Authoritarian regimes are supposed to be at least efficient. Efficiency–at least in the Asian setting, where we have the prime examples of Singapore and Malaysia–is the expected trade-off for the restrictions on civil rights in dictatorships and various tyrannies.

Filipinos have had the short-sightedness to agree to the exchange. In his speeches after his declaration of martial law in September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos urged everyone to go about their business and to obey his orders and decrees so he could “save the Republic.” Implicit in those statements was the promise that in exchange for the curtailment of civil liberties, the citizenry could expect the government to be efficient, honest, and focused on the country’s development.

Never driven by high expectations, the middle classes seized on every sign, no matter how small, to conclude that the martial law government was indeed finally doing what Filipinos have expected their governments to do since 1946–to run the country not only efficiently but with some amount of honest dedication to its welfare and future.

For example, many professionals thought the imposition of a curfew, and the police and Philippine Constabulary’s enforcement of it, indicated that some kind of order had descended on the previous chaos of Philippine society.

The arrest of thousands of political activists, labor and farmer leaders, students, academics, journalists, priests and nuns, opposition politicians and even Constitutional Convention delegates was meanwhile taken as proof that Marcos was determined to end the street protests and political debate that, to the middle classes at least, had needlessly divided the country. An end to that division, they thought, would enable the government to pursue its proclaimed development goals.

In urging the country to “move on” and to lay to rest questions over its legitimacy, human rights violations, and misuse of funds during the 2004 elections, the Arroyo regime has seized on basically the same argument. The country should move on and eschew “politics” so that the regime can devote its energies to implementing its supposed plans for economic and over-all growth. It can thus end poverty, provide adequate social services, and crush both the armed and unarmed challenges to its rule.

In both cases, the assumption is that whatever government is in place has the knowledge and expertise as well as the honesty and goodwill that would bring the country and its people to some level of affluence. Many Filipinos found out soon enough how mistaken they were to think so during the Marcos period–which, despite its implicit promise to develop the country, drove it into further poverty and indebtedness instead. Some are discovering the same thing about the Arroyo regime.

The triumphalist mood of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo over the expected and actual defeat of the impeachment case against her in the House of Representatives should have enabled the regime to respond quickly and meaningfully to the Guimaras oil disaster.

Instead, Mrs. Arroyo declared a national calamity only on August 26, or two weeks after the oil spill, and ordered the Department of Justice to look into who’s responsible for it only on the next day. Mrs. Arroyo probably issued the declaration only in response to a privilege speech by Senator Franklin Drilon demanding that the national government take more concrete steps in addressing the disaster. Otherwise she and her Cabinet crew seem to have imagined that the Guimaras oil spill is a minor disaster which, because it happened in Drilon’s bailiwick, was something they could ignore anyway.

As has been pointed out by environmentalist groups, the disaster happened because of bad governance. Although an archipelago, much of the population of which depends on fishing for subsistence as well as livelihood, the Philippines has never been prepared to deal with sea disasters of any kind, including oil spills.

It does have a Coast Guard that perennially complains of insufficient funding, and whose enforcement of maritime laws leaves much to be desired. This is the same Coast Guard whose men look the other way whenever shipping lines overload their ships beyond their capacities.

Most of the crew of MT Solar I, the tanker that sank off Guimaras whose cargo of bunker oil is slowly leaking into the beaches, mangrove swamps, and marine reserves of the Visayas, had expired certifications or lacked the training necessary for manning a tanker. The tanker itself was single rather than double-hulled, as the Philippines’ own international commitments require. Not surprisingly did the tanker’s efforts to avoid sinking turn out to be inadequate, given its state as well as its crew’s qualifications.

Who’s ultimately responsible, as environmentalist groups have suggested, shouldn’t be difficult to establish. The usual culprit, as in the case of earlier sea disasters such as the sinking of overloaded ships, is the government body charged with seeing to it that ships comply with maritime regulations. It’s called the Philippine Coast Guard.

Apparently, the inefficiency of the agencies charged with implementing those regulations in a country shredded into 7,000 islands isn’t something the Arroyo regime has even thought of, despite its five years in power. And you thought authoritarian regimes were as efficient in dealing with disasters as in murdering dissenters.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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