Compromise on Marcos billions is unacceptable

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 May, 2006, 12:00am

Authorities never cut deals with bank robbers; the money that was stolen is recovered and returned and the thief jailed. Casting former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in such a light may seem simplistic, given that he, his family and cronies allegedly stole billions of dollars from the government's coffers, but the case is nonetheless as straightforward.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo apparently does not see it that way. Even though 20 years have passed since Marcos was overthrown, no one has yet stood trial despite 520 cases being filed and almost 10,000 people seeking compensation for the regime's brutality. There are signs that she is putting politics ahead of the national interest by pushing for a compromise with the family of the late leader.

Such a move should not be countenanced. It flies in the face of the most basic principle of justice: that criminals pay for their crimes. It is also against the spirit of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, set up just three days after Marcos fled to Hawaii, where he died in 1989, to recover the 'ill-gotten' wealth of the Marcoses and their business allies.

No one knows for sure how much Marcos spirited from the nation to overseas bank accounts during his two-decade rule. Just US$1.6 billion in assets has been recovered and handed over to the government, although the total figure could be US$20 billion or more. Marcos' wife, Imelda, has suggested that her wealth could pay off the Philippines' national debt, which is US$75 billion.

Nonetheless, Mrs Arroyo clearly has little will to implement the law by ensuring that what was taken is returned in full and those who took it are punished. Most of those alleged to have been involved live freely and openly, in politics or in business. Imelda Marcos lives in plush comfort in Manila, her daughter, Imee, is a congresswoman and son Bongbong the governor of Ilocos Norte, the family's home province. Some of the wealthiest tycoons in the Philippines are also implicated.

The president has had no difficulty going after her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, putting him on trial after his removal by the military in 2001 for the plunder of a comparatively paltry amount of US$80 million. There was no attempt to seek a compromise with him, nor any difficulty with speeding his way to court - although the case has since dragged forward slowly.

Because of the political power of those involved in the Marcos case, Mrs Arroyo may well be tempted to opt for a compromise. But this would be unfair to the people of her country. She should resist any such temptation. Her nation should not be denied justice by bargaining that would result in a lesser amount being paid than should be forthcoming.

If such an approach is taken, Filipinos might feel, with justification, that history is repeating itself - and that they are again being cheated by their leader.