What you need to know
As the former Philippines president is elevated to the role of Speaker of the House, the Philippines reflects on her painful legacy.
On the day of the State of the Nation Address (SONA, July 23), a wing-tipped rumor was doing the rounds among protesters who had turned out to express their dissatisfaction with President Duterte.
Protest organizers said 40,000 people from more than 300 political groups came together to mark the first “United People’s SONA” demonstration, a living testament to how Duterte’s rule is stoking the union of an increasingly diverse cross-section of political groups and ordinary Filipinos.
By noon, whispers were being exchanged as the march halted for a short while. Could it really be true that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the former and much-maligned president would rise to power again as Congress’ Speaker of the House -- the presiding officer of the Philippine lower house of Congress?
Alas, indeed it could. For those not familiar with Arroyo’s tenure, which stretched seemingly without end from 2001 to 2010, it was nothing short of scandalous.
In 2012, Arroyo was charged with plunder over the alleged misuse of 366 million pesos (US$6.29 million) in government funds, just one of the many cases that brought controversy to her office while she was president.
At the time, she pleaded for hospital arrest citing neck pains and other ailments. However, not a month after Duterte was inaugurated in June 2016, Arroyo was released after four years of hospital arrest and acquitted of all charges by the Supreme Court, free to resume her duties as representative of the Central Luzon province of Pampanga in Congress. Miraculously she immediately rid herself of the neck brace that had helped prevent her going to jail.
Arroyo's resurrection took everyone by surprise, not least the man she replaced as speaker, Pantaleon Alvarez. Despite being a staunch Duterte supporter, Alvarez paid the price for recently traded barbs with the president’s daughter, Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City.
By sundown on SONA day, our worst fears were confirmed -- Alvarez was shown the door and Arroyo elevated to the post of fourth most powerful politician in the land, behind only the president, vice-president and Senate president.
I became an activist during Arroyo’s regime, a time when, much like now, a generation was awakening to a more radical political life. I watched on television as the mood of the nation soured, and throngs of people gathering to rally against the shameless corruption and fraud evident in Arroyo’s government. Many Filipinos were energized to not merely witness history but take part in it.
It’s no surprise then that many of my generation find themselves experiencing a sickening sense of déjà vu. Perhaps the worst part of being an activist at that time was seeing how the Arroyo government wriggled its way out of every bind. At least now we have a second chance at taking her down, along with Duterte. To do this, it’s worth taking a quick look back at her track record to remind ourselves why she was so despised in the first place.
A legacy of deceit
We first learned of Arroyo’s grand propensity for misdirection and untruths during the 2004 elections. She was named president for a second term, yet shortly after evidence emerged that just before the announcement of the winners she had made a phone call to then Election Commissioner Virgilio Garciliano. Thus the “Hello Garci” scandal was born, taking its cue from the opening line of the tapes of the phone call between the two.
It was heavily implied that Arroyo had rigged the elections in her favor. She has consistently denied this, though surrendering somewhat to public opinion she issued a live broadcast of her apology. An apology for calling Garci, not for cheating the polls.
A strong impeachment case was built against her, but a Congress heavily dominated by her allies blocked the move. Subsequently the Commission on Elections dropped the charges of fraud against her for the “Hello Garci” case.
Among many corruption and plunder allegations, the NBN-ZTE deal stands out as the most prominent due to the level of nationwide outrage and the amount of cash in question.
In an attempt to establish the National Broadband Network, the Philippine government awarded the US$329 million contract to Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE – yes, the same firm caught up in legislative crossfire in the U.S. over its efforts to evade sanctions targeting Iran and North Korea, and which is now banned from working with the U.S. Federal Government as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The Arroyo family along with their cronies allegedly received kickbacks worth millions from the Chinese conglomerate. Whistle blowers like Jun Lozada, a former top government official turned Arroyo critic gave solid weight to the accusations.
Public trust steadily eroded with each allegation of corruption, misuse of funds, and money laundering that befell the government at that time. These anomalies got so bad, the Commission on Audit reported that there were around 101.8 billion pesos unaccounted for during the period of 2007-2009 alone across 61,000 government offices – equivalent to roughly 5.6 percent of the annual budget of the country.
Human rights atrocities
Duterte is far from the first human rights violator in post-Marcos Philippines. Every president has wrought their significant share of wickedness upon the people, but only during Arroyo’s rule did the Philippines ever come close to all-out Martial Law nationwide.
The date was Feb. 24, 2006, the anniversary of the People Power movement that toppled Marcos, and a day that witnessed a rally of at least 10,000 people against Arroyo as well.
During the program, the Presidential palace announced Proclamation 1017, declaring a state of emergency and suspending the writ of habeas corpus. Warrantless arrests, raids on critics of government and relentless military crackdowns were now perfectly legal.
Activists were arrested including congressmen critical of the regime, newspapers offices shut down while the authorities roamed the streets in search of hapless opponents of the government.
Arroyo was also responsible and even lauded the work of her most brutal generals at the time. She unleashed Jovito Palparan, nicknamed “the butcher”, onto the civilian population and congratulated him several times in her speeches. Palparan played a significant role in the 1,200 state-sponsored killing of activists and government critics during that time.
Raymond Manalo was a victim and vocal witness to Palparan’s widespread torture, and was even abducted only to make a lucky escape. He reported being seared several times with a hot tin can and water cured repeatedly at the hands of army personnel.
The Arroyo government was also singled out by the United Nations as the main culprit behind a series of merciless killings of activists. According to his 2007 report, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Philip Alston advised the President to “take concrete steps to end such operations,” that are “deliberate targeting by the military as part of counterinsurgency operations against the communist rebels.”
This regime also presided over what the Committee to Protect Journalists has described over the single bloodiest massacre of journalists in history. The Ampatuan massacre in the town of Mindanao claimed the lives of 58 people on Nov. 23, 2009. The Ampatuan clan who perpetrated this atrocity in which its political opponents were mercilessly slain while on their way to lodge candidacy in the forthcoming gubernatorial elections were never really brought to justice, due in part to their strong political backing from the Arroyo administration.
The people's enemies unite
President Duterte seems to be on the move to consolidate and reinstate scandal-tainted figures with blood on their hands into his government.
Besides Arroyo, he has installed Vicente Sotto as Senate President, a man accused of covering up a high-profile rape case of an actress in the 80s. Moreover, he has the support of the Marcos clan, the family of the former dictator which is now moving to take the vice-presidency from incumbent Leni Robredo. It’s as if all Marvel Comics’ infinity stones are rapidly falling into the hands of a single Thanosian ruler.
The timing of Arroyo’s ascension could not be more unsettling as Charter Change or amending the constitution is very much on the lips of legislators. This would entail a shift to a federal government setup whilst guaranteeing term extension and additional powers for the president and his cronies.
Arroyo herself came close to this kind of consolidation of power back in 2006. If Duterte succeeds this time around, it will entail her becoming prime minister to his president. Truly a troubling scenario.
It has been reported this month that the president’s approval ratings have dropped by 11 points during the second quarter, plumbing a new satisfaction-rating low of 45 percent. This steady decline has been going on for months and should have the Palace worried for its survival. But who needs ratings when you have a chokehold on the most powerful positions in government along with the adulation of the armed authorities? Patronage takes precedence over popularity.
I’ve only scratched the surface of a nine-year spree of skulduggery and ruin, attacks on the people and continual thievery. Arroyo’s actions left many scars on an already exhausted Filipino public. It’s likely that her recent political triumphs have reignited those wounds, and a backlash is sure to be brewing.
Those who have been wronged by Duterte, Marcos and Arroyo will be reeling from the turn of events that have unfolded over the last few months. More than that, they will be angry, spiteful and indignant for justice.
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Editor: David Green