Tilting at windmills, Philippines-style

August 19, 2005

"Look there, my friend Sancho Panza,
where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves,
all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay!"

-Don Quixote

Don Quixote

The current political crisis in the Philippines dates from June 5, 2005, when Philippine presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye warned that the opposition would release an audio tape of a wiretap conversation between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and a senior election official (Virgilio Garcillano) in which the two allegedly talked about rigging the May 2004 presidential election. The revelation and release of the tape ignited the most serious crisis of President Arroyo's political career (see complete transcript of alleged conversations.)

Subsequent developments have included new revelations, charges and counter-charges; calls by prominent citizens for Arroyo's resignation; rallies and unsuccessful attempts to instigate a new "People Power" revolutionary overthrow of the government; and an impeachment resolution introduced in the lower house of Congress. As of today, August 4, Arroyo is still in office.

Here in Cebu, there have been several small anti- and pro-Arroyo rallies. The most recent happened Monday, July 25, and was enthusiastically attended by yours truly.

In virtually every nation the primary purpose of the state, otherwise known as "government", is to protect private property; that is, to make sure that the poor people don't get their hands on the private property of the rich people. That essential government function is readily obvious here in the Philippines, where a tiny minority of wealthy Pinoys own almost all the marbles and jockey amongst themselves for the political control that allows access to yet more marbles. Philippine political parties are an ever-shifting set of temporary alliances, devoid of policy platforms, wherein the rich use guns, goons and gold to fight each other for the spoils of a corrupt system which offers rich financial rewards and power.
As in most other countries, the poor are excluded from the political arena, but are occasionally useful to the trapols (traditional elite politicians), for example during elections when they are paid tiny amounts to vote for the appropriate candidates (typically in the neighborhood of 50 pesos per voter per election); and at mass mobilizations, such as the EDSA People Power I demonstration in 1986 when the elites and U.S. Government decided it was finally time for Ferdinand Marcos to go, and again at People Power II in 2001 when the elites decided they'd had enough of Joseph Estrada.

So...even though I realize there probably isn't a chance in hell that the disgruntled poor will be able to overturn the apple cart, I'm still sympathetic. When I hear about local demonstrations against government policy or high-ranking officials, I'm drawn to them just like a Halliburton executive is drawn to a juicy non-competitive contract offer in Iraq.

Newspaper headlines on Sunday, July 24 trumpeted "Strikes Poised during GMA's SONA Speech" which was planned for the following day, Monday July 25 (*GMA = Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; SONA = State Of the Nation Address, an annual P.R. affair modeled after the U.S. event with the same name.) Major transport groups in Cebu including ATOMIC (Alliance of Transport Organization Member intra-Cebu City) and NADSU (Nagkahiusang Drayber sa Sugbo), composed of jeepney drivers, supported GMA during last May's Presidential election but are now calling for her to resign. "She is like a reckless driver of our country," said ATOMIC leader Rudy Laconsa.

The political opposition took advantage of the transportation strike to hold rallies demanding Arroyo's ouster. Due to a variety of strategic and tactical differences (Arroyo's political opposition is extremely fragmented, comprising a wide variety of sectors espousing incompatible agendas), the Cebu groups had decided to hold two separate demonstrations: the first was organized by BAYAN - Bagong Alyansa Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance), and the second by Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses); both are small leftist coalitions demanding GMA's resignation and the setting up of a revolutionary transition government to take her place (*see Opposition Groups at bottom of page.)

The demonstrations were scheduled to start at 1pm. You'd think I just arrived in the Philippines yesterday or something, because I actually showed up at the University of the Philippines in Lahug at 1pm expecting to arrive just in time for the march to get underway. The march didn't start but it did start to rain, soon becoming a monsoon downpour.



After an hour the rain let up and it was time to begin the march. I joined the small BAYAN contingent at their staging area. These are activists, not politicians, and some were able to offer articulate analyses of the situation.

BAYAN contingent


We started down Gorordo Avenue and then Escario Street towards the Provincial Capitol building.

Marching down Gorordo Ave.


Awaiting the marchers at the Capitol were a blocking barrier of parked garbage trucks, backed by barbed wire barricades with hired private security officers (goons) and shield-wielding police (who interestingly had no helmets.) The marchers decided to wait for their other contingents to arrive before staging the planned rally, so I left and headed downtown to attend the "other rally."

Capitol building 1 Capitol building 2


Downtown, things were hopping. This was the Laban ng Masa rally, with about two hundred demonstrators occupying the street in front of Metro Gaisano Department Store at the corner of Colon and Osmena Boulevard (Cebu City's busiest intersection.) There were only a few police present, most having already been dispatched to the expected hotspot over at Malacañang Sugbo. The rallyists were planning to leave Colon Street and march to Malacañang at 4pm, so I left early to scope out that scene and make sure I had a good vantage point.

Laban ng Masa Laban ng Masa


I walked the ten blocks to Malacañang Sugbo, President Arroyo's "Palace" in the Visayas which she established last year to have a more visible presence in this central part of the country.

Malacañang Sugbo


There had been a rally here two weeks ago which had turned violent with injuries on both sides, and so the government had prepared for today's planned rally by building barbed-wire barricades and assembling a large force of police and soldiers outfitted with shields, helmets and truncheons.

Barbed wire Police line


While waiting for the marchers to arrive, I chatted with the police and soldiers who seemed surprisingly relaxed.

Chatting with police 1 Chatting with police 2


Finally the marchers arrived from Colon Street, and the anticipated confrontation began in front of the presidential palace (Arroyo was in Manila at the time delivering her SONA speech to the nation via live television.)

Arrival at Malacañang Sugbo 1 Arrival at Malacañang Sugbo 2


The atmosphere was strangely devoid of tension while we stood around waiting to see what would develop. The demonstrators mostly just seemed curious, and the cops appeared well-prepared but relaxed.

Face-off 1 Face-off 2


Some of the marchers had br /ought roses, and tossed them over the barricades to the police and soldiers. One of the soldiers retrieved a rose and held it, a good omen.

Flowers 1 Flowers 2


Next the crowd got down to speeches and the “Burning of the Gloria,” a paper effigy of the President.

Speeches Burning of the Gloria


Chanting and banner-waving.


Here's a short video I made of some music being played while the crowd waved banners Chanting thumbnail (canta.avi, 959kb / It's worth noting that while Pinoys LOVE to sing karaoke, they just do not sing at demonstrations or when the national anthem is played. Go figure.)

After an hour of enthusiastic activity, the protestors did what all good armies should do: they declared victory and went home.


Of course, they didn't win anything and have little prospect of doing so. Regardless of whether Gloria Macapagal Arroyo remains president, the political struggle in the Philippines will continue to be dominated by factional infighting amongst the elites. The poor “masa” will be encouraged to continue enjoying their uncontested position at the bottom of the pile.

"Gloriagate" Crisis Timeline

June 5, 2005: Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye says the opposition will release an audio tape of a wiretap conversation between Arroyo and a senior election official (Virgilio Garcillano) in which the two allegedly talked about rigging the May 2004 election.
June 6: Arroyo spokesman Bunye releases a CD containing the contents of the tape, claiming that it had been altered.
June 6: Two self-confessed jueteng bagmen implicate Arroyo's husband and son to the illegal numbers game, claiming the two received payola and protected the illegal activity.
June 10: Samuel Ong, former deputy director of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), claims that he is the source of the "Hello Garci" tape purportedly containing the wiretapped conversations.
June 23: Manila Archbishop Oscar Cruz accuses President Arroyo of benefiting from “jueteng” when she ran for vice president in 1998 and for president in 2004. Speaking before members of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) at the Manila Hotel, Cruz said Ms Arroyo received donations “in kind” from a known jueteng lord in her province.
June 25: "Hello Garci" ringtone, containing a snippet from the wiretapped conversation, becomes popular on cellphones in Philippines. Download here (hellogarci.mp3   122kb)
June 27: President Arroyo, finally acknowledging the veracity of the tape, publicly apologizes for having called the election official, but says she did nothing wrong and won't step down. In a televised address, Arroyo apologizes for the “lapse of judgement,” and said, “I was anxious to protect my votes and during that time had conversations with many people, including a Comelec (commission on elections) official. My intent was not to influence the outcome of the election and it did not.”
July 4: Major universities call for Arroyo's resignation.
July 4: Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye says that Arroyo will not resign.
July 5: Impeachment complaint filed against Arroyo in House of Representatives by opposition lawmaker and former Ferdinand Marcos lawyer Oliver Lozano.
July 6: Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines refuses to demand Arroyo's resignation. The call is surprising, as the influential group had been widely expected to call for her resignation.
July 8: Former President Corazon Aquino urges Pesident Arroyo to make the “supreme sacrifice” of resigning and allowing Vice-President Noli de Castro to assume the presidency.
July 8: Arroyo reiterates that she is not stepping down from office.
July 9: Resignations of 10 members of cabinet.
July 13: Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Michael Defensor, a trusted Arroyo aide, proclaims “Will she resign? No, not ever. She will not leave the presidential palace.”
July 25: President Arroyo delivers SONA speech to nation. She did not mention the current scandal once, instead focusing the entire speech on her “Cha-Cha” (charter change of the constituition) proposal to convert the Philippines national government to a parliamentary political system. This was widely seen as a stalling tactic to divert attention from the wiretapping scandal.
August 2: Michaelangelo Zuce, a former Malacañang employee, claimed he saw the alleged payoff of election officials, including Virgilio Garcillano, to ensure the victory of President Arroyo in last year's elections.
Zuce, who used to work with Presidential assistant for political affairs Joey Rufino as political liaison officer, said the payoff was done during a dinner in the President's house at the Las Vista Subdivision in Quezon City in January 2004.

Opposition Groups:

BAYAN - Bagong Alyansa Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance ) http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/4677/ is the central leftist coalition in the Philippines; comprised of the following groups (although this is a long list of groups, the coalition presumably represents only a small but politically aware sector of the population.)
ACT: Alliance of Concerned Teachers is a militant, progressive and nationalist organization of teachers nationwide
Anak Bayan: Youth party-list group, seems to be affiliated with National Democratic Front (political arm of NPA communist army.)
COURAGE: Confederation of Unity, Recognition and Advancement for Government Employees is the lead umbr /ella organization of government employees' unions and federations espousing a militant progressive and nationalistic unionism in the public sector. http://www.skyinet.net/~courage/
Gabr /iela: National alliance of women's organizations in the Philippines. http://www.members.tripod.com/~gabr /iela_p/
HEAD: Health Alliance for Democracy is a nationalist organization of health professionals, students and workers involve in information, education and campaign, and advocacy for people's health.
KMP: Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines ), a nationwide federation of Philippine organizations of landless peasants, small farmers, farm workers, subsistence fisherfolk, peasant women and rural youth.
KMU: Kilusang Mayo Uno, a militant left-wing labor federation.
LFS: militant League of Filipino Students.

Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses) includes all of the left organizations outside of Bayan. It is the br /oadest operating left coalition that has existed since the 1980s presidential dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (and like BAYAN, presumably represents only a small sector of the population.)   http://www.ciu.ph/ps/20050709_sulong.htm
Member groups:
AGLO: Association of Genuine Labor Organization.
Akbayan: left electoral formation. http://www.akbayan.org/
APL: Alliance of Progressive Labor. http://www.apl.org.ph/
BISIG: Bukluran sa Ikauunlad ng Sosyalistang Isip at Gawa ( )
BMP: Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers) -
     http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/54a/180.html Filipino Trade Union grouping.
CIU: Confederation of Independent Union.
FFW: Federation of Filipino Workers.
LAGMAN: Lakas at Gabay ng Manggagawang Nagkakaisa.
LIGA: Liga ng mga Manggagawa.
MKP: Manggagawa ng Komunikasyon sa Pilipinas.
MAKABAYAN: Manggagawa para sa Kalayaan ng Bayan(Youth and Students for the People.)
MNLF: Moro National Liberation Front, based in Mindanao.  http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/mnlf.htm
NFL: National Federation of Labor.
NLU: National Labor Union.
San Lakas: multi-sectoral party-list group.    http://www.geocities.com/sanlakasonline/?200513
SULONG: Solidarity of Union and Labor Organization for New Government.
UFSW: United Filipino Service Workers.

UNO: United Opposition. "Trapo" opposition group that in April named former President Joseph Estrada as "Chairman Emeritus." Mayor Joseph Victor Ejército of San Juan, Metro Manila and scion of the deposed former President also claimed Estrada as the UNO leader soon after the announcement was made. The unexpected death of the late presidential-candidate Fernando Poe, Jr., after the election, br /ought with it uncertainty as to the opposition's direction and leadership, yet with Estrada still facing charges and trial many speculate how much of an influence or support this declaration will create in the formation of an opposition front. Nevertheless, the United Opposition group would be expected to be one of the biggest hitters should Arroyo be ousted and a transitional revolutionary government named.

CPP: Communist Party of the Philippines. Sleeping with the opposition trapos, in a most unlikely bed, are the front organizations of Joma Sison's communist movement (CPP, NPA, NDF), which have been waging Maoist revolution since the 1960s. For the CPP this is a tactical alliance, the goal being to seize power once a transitional revolutionary government is organized; but most pundits seem to agree that the CPP would be shoved aside by the much stronger trapo groups. http://www.philippinerevolution.org/

Bangon Pilipinas led by conservative evangelist Eddie Villanueva. Villanueva ran for President during the May 2004 elections, calling for a “social and cultural revolution.” His espousal now of a revolutionary transition government is consistent with his earlier conviction that only a social or cultural reawakening - not necessarily bloody or violent - can pave the way for the emergence of the righteous leadership that this country needs. http://www.bangonpilipinas.org/

Parties Supporting President Arroyo

Lakas-CMD: Lakas-Christian and Muslim Democrats, is the current ruling party of the Philippines, and is the party of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. http://www.inq7.net/br /k/2004/jul/10/br /kpol_3-1.htm

Nacionalista Party: The oldest political party in the Philippines today responsible for leading the country throughout the majority of the 20th century since 1907. Headed by Senator Manuel Villar, the party still supports the president.