The “Perfect Storm” that is about to hit the Philippines
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2004-10-17
The Philippine ship of state is about to encounter the “perfect storm.” Alas. the ship of state is farthest from being seaworthy — never having recovered from the series of crises that came in the aftermath of September 21, 1972, the day martial law was declared. But what makes things worse is that while we all try to keep our body and soul together on board our floundering hull, our course and destiny are being steered by one who is least qualified to lead us through the tempest.
Extreme poverty and hopelessness, the continued burden of rising costs, the utter lack of faith of people in their leaders, crime and corruption, the fiscal crisis — all these are combining in a force and fury crying out to explode in a perfect storm.

Are we to expect the very person who seeded a big part of the cloud formation that is creating the perfect storm to steer us away from this mess? President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo cannot escape accountability for the fiscal crisis, the state of the economy and the graft and corruption scandals during her administration. From P2 trillion when Joseph Estrada was ejected from Malacanang, our fiscal problem more than doubled under Macapagal-Arroyo. It is a principle of management to place a new man to correct the mess that another manager created. The bigger the mess created, the more imperative it becomes to place a new manager to correct it.

In essence, that was the gist of the exchange of notes I had last week with the eminent Dr. Robert A. Scalapino who visited Manila briefly. Among other distinctions that can be attributed to his career, Bob Scalapino is a Robson Research Professor of Government Emeritus, has founded the Institute of East Asia Studies and is a Director Emeritus of the Japan Society of Northern California, Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee on US-China Relations. He was accompanied by our friend, Admiral Ron Hays (ret.). Ron will be remembered as the former CINCPAC (Commander in Chief Pacific Command) who ordered the flight of US jets over Metro Manila to help quell the December 1989 coup attempt against the Cory Aquino government.

I met Ron Hays sometime in the late 1990s when I was still the Chairman of The Council on Philippine Affairs. Bob Scalapino, who is now 85 years old, was described by Ron Hays as an invaluable resource person of the US government in the crafting of US foreign policy for Asia. It was the suggestion of Ron – after he heard my views about the perfect storm during an October 7 dinner – that brought me and Bob to a one-on-one discussion the next evening on how we both perceive the developing Philippine situation.

From the very first minute, I was impressed with the depth of knowledge Bob Scalapino had on the Philippine situation. Bob first landed on Philippine soil in 1944 and was involved in the preparations for the Okinawa invasion during World War II. He knew our history, understood the forces at play, and had familiarity with the Filipino mindset and the tolerance level of the Filipino’s national character – gained from 60 years of being a Philippine watcher.

The discussion with Bob delved on the following:

1. There is deep disenchantment among many sectors of Philippine society, something never experienced before – not even during the worst of the Marcos years.

2. The disenchantment goes beyond the leadership. The very system itself is now seriously doubted and people no longer consider the system to be capable of instituting the needed remedies.

3. In 1986, Ninoy Aquino galvanized the nation behind a hero and Aquino’s murder provided a rallying point in Cory Aquino. Today there is nobody in the horizon that can fill the void in the event of a system failure and collapse.

4. Again, unlike in 1986 when we knew that the antidote to the problem was the restoration of democracy, today democracy itself is very much in question. Many want sweeping changes and widespread reforms yet they do not know by what mechanism changes and reforms are to be made.

5. At no time has disunity been so pronounced and this happens at a time when national unity is the most important requirement to be able to weather the perfect storm.

6. Many people, even those from the upper and middle classes, are now open to options that are outside the spectrum of democratic remedies. This is particularly unsettling because this will plunge the nation into the uncharted and dangerous waters where things can get worse.

7. There is no sign that the government is doing the right things that will address the situation effectively. On the contrary, what people see – and this fuels the cynicism – are leaders who are more inclined towards foreign trip junkets, the investigations of “escort girls” and chocolate contracts in the Duty Free Shops, and, of course, charter change. People do not see what these will contribute to ease the impact of the crisis or improve their lot.

8. The result of the SWS survey showed that the majority, 55% (in varying degrees of doubt), does not think that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won the last elections. This pours fuel to the burning issues. With a president who is largely seen as having stolen an election coupled with a very strong clamor for change and reform – the political terrain cannot be more fertile for the seeds of upheaval.

In the forum later that evening, Bob Scalapino was to reiterate his concern over the existence of deep disenchantment in the country. The day before, he had a chance to gauge the national mood when he interacted with representatives of the academe and multi-sectoral groups during a symposium at the De La Salle Graduate School in RCBC Plaza in Makati City.

In the October 7 dinner with Ron Hays, Ron asked me if many of the things I had raised are known to the US ambassador. Ron Hays has long been involved in following Philippine affairs and his question reflects the impact that the developing situation in the country has had on him. As former CINCPAC and consultant for Asia, Ron is no stranger to crises and flashpoints. In fact, his job as CINCPAC was to handle these and protect US interests in the region. Ron and Bob met with the US Ambassador the next day.

One recent development that both Ron Hays and Bob Scalapino found very disturbing was the General Carlos Garcia incident. Both of them said that should this bit of news reverberate in Washington and find its way to the US Congress, there will be serious questions raised about the military aid program for the AFP. The US congress will not relish the idea that military aid will somehow go to line the pockets of corrupt officers instead of upgrade the military capability of an allied country.

The Garcia incident cannot be ruled out as an isolated case of corruption and as developments now show – there is already a strong public clamor for an impartial investigation that goes all the way to the top of the AFP leadership. A court martial proceeding for Gen. Garcia will never be credible because the suspicion extends to a larger circle of high ranking military officers.

Corruption in the highest ranks of the AFP was the main reason that the Oakwood Mutineers cited for resorting to military adventurism. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Commander-in-Chief, cannot console herself that the Oakwood Mutineers already apologized for what they did. The Garcia incident, if mishandled, can ignite the fuse to a bigger and more serious recurrence of military adventurism that can lead to a military takeover or start a civil war. A split in the AFP is all that is needed under the current ferment to plunge the country into a civil war.

What I think is most striking in the recent visit of Ron Hays and Bob Scalapino is the alarm that both of them expressed over what they saw as an emerging dreaded scenario. These two gentlemen have their ears on the Philippine ground. They have consistently followed Philippine developments. They have been to the Philippines many times in the past and saw the “natives” up close. For them to be alarmed by the foreboding of the coming tempest and the questionable fitness of the ship captain underscores the gravity of the situation. They know how this can trigger a chain of political events that have far reaching complications.

What is alarming has less to do with the perfect storm but more to do with doubts about the fitness of Macapagal-Arroyo to navigate the ship of state. Already, Dana Dillon, the senior analyst of the influential and respected Washington Think Tank – The Heritage Foundation – called Macapagal-Arroyo the weakest leader in ASEAN.

It is a given that any country, government or leader will encounter crisis. But for a country to have the magnitude of this crisis and the lack of quality of the leadership that has been inflicted upon us at this time – now that is a matter for serious concern.

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