AQUINO: Pushing the Envelope, Single-Mindedly

Article excerpt

The year 2011 started for the Philippines with a huge shock - the suicide of Angelo Reyes, a retired general and former Cabinet member of the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, as a result of a Senate investigation into corruption within the ranks of the Philippine military. The year ended on a rather sour and sad note, with the initial GDP figures showing the economy's lacklustre performance, tropical storm Washi (Sendong) wreaking death and devastation over major cities in Northern Mindanao, while in Manila an open political conflict had broken out between President Benigno Aquino III and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Renato Corona, threatening a constitutional crisis.

If at the end of 2010 the Filipino people held high expectations and high hopes for the six-month-old government of Benigno Simeon Aquino III, by the end of 2011 there was much more division in opinion about how his government was succeeding both in its priority agenda of good governance and in meeting the people's expectations of a stronger economy and a better life. And yet President Aquino remained favoured in public opinion polls, largely due to perceptions of his strong political will in going after his predecessor Arroyo, who stands accused of many wrongdoings committed during her incumbency.

Campaign against Corruption

The suicide of former armed forces Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes in February was an outcome of public revelations that he, along with two other former military chiefs, had been receiving illegal monthly kickbacks and a "send-off" kitty amounting to millions of pesos upon retirement from the armed forces. The exposé was incidental to a Senate investigation on military corruption initiated when two key witnesses - former military budget officer George Rabusa and former state auditor Heidi Mendoza - blew the whistle on military comptroller General Carlos Garcia who had amassed hundreds of millions of pesos and maintained properties abroad.

Allegations of large-scale corruption in the military are highly sensitive in the 120,000-strong armed forces, whose troops have for decades been battling communist and Muslim insurgencies aside from terrorist threats, with little resources for the basic needs of the soldiers and their families.

But the focus of the campaign against corruption soon turned to the civilian government. The Aquino government was determined to root out corruption by making an example of how Gloria Arroyo herself can be brought to justice. The first order of business was ensuring that the state's judiciary will contribute to the effort, or at least not stand in the way. This proved to be difficult in a country where people and institutions had become so inured to the slow wheels of justice and where the powerful have long managed to escape paying retribution. Just as Marcos and his cronies were not brought to account for either corruption or human rights abuses, and just as Joseph Estrada managed to obtain a pardon after conviction on plunder charges and only a brief detention, there was a chance of Gloria Arroyo (now a congresswoman representing her province of Pampanga) evading having to account for official misdeeds. Impeachment charges had in fact been brought against Arroyo as early as June 2005 and at other times during her incumbency, but a then sympathetic Congress had rejected all charges.

Aquino tried to make sure this will not happen again. Arroyo - suffering from a rare bone disease - is now under "hospital arrest" at the Veterans' Memorial Medical Center, following her arrest on 18 November on charges of electoral sabotage harking back to the 2004 and 2007 elections. This was only the first of a string of cases the government has pledged to file against her, including ones involving corruption and possibly plunder.

Supreme Court not Quite Supreme

The process of holding Arroyo to account has become a grand political theatre in the country, and the plot thickens with each week that passes. …