Unfinished business

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The Arroyo regime is carrying on as if it were business as usual, despite the basement level approval ratings of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo herself as well as her entire Cabinet, the uproar over the arrest of media people last Thursday, and the regime’s imposition of a curfew in metro Manila and environs—and oh yes, the November 29 Peninsula incident itself.

The arrest of media people, continuing police harassment of TV network ABS-CBN, and the curfew were themselves indicative of regime resistance to any change in its policies and mindset. Despite what amounted to a policy statement over the weekend and before she left for Europe—“the media are not our enemy” and “don’t rile the media unnecessarily”—the police, for example, seem determined to intimidate (not “rile,” which means to annoy) the media, anyway.

Among other acts, the police have accused the media of complicity in the Peninsula event, and “commanded” ABS-CBN to bring the tapes of its November 29 coverage to police headquarters, while at the same time sponsoring a dialogue with media groups that could only have been pointless without the police’s taking Mrs. Arroyo’s statements seriously.

The Arroyo regime has been on this very course—suppressing expressions of dissent and protest rather than addressing the grievances behind them– since 2002. As sobering as last Thursday’s events would have been to another, more thoughtful government, the Peninsula Hotel incident has instead become just one more occasion for it to bare its authoritarian fangs. It thus inflicted collateral damage on the media and free expression, and, via an illegal curfew, on everyone else’s freedom of movement.

As seriously indicative of its incorrigibility as these acts were, the most recent indication that Mrs. Arroyo is not about to change course is her European jaunt, to which she’s taken along her husband, children and grandchildren plus 37 of her allies in Congress at a cost to the taxpayers that’s still to be determined. There’s also the two helicopters she’s purchasing for her use, the cost of which amounts to some P1.2 billion.

While thousands of street children sleep on the sidewalks and under bridges, and more and more Filipinos go hungry daily; while medical care remains a dream for the majority and even basic education has become an unreachable goal, all supposedly because there’s no money, the Arroyo administration—and its defenders in the House and the Senate—sees nothing wrong in spending money that could otherwise go to the construction of school buildings and health centers.

This is the kind of callousness that encourages such acts of resistance as the Peninsula incident. As puzzling as it was, that incident (which the PNP insists on calling “a coup attempt”) showed not only continuing disaffection with the Arroyo regime among civil society and the citizenry. It also revealed the tenuousness of Mrs. Arroyo’s support among the military rank and file, the glaring indication of which was the swift transformation of Senator Trillanes’ military escorts into Magdalo sympathizers last Thursday.

But neither seems to have made much of an impression on Mrs. Arroyo and company. Her police and military, as well as most of her Cabinet people including the most chatty Defense Secretary the country has had in years, and certainly Mrs. Arroyo herself, are instead in triumphalist mode. After all they did survive another “coup attempt,” which today as in the past the regime takes for a license to keep on doing what it’s been doing, and more.

Business as usual has mostly consisted of testing the country’s endless patience and ignoring public outrage as it rules over a country where it has become a capital crime to hold contrary opinions, and as it relentlessly piles one scandal on top of another.

During the electoral scandal of 2004, the cynical were saying that while there will be the usual protests, they will go the way of others, meaning nowhere. If Mrs. Arroyo cheated, she would be rewarded with six more years in Malacanang. If there was vote-buying, the corruptors of the electorate would take their seats. If people were killed, the killers would go unpunished. The cynics have since been proven right, which is why, despite the threat of being unseated, Mrs. Arroyo has continued to preside over one scandal after another since. From the electoral fraud of 2004 to the “Joc Joc” Bolante fertilizer scandal, the Northrail project pay-offs to the NBN-ZTE bribery, the “cash gifts” Malacanang was handing out to governors and congressmen like candy last month, etc., etc., these scandals are indicators of a vast system of corruption, the extent of which is yet to be determined.

But they’re also what’s driving the low approval ratings of Mrs. Arroyo and company, mass disaffection with her government, and such acts of desperation and defiance as the Peninsula incident. Not only have these scandals defied exposure and resolution, they have also emboldened rather than chastened the regime—and that much has been obvious to the citizenry which has been gnashing its teeth over regime brazenness since 2004 at least.

These scandals are also rapidly becoming part of the vast unfinished business of a country where, thanks to those who rule it, government has become one huge effort to conceal rather than reveal, and to create problems rather than solve them. Add the Peninsula incident to the lengthening, sorry list of issues, scandals, and problems that will never see closure or resolution as the regime heaps blame on everyone and everything else except itself, and continues on its merry, unrepentant way.

(BusinessWorld)

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