippines.