It may have an ample supply of people with single-digit IQs and pronunciation problems. But the Arroyo regime has a genius for using Filipino misfortunes to its advantage.

When the Maguindanao massacre of 57 people including at least 30 journalists and media workers outraged the country and the world, then spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo admitted, and what’s more reaffirmed, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s continuing friendship with the suspected masterminds. But the less imprudent voices from Malacanang made it appear that Mrs. Arroyo had absolutely nothing to do with the Ampatuans. The ruling coalition’s expulsion of clan members did remind everyone that the Ampatuans were her political allies and had immeasurably helped deliver the presidency to Mrs. Arroyo in 2004 as well as 12 Team Unity candidates to the Senate in 2007.

While that’s the kind of dissonance one has come to expect from the regime, the stroke of genius came later, only a few days after the worst single-day massacre of journalists in history. The regime placed Maguindanao under martial law despite the absence of the conditions — a rebellion and an invasion — that the Constitution says would justify a declaration of martial rule. The Ampatuans were alleged to be in rebellion against the very government of which they’re a part, and in whose behalf they had been amassing a huge arsenal of weaponry to arm their private army, which, in the picturesque language of the Philippine military, is part of its “complementary force” in Mindanao against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The suspicious can’t be blamed for thinking that the declaration was a way out of charging the Ampatuans with multiple murder, rebellion being a lesser charge. Among some journalists, on the other hand, the real reason for the declaration was regime anxiety over the possibility that the Ampatuans had damning evidence in their possession that would confirm not only regime fraud in the 2004 and 2007 elections, but also similar plans for 2010.

Both could be mere conspiracy theories without any real basis, but Presidential Proclamation 1959 is nevertheless still a stroke of regime genius. A declaration of martial law is among the regime’s options to keep Mrs. Arroyo and her wing of the ruling elite in power beyond 2010. A declaration of martial law has been the invisible line no regime after Marcos has dared cross. By crossing that line Mrs. Arroyo made future declarations less of a shock, even as it enabled the regime to test public response to it, and to evaluate its legal and political implications despite the limits imposed by the 1987 Constitution.

In another stroke of evil genius, the regime is currently propagating the idea that amending that Constitution is the answer to the spate of sea mishaps that on Christmas eve and two days later came one after the other, and killed at least a dozen Filipinos, with several dozen still missing.

The roll on-roll off (“ro-ro”) vessel Baleno 9 sank last December 26, two days after the wooden hulled Catalyn B sank after a mid-sea collision with a fishing boat. As bad as both catastrophes were, they’re trifling compared to the world’s worst peacetime sea disaster: the sinking of the MV Dona Paz in December, 1987, which killed over 4,000 people. That disaster has since been joined by the Maguindanao massacre in the list of Philippine worsts, and there’s no telling what will come next to augment the roster.

But what has maritime safety got to do with the Constitution? Deputy presidential spokesperson Gary Olivar says the 1987 Constitution’s limitations on foreign commercial shipping ownership must be lifted to “liberalize” the Philippine shipping industry. Olivar claimed that safety issues –which have been identified in all instances of Philippine maritime disasters before and since the MV Dona Paz sinking — would be addressed if foreign interests were allowed entry into the shipping industry, which would result in greater competition.

And yet the Philippine shipping industry has been liberalizing even without the lifting of the Constitutional restrictions that Olivar thinks will solve its safety and other problems. Research by the online news site Bulatlat shows that the two transnational companies involved in the industry in 1994 had become more than the five that in 1998 were listed among the top 5,000 corporations in the Philippines. Seven transnationals were in the same list in 2009.

The regime attempt to link maritime safety with Constitutional amendments is more than disingenuous. In addition to benefiting from Filipino misfortunes, it would evade responsibility for the failure to monitor the seaworthiness of seagoing vessels, as well as their compliance with existing maritime regulations, among them the qualifications of ship masters.

The very same corruption that has metastasized throughout the entire government machinery during the interminable Arroyo watch is the lead problem of the Philippine commercial shipping industry. The corruption starts at the level of the country’s maritime schools, most of which lack equipment and competent instructors, that are nevertheless allowed to continue operations, and whose graduates manage to pass PRC (Professional Regulatory Commission) tests.

It continues at the level of certifying vessels as seaworthy despite their decrepitude, and the Coast Guard’s turning a blind eye to such greed-driven practices as overloading. The MV Dona Paz, for example, had an official capacity of 1,186 passengers. But 2,150 were listed in the manifest, while the actual number of passengers was over 4,000.

But like the surveys that show massive public distrust of Mrs. Arroyo, these are of no moment to the regime. What counts is keeping itself in power through, among other options, Constitutional amendments after the 2010 elections. The Arroyo regime’s House henchmen are preparing bills that would hold elections in October for a constitutional convention, despite opposition from the Senate and over 60 percent of Filipinos.

What’s in it for the citizenry of this unhappy Republic who travel by ship despite its hazards? Nothing except the prospect of watery graves. What’s in it for the putrid political elite that’s been inflicting its greed for power and pelf on the Filipino people for decades? Everything, including amending those provisions of the Constitution that make total state repression problematic, and affecting the shift to a parliamentary system that could result in Arroyo’s being prime minister or recycled President. The Filipino people’s loss — in lives, fortune and opportunity — is their rulers’ gain.


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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