The great thing about offering to reconcile with your rivals, opponents, or enemies if you’re a politician is that it’s an offer they can’t refuse without having to explain why.

“Reconciliation” is just like God and Country. While the worst crimes have been committed in the name of both, in the eyes of the mob and the unthinking, only the truly villainous would object to, or refuse, either.

The same is true of reconciliation. Anyone who refuses it must be perverse—and perverse indeed is what President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo suggested such a one would be, barely a day after she announced the offer.

Like a tent or electronic evangelist, and sounding very disturbingly like her patron George W. Bush (a Christian fundamentalist if there ever was one), Mrs. Arroyo said during a Jesus Saves Crusade meeting at Manila’s Quirino Grandstand Friday last week that those who would reject reconciliation are “destabilizers and Pharisees.”

In Jesus’ time a Pharisee was a member of a strict Jewish sect who believed himself superior to other Jews because he was so adept in observing Jewish rites. A Pharisee is thus a hypocrite who observes the ceremonies of religion without living its spirit. The country, especially the government, is full of these creatures who quote the Bible and who attend Church every Sunday—and for that matter Jesus is Lord, Jesus Saves, and El Shaddai meetings at every opportunity—but who do so for self-serving purposes, like, say, the elections of 2004.

But aside from being thus labeled Pharisees should they refuse—Mrs. Arroyo is exceptionally fond of labels, among other attributes—the various groups to which Mrs. Arroyo has supposedly made such a generous offer will also have to agree to her terms.

Before the Sixth Women Playwrights International Conference in Malacanang last Saturday she said that “First, there must be a desire on both sides to reconcile. Second, there must be some acknowledgment of the wrongdoing, in some way or another. Third, there must be some retribution.”

With at least two groups Mrs. Arroyo should not have any problems as far as the first condition—that of wanting reconciliation—is concerned. The first of these are the Marcoses, the second the Estrada faction of the opposition. While both do make periodic noises now and then about how they’re being persecuted by the Arroyo administration, whatever “persecution” they’re suffering have been mostly due to public pressure.

In 2001 Mrs. Arroyo would have stopped the arrest and indictment of Estrada on plunder charges if she could. Today she only needs to pressure the graft court to allow Estrada to leave for the US so he can have his knee operation. The latest word from Malacanang on the subject is, indeed, that Mrs. Arroyo “will not object” to Estrada’s leaving for abroad—a message that should be loud and clear to the Sandiganbayan.

On the other hand, the Marcoses since their return to the country in the 1990s have validated the belief that there is neither order nor justice in the universe, most particularly in the Philippines. The country has a Marcos for governor and a Marcos for congresswoman. It’s likely to have a Marcos for senator next year, and beyond that…

Meanwhile the cases against Imelda Marcos have moved as slowly as molasses, if at all. Though she very recently complained about the treatment she’s been getting from the government, the fact is that a compliant judge had allowed her to travel to England, although she had not asked for it. The situation is thus ripe for “reconciliation” in the form of, say, the Marcos cases finally being consigned to the dustbin of lost Filipino causes as.

It might be in their meeting the second and third conditions that Mrs. Arroyo could have problems. The Marcoses have been insisting for 17 years that they did nothing wrong. The Marcos government was not a dictatorship. Neither the Marcoses nor their cronies plundered the treasury. The human rights violations—the forced disappearances, the massacres, the torture and the murders the regime has been accused of—were all figments of the imagination.

Neither has Joseph Estrada admitted any wrongdoing. He was the servant of the masses for whose welfare he worked hard, especially at night. He did not plunder the treasury either. He was a President faithful to the Constitution. And let’s not forget that in his and his cohorts’ eyes he’s still President.

Without an admission of wrongdoing there can be no penalties—or “retribution,” as Mrs. Arroyo put it so Biblically.

Although tempting, the conclusion that Mrs. Arroyo can heal the rift within the elite thus seems far-fetched. But even more doubtful is the possibility of “reconciliation,” under these same terms, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the armed Left.

Neither is likely to accept the narrow, Christian fundamentalist framework of the Arroyo idea of reconciliation, which from the start would be unacceptable to those of other faiths and those movements that count non-Christian tribes and groups for members. Note that two Catholic priests have been charged with putting that framework together, and note as well the venues—evangelical meetings—where Mrs. Arroyo has talked the loudest about it. Note Mrs. Arroyo’s rhetoric as well, and the Biblical echoes of her metaphors. And note too the suggestion that the various groups Mrs. Arroyo wants to reconcile with should hold a retreat under Malacanang auspices, which should effectively exclude the MILF.

The Arroyo government is supposed to be holding peace talks, whether formal or informal, with both the MILF and the armed Left. Those talks, however, are not premised on the same terms as Mrs. Arroyo’s offer of reconciliation. True, the government has tried its utmost to make these groups’ surrender a condition of the peace negotiations. Though it has been unsuccessful in doing that, the reconciliation offer can be interpreted as the same tactic given a different name.

But neither group is likely to accept Mrs. Arroyo’s terms, anyway, and one suspects that Mrs. Arroyo knows that they won’t and they can’t. To what wrongdoing, for example, will the MILF admit? That it took up arms in pursuit of an independent state after centuries of marginalization and neglect? Or shall it admit to the use of terrorist means in pursuit of its armed campaign for such a state even as suspicions persist that it is the Armed Forces of the Philippines that has been so engaged in Mindanao and elsewhere?

Should the armed Left admit that to take up arms was wrong because the Philippine state has been so open to change and to reforms, and has not murdered social and political activists over the last 45 years? Should it accept the terrorist label and make amends for having engaged units of the Philippine police and military in combat?

In setting what amounts to near-impossible conditions—conditions which incidentally assume the government’s own innocence of wrongdoing and which exempt it from the penalties it would impose on everyone else—Mrs. Arroyo has thus doomed her own initiative from the very start. There is every possibility that she knows it, and in fact is counting on it.

Perhaps she has imagined the possibilities reconciliation could bring. No more Jose Pidal exposes. No more demonstrations by the unwashed to threaten her rule with an EDSA 3 or an EDSA 4. No more military restiveness, and no more guerillas attacking police stations. No more demands for an independent state. And above it all, Mrs. Arroyo, the mother of us all, reigning unchallenged.

Mrs. Arroyo’s problem is that Filipinos have heard this before, though in different terms. On December 30, 2002, she announced her non-candidacy in a ploy intended to put her political rivals on the defensive, stop them from exposing wrongdoing in her government, and give her enough breathing space to recover from her declining approval ratings, among other calculations.

Mrs. Arroyo’s offer of reconciliation reeks as much of the same intentions as her December 30 announcement. By making this so-called offer, she hopes to regain the political initiative and moral high ground, boost her popularity, disarm the various elite groups with which she is in increasingly violent contention, and incidentally seem to be everyone’s ideal of the great unifier rather than the great divider that she has been since she came to power three years ago.

But the truth is she’s been down this road before. This time few people and even fewer groups are likely to go along.

(Today/, November 18, 2003)

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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