With a little help from Bush

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President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s claim that the coming visit of George W. Bush to this country would generate more jobs would have been hilarious. Except that the gains she claims the country will get from the visit are being used to justify the suppression of such rights as free assembly.

Proceeding from the assumption that most Filipinos are pro-American enough to approve of the visit, Mrs. Arroyo has dismissed the planned protests of several groups as of no consequence. But she has vowed to devote the next four weeks prior to October 18 to highlight the benefits for the country of “strong” US-Philippine ties. The claim that the Bush visit would generate jobs was apparently part of that month-long campaign.

The word from the Philippine National Police is that it will not allow any demonstration without permits. Since the policy is not to issue permits at all, this means that the PNP will disperse demonstrators not only with water cannon, truncheons and tear gas, but also with rubber bullets. Leave it to the PNP to be up-to-date in the fine arts of rights suppression, if not in cutting the crime rate or preventing policemen from frequenting bars and nightclubs.

The PNP has also been busy concocting a story of an NPA assassination plot against Bush. To prevent that alleged plot from prospering, the PNP is setting up checkpoints for random firearms checks in metro Manila and neighboring areas.

Expect those checkpoints to result in the usual harvest of abuses and even shootings of clueless citizens, instead of the arrest of any NPA assassination team. It is true that the NPA has targeted government officials in the past, but only those it suspects of direct involvement in local operations against it. It has never targeted presidents of this country, or of any other country including the United States, because it doesn’t believe that such assassinations will mean the dismantling of the political, economic and social system—which after all is the strategic aim of the Communist Party which commands it.

The plot the PNP says the NPA has hatched, however, provides the police the excuse to stop demonstrators at checkpoints where, over the last decade or so, people have been shot at just for being in a vehicle of the same make as the vehicle of wanted persons, cars and belongings subjected to illegal searches, and women harassed. The main use of checkpoints, however, is to stop, subject to impertinent questions, otherwise intimidate, and turn back demonstrators—whether armed with permits or not—to weaken and even prevent protests against government policy.

The policies so far adopted for the Bush visit are only the beginning. The Arroyo government will also turn the places where Bush will be on October 18th into armed camps, with thousands of police and other security forces deployed in and around the former US airbase at Clark where Bush will land, the Batasang Pambansa where Bush is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress, and Malacanang, where Mrs. Arroyo will toast his health.

These sites are likely to be the venues of confrontations between the police and protesting groups, which have announced that their protests will continue. The would-be protesters argue that the issuance of permits is a purely ministerial function intended to give the police advance warning on potential traffic and other problems. Given the constitutional protection of the right to free assembly, the issuance of permits is apparently not a discretionary power. But it has been so interpreted by the government.

Considering the police’s past record of violence against protests—and the Arroyo government’s obvious anxiety to show Bush that it enjoys popular support—a political crisis could result from the brutal dispersal of protesting groups.

If it does come, the crisis will feed the current political instability, and could lead to either another attempt at a coup by the usual suspects (the adventurist wings of the opposition in collusion with restive military officers), or to further government repression approximating martial law conditions—or even both, in which case deciding the outcome of the ensuing confrontation could be prolonged and bloody.

These are not pleasant prospects. But the Arroyo government is apparently willing to suppress citizen rights and even risk its own destabilization—or else is clueless about how volatile the political situation is—for the sake of the “benefits” the Bush visit will bring.

The benefits could very well be more imagined than real, and one suspects that the government knows it.

Mrs. Arroyo claims that the Bush visit will boost investor confidence, despite ample evidence that “strong” Philippine-US relations have not been critical in the past to encouraging that confidence. The government knows that law and order—of which the Philippines has very little—is among the principal concerns of foreign investors, together with inconsistent laws governing investments which allow various interpretations, official corruption, communication problems including traffic, and political instability over all.

Turning the country into an armed camp and a battleground between police and protesters just to secure Bush from imaginary plots against his life will hardly convince foreign investors that the country is either stable, peaceful, or orderly. It will not address investor concerns over corruption either, the scandals of recent months suggesting not only that corruption is out of control, but that the highest levels of government are the most guilty of it.

Should the police deal with demonstrations and other protests in its usual accustomed way, meaning with mindless violence, what the Bush visit could suggest instead to the foreign investors the government wants to attract is exactly the opposite message: that the Philippines is a turbulent, unpredictable, lawless and violent place that can hardly guarantee either the safety or profitability of foreign investments.

But it does seem as if the Arroyo government is not so much concerned with jobs as with the political support of Bush, whose visit it apparently hopes will make the many groups plotting its downfall think twice. Given that bottom-line aim, it will do everything within its power to give Bush the impression that all’s well with its trusted ally in the “war against terror,” and that it is firmly in control.

Never mind such incidents as the escape of Fathur Al-Ghozi; maybe he’ll be captured by then, maybe not. What’s needed is for Bush to believe that Al-Ghozi’s escape was a fluke that in time the Arroyo government could remedy.

The supposed benefits in terms of foreign investments and jobs are thus secondary to securing the political interests of the Arroyo government, since Bush’s support can mean more US economic and military aid anyway. Those interests include lasting long enough until elections are held, as well as prevailing in them in 2004. A show of Bush support, the Arroyo government hopes, will help—and it needs all the help it can get.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Arroyo’s claim about Bush’s visit’s making more jobs available was ironic, if not hilarious, since Bush has been credited for record levels of US unemployment.

Bush’s policies, whether foreign or domestic, have cost Americans 2.7 million jobs since the year 2000. US unemployment is at an all time high. Industrial production has been falling for months, resulting in the steady loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States, where manufacturing employment has declined by 16 percent since July 2000.

In August alone, say US Department of Labor statistics, 93,000 people lost their jobs in the non-farm sector. The number of factory jobs declined by 44,000; 5,000 jobs each were lost in wood products, machinery, apparel, electrical equipment and electrical appliances; the textile industry lost 12,000 jobs.

In the information sector, employment fell by 16,000 jobs. This sector has lost 459,000 jobs since March 2001, while 10,000 jobs were lost in management of companies and enterprises. Computer systems design lost 8,000 jobs. In wholesale trade, employment has decreased since March 2001 by 423,000. Government employment has decreased by 131,000.

Of course Bush’s sorry record as far as jobs in the US is concerned does not necessarily mean that multinationals including US-based ones won’t flock to a country where it perceives conditions to be ideal, meaning where wages are low, labor unrest rare if not non-existent, law and order assured, laws predictable, bureaucrats relatively honest, and the government pliant.

Except for the last detail, this is not a description of the Philippines. Approximating the foreign investor ideal, however, is at the moment not the Arroyo government’s primary concern, but political survival—of course with a little help from its US friends.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, September 23, 2003)

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