Another Tragedy In Manila
May 2001

The recent maelstrom began on April 25 with the long-expected arrest of ex-President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. As you may be aware, "Erap" Estrada was deposed by the bloodless "People Power II" coup in January, in which massive crowds gathered at the sacred EDSA shrine (topped by a statue of Our Lady of Peace) in Manila to demand his ouster. This is the same place where a similar mass uprising in 1986 led to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos.

Estrada is charged with 13 felony counts of corruption and economic plunder, the last being a capital offense punishable by execution. During his two and a half years in office he is reputed to have amassed 20 billion pesos ($400 million US.) This may be small potatoes compared to the ten billion dollar-plus accumulations of Ferdinand Marcos, but fast work for a man who was elected on a populist campaign of helping the poor. The money came from a variety of sources, including stealing government tobacco taxes, pocketing profits from "Jueting" gambling (an illegal "numbers" game), and commissions on transactions involving government pension funds. As an example, Estrada allegedly pressured the Presidents of the Government Service Insurance System and the Social Security System into buying millions of shares of the Belle Corporation, and then selling the shares later, with the commissions going to Estrada (both funds are reported to be in dire financial straits now, largely because of the shady transactions.) Estrada was succeeded in the Presidency by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA), his former vice-President who turned against him during his Senate impeachment trial in the fall. Ms. Arroyo is a Harvard-educated economist (classmate of Bill Clinton) and also daughter of a previous President, Diosdado Macapagal. She definitely is a member of and represents the interests of the ruling class in the Philippines.

Following months of legal wrangling, on April 25 thousands of police and soldiers accompanied by tanks and 3 helicopters went to Estrada's posh Greenhills estate and arrested him without incident. He was moved to a detention cell at Camp Crame, Manila's large army base. Soon after his arrest, crowds of his supporters, mostly very poor, started massing at the EDSA shrine in a gathering that quickly became known as EDSA III. Over a period of days, the crowd mushroomed from 5,000 to a reported 1.5 million on April 30. Many prominent national politicians, supporters of the indicted ex-President, came and exhorted the crowd to demand his release from jail and restoration to the Presidency. They claimed that GMA was illegally occupying Malacanang, the Presidential Palace, and that the arrest of Erap was politically motivated by the rich who were opposed to his populist Presidency.

On April 28 the Philippine National Police and armed forces declared a "nationwide red alert" amid reports that Erap's supporters were enlisting the support of the military for an EDSA uprising (it was precisely the defection of the military brass in 1986 and then in January 2001 which led to the falls of Marcos and then Estrada.) The papers reported that the capital was awash in coup and counter-coup rumors and maneuvering.

At 1:30AM on May 1, a crowd of thousands departed EDSA bound for Malacanang with the intention of ousting GMA and restoring Estrada to power. The crowd used dump trucks to break through police lines, and were able to reach the palace gates. Inside the grounds were heavily-armed soldiers and armored vehicles, and the face-off at the gates lasted through the night. At 10am the order was given to clear the streets, and soldiers and police started dispersing the crowd with sticks; there were also gunshots fired from inside the gates. In the ensuing melee, six protestors died, hundreds were injured and 134 arrested. The protest march was crushed and the police and military quickly gained control of the streets and city. I saw footage of the aftermath, with plainclothes police beating demonstrators as they dragged them to detention areas. There was some property destruction, including overturning of vehicles and smashing of shop windows; this always seems especially to inflame the elite (but I bet there were saboteurs amongst those who did it.)

President Arroyo consolidated her control by declaring a national "State of Rebellion" (which critics contended was un-Constitution and illegal) and by issuing warrantless arrest orders against 11 suspected instigators of the siege of Malacanang. These include:
-Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, former crony of Marcos and supposed instigator of at least 4 coup attempts against Cory Aquino ten years ago (arrested and then released on bail).
-Ernesto Maceda, former senator and ex-ambassador to the United States (arrested, released on bail.)
-Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who publicly suggested a civil war and threatened to jump out of an airplane in the event of Estrada's arrest. She has been brandishing an automatic handgun to television cameras since her intended arrest was announced, saying she would not be taken peacefully (her arrest is pending a Supreme court decision on her challenge to the arrest order.)
-Panfilo "Ping" Lacson, current senatorial candidate and former head of PAOCTF (Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force), which seems to have been Estrada's personal hit squad (in hiding.)
-Senator Gregorio "Gringo" Honasan, organizer with Enrile of several coup attempts against Cory Aquino (in hiding.)

What a disaster for the country. I feel pretty ambivalent about the whole thing: On the one hand, I'm happy to see Estrada in jail. He represented a return to Marcos-style cronyism and thievery, helping himself and his buddies to steal billions of pesos from his fellow citizens. It appears he had absolutely no program to help the millions of poor, disenfranchised Filipinos who voted him into office. Estrada, like Ronald Reagan a former B-movie star, seems to have spent most of his waking hours as President indulging in all-night drinking and gambling parties on the Presidential barge in Manila's Pasig River.
Then again, the strategic defeat of the populist EDSA III represents a consolidation of the power of the Filipino ruling class. Even though I think they were duped and misdirected, the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered at EDSA were largely the desperate poor, and their attempted uprising was mercilessly squashed by the State. On May 3, President Arroyo visited Estrada in jail. The Palace reported that the two discussed "rice cakes and curtains" (Estrada's two requests for his detention cell), but the publicity photograph showing the two shaking hands and grinning caused speculation that maybe they had cut a deal. It wouldn't surprise me to see Estrada exiled to a luxurious tropical island with his mistresses and a few billion for expenses. Meanwhile, the thousands who got beat up by the cops in Manila for trying to help him regain the presidency will continue to live in their shantytowns, picking through the garbage at the dump for something to eat. Does anything ever really change?

(Fortunately, none of this directly affected us here in Cebu, where it was pretty quiet. I attended a political rally on May 1, a Labor Day celebration sponsored by Bayan Muna which is one of the progressive Party-List groups preparing for national elections May 14. The atmosphere was festive, a stark contrast to Manila.)

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