Books on The Philippines
Update No: 045 - (29/09/07)
On September 12th, the Sandiganbayan (the anti-graft court of
the Philippines) returned its verdict on the case of former President, Joseph
Estrada or "Erap" as he is affectionately known to his loyal band of
followers. The former president of the Philippines was found guilty of the crime
of plunder but not guilty of a second charge of perjury. It was a curious
verdict but in a country where everyone has to get something, it was a small
bone to throw down for the accused.
Several of his co-accused were acquitted by the Court. Those acquitted included
his son, Senator Jose "Jinggoy" Estrada, and lawyer Edward Serapio.
President Estrada stood accused of plundering billions of pesos during his
three-year term at Malacañang Palace. The decision by the Sandiganbayan,
reportedly, did not surprise the deposed leader, who called the ruling a
"political decision" meant to legitimise the stay of incumbent
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at Malacañang Palace. In an interview with a
major international news network he said defiantly that he had been elected by
the people and had been exonerated by the people and that is all that
matters-well, maybe but then maybe not. It seems though that it did surprise a
majority of Filipinos who-according to one poll survey-were expecting his
His conviction carries a sentence of reclusion perpetua. This could mean up to
40 years in gaol or death-whichever comes first. He is expected to appeal the
ruling and ask for the Sandiganbayan's reconsideration. If that fails he can
appeal to the Supreme Court. If he loses all appeals then it is widely expected
that the President will grant clemency. Although he has already rejected the
notion of a pardon on the grounds that he was not guilty of anything, when faced
with the prospect of having his freedom or remaining incarcerated; he may well
change his mind. Already there is talk of a compromise deal where he would be
given "amnesty" instead of a "pardon". It seems
"amnesty" does not carry with it the implication of a crime-that at
least is the semantics of the lawyers.
During the appeal process Estrada will remain at his rest-house in Tanay, Rizal
province. Unlike in Korea where two former presidents appeared in court in
prison garb and chains to answer similar charges and who then served time in
prison cells, in the Philippines, things are done differently. Mr. Estrada has
been accorded certain courtesies as a former president of the country. Many have
challenged this double-standard but then that is the Filipino way.
The charges included four counts of corruption: taking commissions in the
purchase of shares by government insurance funds, payoffs from gambling
syndicates, diverting tobacco taxes for personal use and maintaining a bank
account under a false name. Altogether, he was accused of accumulating wealth
amounting to about PhP4 billion (US$85 million). In the end he was convicted on
the first two counts only.
While the court decision has not yet brought closure to the matter, it has at
least ended the long period of uncertainty and antagonistic debate that has
polarised the country for more than six years.
Several hundreds of diehard Estrada supporters trooped outside the court's
building in Quezon City to hear the verdict but the crowd was too thin to be
considered a threat to national security. It was a far cry from the hundreds of
thousands of urban poor that massed at EDSA Tres (In English: The Third EDSA-Filipinos
still use the Spanish) in May 2001 to demand the reinstatement of their fallen
idol. The fear that a conviction would be the catalyst of another people's
revolt vanished with the afternoon rains that swept Metro Manila. Most people it
seems had had enough.
The appeal process could take up to three years and could yet outlast the Arroyo
presidency. For the meantime, Mr. Estrada would remain under house arrest for
the duration and he will not be transferred to the national penitentiary in
Muntinlupa City as some thought might be the case.
The court also confiscated more than PhP700 million in alleged Estrada assets
(around US$15 million) including a foundation set up by the former president for
Muslim youth scholars and the now famous Boracay mansion in New Manila, Quezon
City. This loss of assets is only a small fraction of what he is alleged to have
amassed but any monetary loss hurts. This may be the real punishment and the
reason the former president was reduced to tears.
For most people, the court's verdict has removed the uncertainty and
polarisation within the political landscape. Local commentators and analysts
pointed out that the verdict of the court showed that the justice system in the
Philippines could work when given the chance-at long last, a "big
fish" had not only been caught but also convicted. Sadly though there is a
corollary to that argument, that to be convicted you have to be out of power. If
you are within the power circle many believe you can continue to lead a charmed
Indeed in the discussion and debate that followed announcement of the verdict,
many have made the point that Erap's crimes pale into insignificance as compared
to the plunder that has taken place under the Arroyo watch. The natural
extension of this argument is that the verdict was a warning to the incumbent
president and her cohorts that they too could suffer the same fate. Whether this
means that the Arroyo presidency will reform itself or whether the lesson
learned is that it should cling to power by all means, remains to be seen.
Certainly there are those who would like to try and bring those in the present
administration-including the president herself to account; and we would have to
accept that there are grounds to believe that there are still errant officials
at work plundering the national treasury. Election Commissioner Abalos is the
latest to be scrutinised for possible plunder over his role in a controversial
communications deal with China that has been roundly criticised, not only for
the lack of transparency surrounding the contract and also the cost ($330
million to the taxpayer; curiously two other BOT contracts that would have
provided the same system at no cost to the government were passed over).
But the Arroyo presidency is also much different from that of Estrada in a
number of aspects.
Estrada's presidency was characterised by womanising and drinking with his
so-called midnight cabinet of cronies. His disdain for acceptable norms of
behaviour became a national embarrassment to the country. It is not that
Filipinos' neither drink nor womanise. It is just that they don't usually do it
publicly. To the masses, however, Estrada was at least warm and colourful. The
incumbent administration often appears the antithesis of that-cold and distant.
Be that as it may be, whatever their faults, President Arroyo and her economic
team have at least got the country back on the path to sustained economic growth
with the best prospects for further development in many years-certainly since
the Ramos era. Finally, the country appears to have shaken off the blues of the
Asian financial crisis and is back on track. President Arroyo may not be loved
but she is respected for what she has done-at least by the business community.
By extension, the Philippines is also gaining new respect internationally and is
back on the investment map, even though there is so far no tsunami of funds
washing into the country (other than those from the overseas workers whose
dutiful remittances have brought the foreign reserves of the country to new
And if tolerance of a certain level of malfeasance is the price to pay for all
of this good news then maybe that is a price that has to be paid. Nobody would
dare argue that line publicly of course, but then reality can sometime sting.
Corrupt practices are so utterly endemic they will be with us for some time to
come, and may well be beyond the scope of any one person or even dedicated
group, to stop.
Since the announcement of the verdict, local stocks and the peso have both moved
upward. This is taken that the business community did believe that the
conviction is a signal to investors and to the world that the justice system can
work in the country and hold the nation together, despite the many controversies
involving its leaders and attempts to politicise and undermine the process. One
institution at least has shown itself as rising above the inevitable pressure.
It is not over yet but another storm has been weathered and Philippines Inc.
continues on course. For this we should be thankful.