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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Bush the Younger -- The "Thrilla in Manila"

Printable PDF Version BushinManila102003BB.gif BushinManila2.jpg George and Gloria in Manila The latest grim news from Manila is not very comforting to those who once celebrated the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and hoped that its replacement would eventually become a vigorous democracy. The entire 130,000-person Philippine military was placed on 24-hour alert, three days before the arrival of President George W. Bush for an 8-hour (actually it turned out to be a 4-hour) visit on October 18. (See how the visit turned out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,1280,-3280686,00.html.) Bush, on his way to a conference of the 21-member, hopelessly-ineffective Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok next week, decided to pay a call on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, because she has been one of the staunchest supporters of his global war on terrorism, and -- not coincidently -- one of the largest recipients of US military aid and training in the region. (See http://www.inq7.net/brk/2003/oct/15/brkpol_11-1.htm.) Anticipating the possibility that Bush's visit would trigger huge anti-American protests in Manila, where many people still recall the pro-Marcos stand of his father ("We love your adherence to democratic principles and democratic process," Bush the Elder toasted the dictator in Manila in March 1981), her government also decided to confine such protests to so-called "freedom parks" far from the Bush entourage, and to have the police enforce a strict "no permit, no rally" rule. In light of the visit, New Zealand also warned its own citizens that "terrorists" might try to stage attacks to embarrass Ms. Macapagal-Arroyo's government. (The freedom parks concept may actually have been a US export, since the US Secret Service has actually been implementing something very similar here.)

The concern about embarrassment might not be so serious, since M-A's government seems eminently capable of embarrassing itself. In the run-up to Bush's visit, for example, the authorities proudly announced on Sunday that they had killed an Indonesian terrorist, Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, on the southern island of Mindanao, after a fierce gun battle. Al_Ghozi, ostensibly an Indonesian bomb-maker for the "al Qaeda-linked" Jemaah Islamiyah, had been convicted of a December 2000 bombing in Manila that killed 22 people.

Some doubted the official account of his death, however, suspecting that he might have simply been murdered well after capture, since the timing seemed so perfect and the authorities told conflicting stories about how much resistance al-Ghazi had really offered. The killing also erased the embarassing fact that only last July, al_Ghazi had easily escaped from a maximum security police prison in Manila, where he was supposed to be serving a 17-year sentence.

In any case, the killing certainly awarded Madame M-A a convenient and timely victory in the "war on terrorism." But the suspect behavior by her own police -- even escaped terrorists presumably have some legal rights -- on top of all the precautions against public demonstrations, in a country that is supposed to be a democracy, not in a state of Marcos-like martial law -- is very disturbing. It is, however, consistent with the new "post 9/11" theory of constitutional rights, according to which constitutional rights may be freely dispensed with, any time some senior official imagines a "terrorist threat."

Meanwhile, a nationwide survey of 1200 heads of households that was conducted in September 2003 in the Philippines found that 62 percent rated their family condition as "mahirap," or poor. And 45 percent of them expected their living conditions to deteriorate in the next year. If we thought that President Bush might actually have some direct discourse with such people, rather than enlisting the entire nation's military in his own defense to keep them at a safe distance, his visit might seem more worthwhile.

But Bush went to Asia primarily to meet with sycophants like Gloria and to "jawbone" the Chinese into floating their exchange rate -- even though they've managed the most successful developing economy in the region for more than a decade (knock wood.) He wanted to badger them into revaluing the yuan, hoping that this would cut their $110 billion trade surplus with the US. His latest undistinguished Treasury Secretary, John Snow, tried to do this summer. That kind of rhetoric may be useful for domestic political purposes, but the Chinese are too busy watching their economy grow at 9 percent and lofting astronauts into space to respond -- unlike the hapless Filipinos. Rather, the Chinese may be tempted to point to the Philippines itself as an example of the severe damage that fifty years of wide-open capital markets, freely-floating exchange rates, and one-sided "free" trade can do to a country's welfare.

Bush went out of his way during his remarks to cite the Philippines as a role model for the US occupation of Iraq -- conveniently skippling over the fact the US seized control of the islands after its 1898 trumped-up war with Spain, did not cede them formal independence until 1946, continuously supported puppet regimes and dictators like Marcos from 1946 until 1986, and then has been a rather diffident observer of Philippines democracy since then.

Today, after a century of apprenticehip and tutelage to the US economy and international banks, the fact is the Philippines remains one of Asia's most troubled economies, and a wobbly, corruption-ridden militarized semi-democracy," with several rebel armies still in the bush. The Philippines' foreign debt now exceeds $52 billion, more than twice the level when Marcos left, and a rather high 70 percent of national income (compared with China's 15 percent). Its per capita income, adjusted for purchasing power parity, has actually fallen 10 percent below China's ($4021 vs. $4475, 2002 -- according to the latest World Bank WDI data, 10/2003). Its largest export is still maids, more than sixty percent of its population still depends on coconuts for a living, and the country still boasts one of the highest per capita debts and least equal distributions of wealth and land in Asia.

The shocking notion that such conditions might actually have something to do with the fact that the Philippines is also the only country in Asia still fighting an active Communist insurgency -- as well as two other long-standing rebel armies, who've been fighting for decades, years before al-Qaeda was a gleam in bin Laden's eye -- is a thought that China's leaders, albeit nominal Communists themselves, might usefully explain to Gloria and our own Fearless Leader.

(c) James S. Henry, October 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author.

October 15, 2003 at 02:14 AM | Permalink

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