Philippines: Government emergency lifted; but mass poverty and elite rule continue

Workers and poor need to fight on independent socialist programme

Neither the imposition of a state of emergency in the Philippines, nor its lifting a week later, on 3 March, has fundamentally changed the political situation in the country. The president who imposed it, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, has in no way enhanced her popularity by either action. (Her opinion poll ratings have achieved an incredible -30!)

Arroyo is widely seen to have over-reacted to rumours of a military rebellion that in the event proved to have little or no popular mass base. If the street demonstrations were nothing more than “useless charades”, as she called them, why the mobilisation of heavy detachments of police and army, the imposition of arrest without charge or trial and the banning of public meetings and demonstrations? The fact that the rallies planned for the 20th anniversary of the ‘People Power’ revolution of 1986 and other protests went ahead anyway is an indication that the emergency itself was a bit of a charade!

Many on the streets were indeed carrying placards demanding the ousting of Arroyo. But in the scale and significance of the demonstrations, there was little comparison with the millions-strong crowds that occupied the famous EDSA streets 20 years before until the hated dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was overthrown. Nor did it compare in numbers with the ‘People Power’ or ‘EDSA’ mark two movement of 2001 that brought down the corrupt Estrada presidency.


The emergency measures taken by the present government included the closing down of one newspaper, threats to others and the surveillance of certain TV stations. Freight containers and barbed wire were placed around the presidential palace, which, in the event, was never seriously under threat from the assembled crowd. In spite of the genuine fears of many who value democracy and the alarmist bleatings of a few, like the former presidents Ramos and Aquino on the streets at the time, this did not represent the imposition of a ‘Marcosian’ regime (although Arroyo had deliberately used phrases taken form speeches by the dictator himself).

It is unlikely that even the backers of Arroyo, nationally and internationally, would see a military clamp-down as a solution to the festering problems. Resistance would explode and a genuine rebellion might mean a fight for survival of the capitalist and land-owning classes in the Philippines. In fact, as Reuters news agency reported, “Pressure to lift emergency rule had come form her (Arroyo’s) vice-president, economic team, foreign investors and the US State Department”.

The US has historically, since its colonial occupation of the Philippines, had considerable investments and markets to protect in the country. At one time it housed the US’ biggest military presence in the Asia Pacific. The CNN says “Manila is still the US’ closest ally in the region”. It is also true that a major economic or political crisis in either the Philippines or now, just as likely, in Thailand can seriously damage not only Asia’s stability but the fragile world economy as a whole.

When asked recently why the US had backed the dictator Marcos for so long, Stephen Bosworth, who was US ambassador during his rule, said they wanted stability. Then, forced to switch sides, the US was forced, along with the Catholic Church, to back Aquino, the wife of a democracy fighter gunned down at Manila airport. In the interests again of ‘stability’ and providing a healthy climate for capitalism, in 2001 the US was again forced to approve the ousting from power of Joseph Estrada through mass action and the swearing into office on the streets of his deputy, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (or ‘GMA’).

Arroyo ‘won’ the election in 2004 but by last Summer (2005), tens of thousands were back at EDSA, protesting against election fraud and demanding her resignation. The ruling class and even the Catholic Church were this time divided on the merits of a ‘People Power III’. The US ambassador to the Philippines asserted that his government would neither oppose nor endorse.

When the emergency situation this February was declared, there was a fall in share prices and the value of the peso. Instability frightens off investors and a business consultant is quoted in the Financial Times as warning that foreign capital will go more and more to neighbouring Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea.

A veteran trade union leader and left wing member of Parliament, Crispin Beltran, was arrested on the basis of a warrant issued in 1985! Demonstrators were arrested on Friday, 23 February, but were later released. Many people were injured when the police made a number of fairly brutal attacks.

A left-wing legislator, Teodoro Casino and four others on a list of 16 people charged with attempting a coup, took refuge in the Assembly (Parliament) building. The lifting of the emergency means their immunity from arrest is restored, but they still fear some kind of reprisal attack from the wounded regime of Gloria Arroyo. Some others on the same list are wanted in connection with an earlier coup attempt in 2003. Another 51 “communists and rebel leaders” are on a police ‘wanted’ list.

On Sunday (25 February) a hundred or so armed marines in full battle dress surrounded the Marine Headquarters demanding the reinstatement of their commander, General Renato Miranda. Along with the head of the army’s Scout Rangers, Brig General Danilo Lim, Renato had been summarily removed from office after he had attempted to lead soldiers out of their barracks to join the EDSA demonstrations. After several hours of a stand-off, negotiations led by another of the marines’ leaders, Colonel Ariel Querubin, ended with a compromise agreement and the ratification of a new commander’s appointment.

“We anticipated that there would be compromises among their ranks”, we were told by Sony Melencio – a veteran of all the ‘People Power’ struggles in the Philippines and a leader of the Labang ng Masa alliance. “That’s why we decided to hold an overnight protest vigil at the University of the Philippines,” he continued, “And not to the site of the stand-off (Fort Bonifacio) where the ‘trapos’ (traditional politicians) and the likes went.  However, …the military forces are still greatly divided…We are developing the strike movement and local mass struggles. We have plans for strikes, with some major unions starting the ball rolling. There are local forums and assemblies also set up for this week.”

Left Alliance

Some of the left leaders, whose plans to bring down the Arroyo regime were well known, remained in hiding as the emergency was lifted. ‘Labang ng Masa’ is a coalition of left organisations like Akbayan and the Workers’ Party (PM), but also includes some business and ruling class elements who want more democracy to carry on their own operations. It has for some time been calling for a ‘welgang bayan’ or ‘hartal’ – a wave of strike action combined with road blockades and walk-outs in schools and universities – to sweep away the GMA government. Included in their reckoning was the coming over of disaffected young military officers to join the “mass upsurge”.

In a country that has seen at least 12 attempted coups since the revolution of 1986, when the revolt of the military was decisive, the involvement of soldiers in anti-government movements is not fanciful. But a movement aimed at involving them would inscribe on its programme demands for democracy within the army – rank and file soldiers’ committees, election of officers etc. It should also put forward an independent class position rather than a limited cross-class, popular front type programme. The middle class and poor people could be drawn behind a programme to end the rule of the big bourgeois and land-owning classes, who exploit and oppress them as well as the working class.

Labang ng Masa’s call for a “transitional revolutionary government” sounds inspiring but aims for nothing more than a “mass consultation to put in place a new constitution and to bring about the transformation of state institutions in order to end elite rule”. But this programme would leave capitalism in tact. For this as much as any other reason, it seems to have failed to find broad support either in the working class – the back-bone of any socialist revolution – or in the military.

In the Philippines – a poverty-stricken and corruption-wracked country – the demands for GMA’s ‘ouster’ are supported by a majority of the population, including wide layers of the middle class and many economists and some representatives of the ruling class. But the experience of Philippines workers and poor people leaves them with little enthusiasm for a ‘People Power III’. As one by-stander put it to a British journalist, “Why bother to protest if we’re going to replace one crook with another?”.

Laban ng Masa’s leaders see the removal of Arroyo as a “first stage” – something that all classes can agree to. But this involves no challenge to the root cause of the economic and social problems in the Philippines – the capitalist/landowning system. A movement that does not raise independent, working class, socialist demands will be doomed, like the two previous movements, to go no further than the transfer of power within the existing ruling class.

Weak government, economy in crisis

Last year Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was accused of being involved in corrupt dealings as well as vote-rigging, supported by some of the military top brass. The evidence against her included tapes of phone conversations between her and the election Commissioner about the voting in the 2004 election. (A correspondent of the CWI in Manila says that at the time, some people even used the ‘Gloriagate’ recordings as ring tones on their mobiles!)

In July 80% of the population was in favour of Arroyo’s impeachment. Through a technicality, she survived a challenge to oust her through the courts. Before that, to save her political skin, she had persuaded her husband to leave the country when scandals about influence-peddling and other misdemeanours by him, their son and son-in-law jeopardised her political survival!

As an American-trained economist and a class-mate of ex-US president, Bill Clinton, GMA has pursued an orthodox neo-liberal economic policy including privatisation of state services, cuts in government spending on education and health and increasing taxes on the poor. The increase in VAT from 10 to 12% evoked mass demonstrations, as have increases in prices, including for basic fuels.

With a $70 billion foreign debt, the Philippines economy can be on the edge of an Argentinian-style debt crisis posing the possibility of a payments default. 90% of the government’s budget goes on the interest payments leaving just 10% for schools, hospitals, water, electricification etc. The budget deficit is 180 billion pesos or $3.4bn a year.

At least 30% of potential government revenue is lost through tax evasion and corruption. Illegal business practices are rife, including the logging on hill-sides like that which allowed the murderous mudslide to kill over 1,500 people earlier this year.

Forty per cent of the 86 million population of the Philippines – 30 million people – live in abject poverty, most of them in the rural areas. The top 10% in society take 37% of the country’s income; 20% receive 5% of it. An unemployment rate of 20% means 10 million unemployed. Another 15 million are underemployed. Inflation is in the double digits. In the past three years average incomes have decreased by 10%. A large community still ekes out a living from the Manila rubbish dump known as “Smoky Mountain”. Money sent home by Filipinos abroad remains the country’s biggest export earner!

No programme to end poverty

These gruesome statistics lie behind the inevitable ‘instability’ in the country. Capitalist-landlord governments cannot solve the problems. The ruling class is split but neither wing of it has an alternative policy. Socialists will fight to oppose all manifestations of neo-liberalism or dictatorship, but a programme is needed that raises the need to fight for an end to the rule of the capitalists and land-owners. Such a programme could draw behind it the middle class opponents of the existing regime without ending up with just another form of capitalist rule. On all previous occasions, the overthrow of a corrupt regime has only opened the way for one section of the Philippine ruling class to take over from another, with dubious advances even in democratic rights.

Joseph Estrada, loved by the poor for his role in a film about a Robin Hood-type character, came to power in 1998 with their votes and the backing of the Chinese business community of the Philippines. But he himself was a gangster millionaire with no policies for fighting capitalism and lifting the blanket of poverty constantly suffocating his people.

GMA, whose father served in government in the ‘60s, comes from a different wing of the Philippines ruling class – the landed aristocracy descended from the Spanish colonial families. Little wonder that, as a historian quoted by the CNN news agency put it, “The administrations of Aquino and Arroyo, both from wealthy land-owning clans, faced the same accusations as their predecessors – human rights violations, massive corruption and failure to enforce effective land reform”.

While socialists fight for all democratic rights and freedoms, there can be no trust in wings of the ruling class to guarantee them for the majority of the population or to provide any way out of the grinding poverty and deprivation that afflicts them. Socialists must take a totally independent class position.

Blind alley of guerrillaism

The failure of the workers’ movement to develop an effective fight against capitalism allows illusions in guerrillaism to take hold, especially of the young, angry and impatient. Vicious state repression has seen at least 45 activists – farmers, union organisers, priests, journalists, human rights activists murdered by the army since the election in 2001. Over 60 MPs have been murdered in that period. A resort to arms in acts of individual terrorism is no solution

In 30 years of the fight for independence in Mindanao, 120,000 have died. The Al Q’uaida-linked Muslim separatist Abu Sayyaf organisation continues its reactionary and deadly activities on the island of Jolo. The only way to counter them and to win the right to self-determination is through mass struggle along socialist lines. Even elements of the Philippines left like the National Democratic Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines still operate underground and fail to fight openly on a genuine socialist/communist programme.

None of the guerrilla-type movements is offering a way out of the horrors of life under capitalism. In their way of operating, they provide a pretext for increased state repression. Just after the lifting of the emergency last week, bombs were found in Manila and another terrorist attack was carried out outside the capital. Such adventures, can not only maim and even kill ordinary working and poor people, they provide the state with an ideal pretext for increased repression. State clamp-downs, organised in the name of anti-terrorism, can be used against the movements of the working class, the youth and the poor when they lift their voice in struggle on the streets or in the work-places, universities and schools.

A future of struggle

But the wretched conditions of life for the majority of the population in the Philippines and the antics of the super-rich and corrupt politicians determine that there will still be no stability, whichever way they move to try and preserve their control in society.

The head of a Manila-based risk consultancy, Scott Harrison, had no illusions that the Philippines would return to “normalcy” after this recent crisis. There would still be chaos. “There will be a resumption of coup rumours. There will be a resumption in speculation about discontent in the military. There will be text messaging campaigns. There will be leftist demonstrations in the street.”

During the Philippines’ state of emergency, Ben Mundin, a businessman, wrote to a BBC web discussion: “Initially I supported Arroyo but, with all the revelations about corruption, my doubt is snow-balling and the country’s collective doubt could be like a volcano erupting.” Teodoro Anana, a social worker wrote: “We cannot continue living like this until the year 2010 – supposedly the end of her (Arroyo’s) term. There is no more fear among the activists any more. It’s almost an honour to be arrested or jailed.”

As these comments and reports from socialists like Sony Melencio indicate, a whole layer of workers and young people in the Philippines are prepared to make big sacrifices in the interests of winning the battle for democracy and for a better life. How many more could be inspired with the perspective of a clear and determined socialist fight?

Assemblies and elected committees in every neighbourhood and workplace could link up in the struggle for a government of workers and poor people to replace that of the rich and pampered elite. The only escape from the wretchedness of poverty and oppression is through mass struggle, led by the working class and supported by the poor people of town and country. Public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and democratic planning through elected representatives of the oppressed classes will pave the way for a new society. A call should be made for a federation of socialist states in the region and an international struggle for socialism world-wide – a society of genuinely equal opportunity, undreamed of plenty and freedom from all forms of oppression and exploitation.

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March 2006