Hollow miracle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 February, 2006, 12:00am

The final act in bringing down Ferdinand Marcos drew to its crescendo 20 years ago in the Philippines. The people of this nation love palabas - a big show - and the massive People Power protests to remove a dictator who bilked the country of billions of dollars and smothered political dissent with martial law was neither a sombre nor violent affair, as a regime change in Haiti had been just weeks earlier.

Over three days in February 1986, the drama that unfolded was part passion play, involving the wife of a martyred opposition leader, part Shakespearean drama of a once-powerful monarch shorn of his powers, and involved a cast of several hundred thousand demonstrators using a Manila highway as its stage, chanting: 'Cory, Cory Cory!'

In a heavily guarded ceremony in Malacanang Palace shortly before noon on February 25, Marcos, mortally ill from a degenerative disease, had himself sworn-in for another term to prolong his 20-year presidency after claiming victory in a snap election.

Even by the standards of Philippine elections this had been a mockery of the electoral process, marred by goons intimidating voters, stolen ballot boxes, flying voters and even the dead making appearances on electoral rolls. After the brief ceremony, Imelda Marcos tearfully serenaded a few thousand loyalists gathered outside the palace, warbling her favourite song Dahil sa Iyo (Because of You) into a microphone.

Earlier in the day, across the city, Corazon 'Cory' Aquino, the widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino, had already taken the oath of office as the seventh president of the republic. By nightfall, four US Marine helicopters were scrambled from Clark Air Base to evacuate Marcos and his entourage from the palace on the first leg of their journey into exile in Hawaii.

As the choppers returned to Clark with their exhausted crew, a jubilant crowd piled over railings and pushed through the palace gates.

'There was rejoicing, clapping, shouting, cheering - and people were destroying paintings of Imelda Marcos,' said journalist Sheila Coronel, who was swept up in the swarm.

From afar, the Philippines under the Marcoses had long been regarded as a sleazy, tropical backwater run by the Pentagon and CIA during the terms of five US presidents; the sort of place Graham Greene would have written about so well.

But in February 1986, Filipinos took charge of their destiny and won the respect of the world. Shanty dwellers from Manila's Tondo slums rubbed shoulders with wealthy matrons from the plush suburb of Forbes Park; students, shop assistants, nuns, priests and white-collar workers all took to the streets calling on Marcos to resign after the rigged election. The rallying point of an estimated 650,000 marchers was Epifanio de los Santos, the Manila highway popularly known as EDSA.

Some of the most powerful images of the EDSA were the nuns trying to stop loyalist armoured vehicles from attacking rebel members of the armed forces in two military camps on either side of the highway; holding up prayer books and crucifixes as though warding off eight-tonne poltergeists or kneeling in prayer in front of the tank tracks. A bloodbath was averted after Manila's archbishop, Jaime Sin, issued radio appeals for a human barricade to shield the rebel soldiers: thousands came.

The 'Miracle of EDSA' - as Filipinos call the revolution - was the Philippines' finest hour. It was a stunning victory for democracy and restraint at a time when uprisings in South Africa's black townships were being ruthlessly suppressed by a minority white government. After Marcos' departure, civil liberties were unpadlocked and the freedom of the press restored. Corruption is still rampant, but nowhere near on the scale of Marcos' 'kleptocracy' - and in a sense it, too, was democratised by EDSA.

But what of the hopes of the poor who marched against Marcos for a new order to pull them out of poverty and finally give them a stake in the economy?

In terms of income distribution, the chasm between rich and poor hasn't narrowed. Since 1985, the richest 20 per cent of the population has consistently commanded more than 50 per cent of the country's total income, while the poorest 20 per cent have even seen their share erode, from 5.2 per cent to 4.7 per cent in 2003, the latest period for which government data are available.

'This reflects the failure of successive governments - since Marcos - to redistribute wealth, a historical pattern just repeats itself,' said Karin Schelzig Bloom, a poverty reduction specialist at the Asian Development Bank in Manila.

Estimates vary on how many Filipinos are poor. In 2003, the government classified 30.4 per cent of households as poor, based on a daily income threshold of 33.6 pesos (HK$5). That's the equivalent of 60 US cents at 2003's exchange rate: far less than the international measure of US$1 a day used by development agencies. Other estimates suggest half the population of 85 million is mired in poverty. And if you go by some surveys, three-quarters of Filipinos believe they are poor.

Incomes are so low that companies manufacture thimble-sized portions of their products, which sell for a few pesos in the ubiquitous sari sari stores across the archipelago that millions of poor Filipinos run to make a living.

Poverty, quite simply, was the root cause of the tragedy that killed 71 people in a stampede outside a game show in Manila earlier this month. About 30,000 people - many of them from the provinces and mostly women - had camped outside the stadium for days, hoping to take part in a contest to win a house and other prizes to lift their families out of poverty. That so many turned up to take part 'graphically illustrates the sense of desperation afflicting the poor', said Mrs Aquino on television shortly after the tragedy. It was the assassination of her husband on the tarmac of Manila International Airport in 1983 that galvanised the opposition against Marcos.

The thousands of domestic helpers thronging Hong Kong's Central district every Sunday are a poignant reminder that millions of Filipinos are forced to work overseas to support their families. It was under Marcos in the early 1970s that the Philippines started to export its labour, and now the economy is addicted to their hard-currency remittances for growth. Today, an estimated one in 10 Filipinos work overseas.

This shouldn't be the case. Blessed with areas of outstanding beauty, the Philippines could be one of Asia's top tourist destinations, but its rickety infrastructure puts many off visiting. The Thai resort island of Phuket gets nearly as many visitors each year as the whole of the Philippines.

Similarly, the archipelago's vast untapped mineral wealth, which includes 25 per cent of the world's nickel deposits, could long ago have made mining a major driver of the broad economy, but no foreign corporations would touch an industry where their legal status was unclear. Happily, however, there are signs that both industries are beginning to gain traction.

Had Marcos fulfilled the promise of his first term in office, when he embarked on a programme to improve infrastructure and public works in the mid-1960s, there are compelling grounds to believe that he could have laid the foundations for an economy that would now be among Southeast Asia's resurgent tigers.

Although Marcos wasn't from the political elite - his parents were teachers from Ilocos Norte in northwest Luzon - he came to epitomise the Filipino tradition of political patronage that he once idealistically set out to reform. Nepotism and favouritism decide who gets top administration jobs or government contracts. It's a system of payoffs with deep cultural roots, where provincial governors and warlords are rewarded for bringing in votes and businessmen campaign funds.

Coronel, who now heads the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism, said two out of three members of the House of Representatives came from families that had been in public office for two or more generations. 'Power remains in the hands of a few hundred families. We need to further democratise our politics and economic structures,' she said.

And for Marcos it was all about staying in power. In 1972, prevented by the constitution from standing for a third term, he declared martial law, ostensibly to counter security threats from Muslim separatists and the communist New People's Army. To strengthen his grip on power, Marcos moved on big business. With the help of relatives and compadres, he took control of whole sectors of the economy, such as the sugar and coconut industries, using cartels and forced takeovers.

By the early 1980s, the economy was close to ruin. The banking system was collapsing under a mountain of uncollateralised loans secured by Marcos for his cronies. Well into the 1990s, the formerly state-owned Philippine National Bank was still trying to clear its books of Marcos-era bad debt.

Whole industries bombed through corruption and bad management: an attempt to drive up world sugar prices backfired when global commodity prices collapsed, causing famine on the main sugar-producing island of Negros. When Marcos became president in 1966, the Philippines owed just US$1 billion in foreign debt, a figure that ballooned to US$28 billion by his ouster. Manila is still servicing part of those loans, a chunk of which was siphoned off by Marcos and Co to develop their business interests.

The financial landscape has also changed dramatically since 1986. Through entrepreneurship, several Chinese-Filipino industrialists have become formidable presences in big business, rivalling the Hispanic business elites that long dominated the scene.

Until the early 1990s, for instance, Bank of the Philippine Islands, owned by the Ayala family, was the country's largest financial institution for close to a century. Now it's Metropolitan Bank & Trust Co, owned by local taipan George Ty.

Corruption, however, still casts a giant shadow over the Philippines. 'Many reforms didn't materialise and there's been a lot of backsliding,' said Cielito Habito, an academic and former economic planning chief during the presidency of Fidel Ramos, one of the main protagonists of the EDSA revolution. 'Corruption remains pervasive and won't change as long as it is perceived to still be at the top where it reinforces this behaviour.'

Under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo the economy is making impressive gains, thanks to measures to reduce a huge budget deficit. But political instability continues to rattle the Philippines and her administration, parrying allegations of corruption against members of Mrs Arroyo's family and claims of vote rigging against herself.