BENIGNO Aquino III blames not only his immediate predecessor, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for the country’s ills; he’s also mentioned the late Ferdinand Marcos as equally responsible for them.

For doing that in some of his speeches and interviews with the media — and implying that Marcos and his female clone have made changing anything extremely difficult if not impossible — not only the partisans of Arroyo have accused Mr. Aquino of trying to deflect criticism from his own administration’s inadequacies. So have others impatient with the administration’s seeming inability to solve the country’s most urgent problems.

They argue that Arroyo and Marcos were only two among the 16 Presidents (including Aquino III) the country has had since Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence in 1899. Blaming Arroyo and Marcos not only for the country’s sorry state but also for the difficulty of putting in place the changes needed to address its problems, so the argument goes, ignores the role of their predecessors in the country’s ruin.

It’s a view that’s neither flattering to past Presidents nor optimistic about the role of government in the lives of this country’s long-suffering people, and some Aquino critics have included Mr. Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, among those who deserve at least part of the blame for the country’s terminal condition.

Including Cory Aquino among those we can blame for the sorrows of the Philippines invites the retort that Mrs. Arroyo’s father, Diosdado Macapagal, could similarly be blamed for them. But Mr. Aquino III does have a point: among the country’s Presidents, Marcos and Arroyo did play leading roles in the country’s decline, and in the virtual irreversibility of that process.

Both left the Presidency with the country worse than when they assumed office. Marcos dismantled Congress, undermined the judiciary, subjected civilians to military trials, suspended the bill of rights, and used the police and military to arbitrarily arrest and detain over a hundred thousand Filipinos, to torture some ten thousand, and to summarily execute several hundred others.

By the time he had amassed one of the biggest fortunes in Philippine and world history, the country was over billion in debt; a war was raging in the South; the military had morphed into a major power broker and center of privilege and power. Not only the economy was in ruins; the whole of Philippine society had also sustained near-fatal damage, and the political system had become the private preserve of the handful of people — cronies, relatives, and allies — Marcos had taken into his confidence as collaborators and co-conspirators against the Filipino people.

Despite the Corazon Aquino administration’s revival of such liberal institutions as regular elections, the check and balance principle through the re-establishment of Congress, and the re-empowerment of the judiciary, the damage to the economy, the political system and the whole of Philippine society survived the efforts to restore pre-1972 elite democracy.

Not only the series of coup attempts from 1986 onwards demonstrated how far the military had degenerated into a separate power. The primacy of the military in the political calculations of succeeding governments was also amply demonstrated in the making of public policy, for example in the ascendancy of the military viewpoint of total war in addressing the separatist movements in Mindanao, the New People’s Army “insurgency” in the rest of the country, and, together with it, the sabotage of efforts at a peaceful resolution of both conflicts. Corazon Aquino was in fact weighed down by the Marcos military legacy that survived Marcos’ death and which persists to this day.

Arroyo used the very same authoritarian legacy to remain in power, but did Marcos better. If military support was the key factor in Marcos’ 14-year rule, in the elections of 2004, 2007 and 2010, Arroyo mobilized the most corrupt generals to manipulate the results, and from 2004 onwards also inflicted the most severe damage on those institutions, including the Catholic Church, that had escaped Marcos’ attention.

Among the consequences was the continuing violation of human rights by the unreformed military that Arroyo implicitly — and at times openly — encouraged as part of her focus on remaining in power, and the vast network of corruption that by the time she left office had metastasized not only throughout government but in much of Philippine society as well. Her government also encouraged the proliferation of warlord power, and its hostility to free expression and press freedom was enough to encourage the record killing of journalists, which culminated in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.

The problems Mr. Aquino has inherited resist solution among other reasons because of the corruption and lawlessness of practically every government instrumentality, the resulting threat of State failure due to the enhancement of military and warlord power that both the Marcos and Arroyo regimes abetted, and with which Mr. Aquino is having great difficulty contending.

Military resistance to any meaningful and mutually acceptable peace agreement explains why the peace talks with both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the National Democratic Front have proceeded in fits and starts and are currently at a standstill. Both talks began on notes of optimism, but have foundered on the shoals of the Cold War and authoritarian ideology of a military establishment noted for its world-class corruption and moral and intellectual vacuity. (Despite the established credentials of two political prisoners as NDF consultants, for example, the military simply refuses to release them, in effect sabotaging the peace talks.)

The same bankrupt and self-serving doctrine has made any attempt at prosecuting those responsible for the human rights violations that were as much a hallmark of the Arroyo regime as they were of Marcos’, or just simply putting a stop to them, problematic. As crippled as it is by its own inefficiency, the Aquino administration is also a hostage to the military as far as the urgent issues of peace, justice and human rights compliance are concerned.

This will not do. Aquino may be right in assigning blame to the two administrations that have historically inflicted the most damage to this country and its people. But it doesn’t mean that he will be free from blame himself should he fail to deliver on, at the very least, his promises of reducing corruption levels, mitigating poverty, putting a stop to continuing human rights violations, and dismantling the culture of impunity that encourages them.

As correct as he may be in assigning blame to his two predecessors, Aquino wasn’t elected in 2010 to replace one of the most despised Presidents this country has ever had solely so he can whine and carp his way to retirement by 2016. What else is he doing other than complaining about the problems he’s inherited?


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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