Days of angry street demonstrations in the Philippines capital Manila culminated in an attack on the presidential palace in the early hours of May 1. After seven hours of battles with the police using teargas, water cannon and live ammunition, four people were dead, over 100 injured and hundreds more arrested. A state of rebellion – "two steps away from martial law" – was declared by the president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. A little over three months earlier, on January 20, she herself had been sworn in to her post in a highly ‘unconstitutional’ ceremony on the streets of the capital after days of mass demonstrations called ‘People Power ll’. (See CWI pamphlet, January 2001).
Now, with her predecessor – Joseph Estrada – in jail, she was clamping down on the protests of his supporters and arresting opposition leaders and members of the armed forces said to be plotting a coup against her. Two days later, she was being photographed visiting Estrada, smiling and shaking his hand. Her predecessor is being held for the capital charge of ‘Economic Plunder’, pending a trial on June 27. He had been moved very swiftly to a specially designed detention house outside the capital and she wanted to be seen showing concern that his cell conditions were acceptable.
It was the arrest of Estrada on April 25 and especially TV footage of him being made to pose for police photos like a common criminal, that had angered his supporters and brought them onto the streets. "Seeing my president having his (prison) mugshot taken hurts my feelings", said one of them to a reporter covering the round-the-clock vigil over the week-end. Millions still see ‘Erap’, as they call him, as the legitimate leader of the country.
Since his ignominious exit from Malacanang Palace before dawn on the day Arroyo was inaugurated at the EDSA shrine, Estrada has claimed he will return to the presidency and continues to challenge the legitimacy of the transfer of power. Before his arrest, he was quoted as "having a good vacation" and enjoying being "overwhelmed by supporters" at election rallies. Although, under his presidency, which lasted for just 31 months, nothing improved for the mass of his poverty-stricken supporters, he manages to maintain the myth that, because he comes from their ranks, he is their champion.
By Sunday 29 April, the crowds on the streets demanding his release from prison numbered over 100,000. One report in the Financial Times put it at 300,000 (1/5/01). Many began talking about ‘People Power’ lll. Much of the media tried to present the confrontation as a revolt of workers and poor against the middle class and business leaders around Arroyo.
Marites Vitug of Newsbreak, a political weekly magazine, commented about Estrada’s campaigning techniques: "Despite not delivering on promises, Estrada changed the political landscape. I have never seen such divisive rhetoric between rich and poor. It is now really like a class war". But the situation is a little more complicated. As a broadcaster, Vicky Morales told the BBC, "What I worry about is that this is being packaged as a class war, a war between the rich and the poor, which I think is far from the truth".
During his Erap’s presidency, more families entered poverty and the economy deteriorated further. Prosecutors claim he stole billions from the state, which could have gone into anti-poverty programmes. Many workers actually supported the ousting of Joseph Estrada which laid the basis for Arroyo’s accession to power. Many were involved in the mass action that drove him from the palace. But even if they were not clear before, many will now know that, in practice, Arroyo is no friend of their class. She comes from an aristocratic background and is trained in the neo-liberal capitalist school.
In spite of all her professions of concern for the poor, her policies have done and will do nothing to solve the massive economic ills that beset the Philippines at the present time. Hugh Williamson of the Financial Times quotes the director of Manila’s Institute for Popular Democracy, Joel Rocamora as saying: "She needs to stop repeating endless lists of complex poverty alleviation programmes, and offer the poor a new source of hope, so Mr. Estrada can be left behind"
One third of the population of the Philippines lives on less than a dollar a day and 60% of the 75 million population define themselves as poor. Basic trade union rights are denied to the millions of workers who labour in atrocious conditions. Many, like the 16,000 Cebu Mitsumi workers fighting for union recognition for over six years, are employed by foreign, especially Japanese, companies who exploit their cheap labour. Many workers are involved in bitter strike struggles over jobs and pay as well as basic union rights.
Only 3 million workers out of a 32 million labour force are organized into unions and organizations nationwide. Only about half a million workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements (CBA). (Of the organised section, over 153 federations and 8 major trade union centres compete with each other for members because of long-standing organizational and ideological differences.)
On March 8, after a six-week long strike at Yokohama Tyres, brutal police action was used to disperse pickets from the gates. A combined security force attacked at seven in the morning with fire trucks, truncheons, shields, rocks and pistols. Demanding the right to re-establish the picket line and get compensation for their injuries the workers appeal to the President – Arroyo – to "help the workers who were instrumental in ousting the hated Estrada regime from power…"
It is clear that by no means all workers and radical youth support Estrada. Although he was the candidate of the ‘left’ for president in May 1997 and got the biggest ever majority for the post, many workers and their organisations see him as yet another politician out for himself and his cronies but locked in a power struggle with the Arroyo clan. He uses the votes and support of the poor in a totally opportunist or populist fashion.
Akbayan, a party coming from the "communist" stable, has made the mistake of continuing to actively support the incumbent president’s camp against Estrada. In a special statement, they express concern for damage done by protesters to property. They make vacuous references to "social justice and political democratisation" and "ask the Arroyo government to address the root causes of poverty". They call on the official Ombudsman to deal with Erap!
The BMP – Filipino Workers’ Solidarity organisation – is a political trade union organisation with over 100,000 members in many important factories.It claims among its solid membership, more than 200 local unions. The BMP also claims to influence some 800 independent unions with a further membership of over 200,000 workers through the grassroots labour unity movement of the Kapatiran ng mga Pangulo ng Unyon sa Pilipinas (KPUP) – a fraternal organization of local union presidents in the Philippines.
Despite being the "newest entrant in the Philippine labor movement," (founded in 1993) the BMP believes it is now considered one of the biggest and most rapidly growing militant labor organization in the country. Its base and the unions it influences are organized in manufacturing and service industries, chemicals and mines, agriculture, construction and transport.
On April 27, as the mass protest on the streets of Manila grew, the BMP issued an ‘Appeal to the Toiling Masses’. It talked of what an ‘EDSA (People Power) 3’ should really be about. "…The politicians who now grace the EDSA Shrine are not from our class. They are traditional politicians who were not able to hitch a ride from the expedition of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at EDSA 2. They are opportunists who – without batting an eyelash – have the gall to proclaim themselves as ‘pro-poor’.
"While Gloria is a true-blue elitist, Estrada is more so a demagogue and a bogus champion of the working man and the down-trodden". Quite correctly they declare that, "The hope of the working class and poor rests on our own movement, in the independent movement of the toiling masses".
Under the emergency legislation, Arroyo arranged for the arrest without warrant of a number of opposition politicians whom she accused of attempting a coup against her. They included Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan – both described by the BBC World Service as veteran plotters against the popular government of Aquino brought to power by the first ‘People Power’ movement of 1986. Also on the list were Ernesto Maceda, a former ambassador to the USA and Panfilo Lacson, Estrada’s police chief who was forced at gun-point in January to give up his resistance to the transfer of power to Arroyo. (Some on the list remain in hiding).
Arroyo appears to have the full support of the army, which was instrumental in bringing her to power, but is now involved in a fight for her political survival. The legitimacy of the arrests made under the ‘rebellion’ declaration is to be challenged and an opposition Senator – Miriam Defensor-Santiago, is trying through the courts to get a postponement of the general election.
Elections to the Senate and the Assembly are due on May 14 and Arroyo and her allies in the ‘People Power Coalition’ need to win a majority in both houses of Congress in order to carry through her tough ‘reform’ programme of privatisation and deregulation, dictated by the IMF and her big business backers. The latter are said to be happy with her handling of the situation and the government’s "firm intention to uphold the rule of law". But the Philippines currency and share prices have taken a battering. In the present climate investment – local and foreign – will be sparse. On the basis of capitalism, there is every prospect of one unstable regime succeeding another in quite rapid succession – a series of governments of crisis.
If powerful political trade union organisations like the BMP and the ‘left’ parties of the Philippines linked their struggle against both wings of Philippine capitalism and against the bosses with a programme of socialist demands, they would make enormous headway.
A big push is needed to create a party of workers, youth and poor. Their anger against the system needs to be channelled into a struggle for public ownership of all major industries, banks and land and a plan of production under democratic control and management of elected committees of workers and poor people. Only then could the oppressed take heart that at last they would be the ones making the decisions about their future. The prospect would emerge of living in a world without the crippling poverty and endemic corruption and oppression that they have endured for too long.