It has been the tradition at the opening session of Congress for the President to deliver his State of the Nation Address (SONA) during which he boasts of his administration's accomplishments for the past year, citing statistics to show what he has achieved in socio-economic terms. (Whether the figures translate into a better life for the people is, of course, another thing.) President Estrada chose to be different. The only "accomplishment" he could boast of was the war he was waging in Mindanao. The rest of his speech was devoted to the FUTURE state of the nation based on what he plans to accomplish in the coming fiscal year and for the rest of his term as President.
Outside the halls of Congress the PRESENT state of the nation was taking place. It was being depicted in the speeches and cultural presentations of the rallyists. It was even more vividly illustrated in the conduct of the police and military who had been deployed to maintain "peace and order." Not since the Mendiola massacre had a peaceful assembly been so brutally dispersed in the post-martial law era. No previous President since Marcos had been so scared of the people to need a large contingent (15,000) of police and military forces to protect him while he delivered a nondescript speech. No other SONA had witnessed so much violence as overzealous truncheon-wielding government forces repeatedly hit unarmed protesters even when they were already prostrate on the ground and pursued them inside the buildings where they had taken refuge. They even tried to arrest the wounded in the hospital where they had gone for treatment.
What brought about this shift to martial law tactics barely two years after being voted into office with a landslide victory? And why is there general dissatisfaction with the Estrada administration so that the past year has turned into a new season of protest?
To understand this turn of events we will have to take a look at some figures that matter in the life of our people.
The National Statistics Office (NSO) admits growth has been slowing because of falling investor confidence. The data on investments attest to this. Not only has investments been falling, a number of establishments have actually stopped operating or retrenched operations. For the whole of 1999 a total of 2,266 businesses either closed or reduced operations resulting in the displacement of 69,735 workers.
It is therefore not surprising that the unemployment rate in April 2000 was 13.9%, the highest recorded in the last nine years. In absolute figures, the number of unemployed was 4.6 million while those underemployed numbered 7.1 million.
Because the government is not earning enough to cover its expenses, it has to resort to massive borrowing. As of April 30 this year, the national government's outstanding public debt amounted to P1.9 trillion. Of this, domestic debt obligations accounted for 54%. To make matters worse, the peso continues to remain weak against the US dollar. On July 26, two days after the President delivered his SONA, the peso breached the psychological level of 45 pesos to the US dollar.[currently: almost 50 pesos to 1 US dollar.]
The budget deficit has ballooned to P59.7 billion in the first seven months of the year. The government deludes itself when it says that it is still sticking to its - and the IMF-approved - deficit target of P62.5 billion for the whole year. How it plans to do so will require no less than a miracle.
The government has therefore given the green light to all its agencies to increase fees and other charges by not less than 20% in an effort to raise P2.5 billion in additional revenues for next year. This was contained in a briefing paper on the P725-billion proposed national budget for 2001. This dismal state of the economy and public perception of a rudderless leadership have brought about widespread dissatisfaction with the Estrada administration.
Naturally big business is far from being happy. In a survey of the Economic Intelligence Unit among CEOs of foreign firms as early as mid-1999, the respondents expressed worry over the return of cronies and the prevalence of corruption in the Estrada administration. The Makati Business Club in its executive outlook survey for January 2000 reported that graft and corruption as well as cronyism were top areas of concern.
Even charity funds from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office PCSO) are used to finance benevolence projects of the First Family, according to an exposé by Sr. Christine Tan who used to sit on the PCSO board until she was hastily removed early this year. Recently the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) produced a study showing how members of the President's several families have been able to put up businesses in various fields in the past few years that President Estrada has been in office. [See The State of the President's Finances: Estrada's Entrepreneurial Families on page 6 of this issue of Kasama.]
The people's disenchantment, however, has not been limited to surveys, exposés and the issuance of statements. As mentioned earlier, this has been a new season of protest with people taking to the streets every so often for various issues utilizing diverse forms to make their voices heard. This is happening not only in major cities but all over the country not unlike the last days of the dictatorship. Since the anti-Charter change rally in August last year when the perfumed elite mingled with the hoi polloi, Filipinos from all walks of life are once again linking arms and joining the parliament of the streets. Whatever the occasion for the protest action, the ultimate cry of the rallyists, whether it is through impeachment, resignation or ouster, is the same: an end to the Estrada regime.
Oil price increases was one issue that generated public outrage and reinforced public perception of an inutile presidency. Every announcement by the oil companies of an imminent price hike was met by a wave of protests. Transport strikes gained more supporters as increases became more frequent.
Workers have been among the hardest hit by the worsening economic crisis as capitalists tend to freeze wages or resort to retrenchment to stay in business. Government workers are asking for a monthly increase of P3,000 which is a measly amount compared to the millions that are lost through corruption or the money wasted in the senseless war in Mindanao. They have also been protesting against plans to privatize some government owned-and-controlled corporations. The privatization of the National Power Corp. (Napocor) has been opposed not only by the employees and militant labor unions but by the public as well who will be made to assume Napocor's debt amounting to P516 billion. The most recent strike was staged by the employees of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) demanding a new CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement] and protesting the privatization of the transport system.
In April, members of SAMBAT, the peasant organization of Batangas, staged a three-day caravan from Nasugbu to Manila to demand from the administration a stop to militarization and the counterinsurgency program Oplan Makabayan.
In the cities it is probably the urban poor who are in the most deplorable situation. Last July 10 tragedy struck the resettlement area of Payatas in Quezon City. After several days of continuous rains, the 50-foot mountain of garbage slid down burying 500 families. The victims and their supporters held a protest action to demand justice.
[By November 30, the death toll in Payatas is more than 200; 73 people are missing, believed buried; and there are 60 to 70 unidentified bodies still in caskets. Eds.]
As President Estrada's net approval rating plunged and calls for his ouster gained currency, other groups surfaced to add their own voices to the growing dissatisfaction with the administration. In March a new protest movement against the Estrada administration emerged in Metro Manila called the "silent protest" and using as its symbol an askew exclamation point. As is his wont when criticized or opposed, the President resorted to name-calling. He called the members of the Silent Protest Movement "losers" and "power hungry" and their allegations of cronyism, corruption and incompetence as "figments of the imagination of crazy people."
In the light of Estrada's souring romance with the voters, opposition groups were reported to be having conversations with one another in what was seen as a consolidation of forces. The rival political party Lakas-NUCD even started to form a shadow government to prepare for any eventuality. A new reformist group among the military and police forces also surfaced after Sr. Christine Tan's exposé. Calling themselves the Bagong Katipunan ng Bayan-Makabayang Katipuneros, they expressed support for Sr. Tan's exposé on the channeling of charity funds to pet projects of the First Family and warned that this could trigger a "political storm." The group said it had the machinery to gather evidence to support Tan's claim that P430 million of PCSO funds had been misused to the detriment of PCSO's regular beneficiaries.
President Estrada has to grapple not only with declining popularity, a contracting economy and a growing mass movement; he has also to contend with armed groups which, while battling government troops separately, have forged a tactical alliance. In April, hostilities started to escalate when the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] attacked MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front] forces near the entrance to Camp Abubakar, the MILF's main camp. This was a direct violation of the GRP-MILF agreement signed just the day before to "normalize" the situation in Central Mindanao. From there the war spread to Western Mindanao and parts of Southern Mindanao.
Calls by Church leaders (including the Vatican's representative) and practically all sectors of society to end the war and go back to the negotiating table were ignored by the President. It was only in the first week of July, after capturing Camp Abubakar and declaring victory that Estrada announced the resumption of peace negotiations. Meanwhile the war had resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of the civilian population, scores of non-combatants killed or maimed, and the destruction of crops, livestock, residences and mosques.
A joint military operation of the NPA [New People's Army] and MILF was reported in July. The NPA earlier announced a tactical alliance with the MILF. The alliance includes coordination in tactical operations, technical assistance like propaganda and providing sanctuaries to each other's forces in case of sustained military attacks.
The government's inability to address effectively the economic problems is making the people restive. This increasing opposition to President Estrada and his policies to the point where calls for his ouster are being taken up by more and more people, is making the government more fascist in dealing even with ordinary critics. As long as the people remain submissive and docile, there is no need for repression. But because the people are no longer taken in by the government's deception, repression is on the rise. It has become a common place to use water cannons to break up rallies. Not content with hosing them down, protesters are also pushed with shields, hit with truncheons and chased until they are as far away as possible. To give legitimacy to arrests, crimes are invented like obstruction of public thoroughfares, illegal disposal of garbage, and other ridiculous "offenses".
There was also the sudden deployment of 500 Marines in shopping mails, airports and business centers in Metro Manila at the start of the year, ostensibly to create "a climate of safety" and provide a "deterrent to criminality." The police have also resurrected the checkpoints recently, again as part of the campaign against criminality. Checkpoints were ubiquitous during martial law and had a brief resurgence during the coup season under Pres. Cory Aquino. Even reporters covering the military and defense beats have not been spared; military intelligence agents have made "background investigations" on them.
What is happening in the countryside is even worse especially with the implementation of Oplan Makabayan, the latest of the many government campaigns against the NPA. Fact-finding missions have discovered rampant human rights violations including the beheading of a rebel couple in Bukidnon last March.
One can only imagine what will happen under the AFP's vow to neutralize 13 NPA guerrilla fronts by next year and 60 others by 2004 under a new anti-insurgency plan.
Most recently we saw to what lengths the Estrada administration was willing to go to rid Mindanao of MILF camps. With the President's announcement to convert what was once Camp Abubakar into a special economic zone, the real reason for the genocidal war is out: the Moro people had to vacate their lands so that these can be turned over to investors, especially multinational companies. To develop Mindanao, the President says he needs emergency powers. (Administration spin doctors are at pains to show that economic development merits being classified as an "emergency.") That is not all; to secure the government's rehabilitation, reconstruction and development projects, the AFP is deploying half of its forces in Mindanao to be augmented by more than 30,000 CAFGUs [Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units]. One could say that if President Ramos was guilty of militarizing the bureaucracy (by appointing military personnel to government positions), President Estrada is "militarizing the economy."
Historically the Churches have never spoken with one voice regarding what they think of the existing government. Even during the martial law regime some bishops remained loyal to the dictator even when he was already politically isolated. Times have not changed.
However, when the Silent Protest Movement surfaced and many people supported its call for the President's resignation, the CBCP [Catholic Bishops' Conference Philippines] said President Estrada had the bishops' support but the CBCP could not call on its lay people who opposed the Estrada administration to abandon their agenda.
On the issue of human rights, it is not easy to understand the bishops' view because they have been inconsistent in their pronouncements. On the Mindanao problem the bishops have shown a better grasp of the actual situation [by] asking the President to drop his all-out war policy. Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, has not only remained a vocal critic of the administration but also speaks out on a number of issues. For President Estrada and his administration, the Cardinal does not mince words.
It is the ecumenical community that has consistently and militantly articulated what is meant by the church's solidarity with the people's struggle. More and more church people are making a stand on the side of the poor and exploited. The National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the Iglesia Filipina Independiente and the United Church of Christ in the Philippines came out with statements on their stand on current issues and joined mass actions.
Not surprisingly, because of their increasing participation in protest actions, church people were among those arrested or hurt in the violent dispersals at picketlines and rallies. They were also chased by anti-riot policemen at the SONA and not a few of them suffered injuries. Others have been tagged communists and have been detained or are on the watch list of the military. Which is what happened to churchworkers in Abaca who have been tagged by the military as the ones behind the killing of former priest Conrado Balweg. Although the NPA Command which carried out Balweg's killing already issued a statement claiming responsibility for it, the military nevertheless persist in their witch-hunt. [See Militant Organizations and NGOs: Targets of Harassment on page 14 of this issue of Kasama.]
[As the populace becomes more militant, we can] expect the regime to respond with more repression especially since the defense establishment will get a bigger budget and more paramilitary troops, not to mention $100 million worth of military hardware which the US promised President Estrada in his recent visit.
That is the bad news.
The intensifying repression will not cow down the people. It will only awaken them to the reality that Erap is teaching them: that they cannot rely on others for their liberation; they have to rely on themselves. This can only hasten the advent of social transformation.
That is the good news.
Indeed, it is the worst of times, it is the best of times.