Estrada directs a mad scene

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Wed Apr 26 06:35:45 PDT 2000

Friday 21 April 2000

Estrada directs a mad scene By Michael Sheridan WHEN the long-suffering people of the Philippines elected a brash former film star as their president they did not expect him to stick to a boring official script. But as Joseph Estrada's term in office proceeds amid scandal, chaos and violence, many wonder whether they are watching comedy or tragedy. Take the recent presidential meeting with fishermen in the city of Cebu. In expansive form, the head of state turned to his audience and introduced a hitherto unknown girl as his illegitimate daughter. Jerica Enriquez, described by one local paper as ``a sloe-eyed mestiza (mixed-race) teenager in a pink long-sleeved shirt'', smiled and waved as her proud father declared: ``She looks like me, doesn't she?'' While the fishermen and their wives gaped, Estrada ignored their industry's problems to give advice on responsible parenthood and family planning, jovially telling husbands to ``control their urges''. The president, who is said to have at least 10 children by six women, said he was concerned about the country's birth rate. Indeed, since the fall of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the population has exploded to 72m with a birth rate estimated at 2.3 per cent producing 1.3m children a year. The results, say development economists, are dire: mass poverty, unemployment, falling education standards, collapsing infrastructure and an inexorable strain on the country's limited resources. However, in this devoutly Roman Catholic country it is corruption and cronyism, not contraception, that dominate the political agenda. Stories abound of late-night drinking sessions at the presidential palace and back-slapping deals for the boys - the president's buddies from his acknowledged years as a denizen of Manila's nightclubs and casinos. Many of them are labelled men ``with short names'', meaning they are ethnic Chinese. One business associate, Dante Tan, is at the centre of a stock-market scandal that has wrecked international investor confidence and knocked the local index down by 20 per cent. The scam amounted to a huge insider trade involving eight stockbroking firms, fake transactions, inflated share volumes and the inevitable crash, followed by bitter recriminations. Tan says he is a victim. The president is sympathetic. Perfecto Yasay, the Securities and Exchange Commission boss, has retired, saying Estrada applied pressure to protect his friend -a charge the president denies. Most of the regulatory staff have quit in protest and foreign brokers are baling out. Stories abound of men with short names involved in shady deals. The president's brother-in-law has been having words with the attorney-general over a land dispute. A construction company connected to a presidential adviser and his wife has won a ``simplified'' tender for an irrigation project. However, Estrada is capable of embarrassment: when it emerged that cabinet members were driving around in smuggled Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benz saloons which had been confiscated by customs, he ordered the vehicles to be sold by auction. It is, some say, just like old times. Manila's middle classes have launched a silent protest using car stickers and signatures -a method last used against Marcos. The Catholic bishops, who never liked Estrada because of his womanising, have joined forces with the country's numerous evangelical cults to stage a crusade for moral rejuvenation. Rumours of a military coup come and go. It is law and order, or rather their absence, that have defined the Estrada era. On assuming office the president, whose film roles were often tough-cop parts, reinstated the death penalty. Amid a vulgar atmosphere of fiesta and revenge, several rapists and murderers were put to death by lethal injection. It transpired, inevitably in a rotten judicial system, that several convictions were unsound. On one occasion Estrada had a change of heart and tried to telephone the death chamber with a last-minute reprieve -only to find the line engaged and the lethal needle already inserted. Then a judge convicted several teenagers from well connected Manila families of gang rape but gave lenient sentences. It appeared to critics that the law condemned poor rapists to die while reprieving wealthy ones. A few months ago the death penalty was quietly suspended -a moratorium, Estrada's office said, to respect the millennium holy year proclaimed by the Pope. Many ghosts of the Marcos era have returned. The Philippines now shares with Nepal and Peru the distinction of hosting one of the world's last few Maoist terrorist groups, the New People's Army which first fought Marcos. It shoots policemen and plants bombs using a new generation of recruits created by hopelessness. On the southern island of Mindanao, the army is fighting a vicious campaign against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and a bandit group is threatening to behead a Catholic priest and 32 other hostages. Peace and foreign investment seem as elusive in Mindanao as they did 15 years ago under Marcos. Estrada, unlike Marcos, admits he has faults and recently appeared at a national prayer breakfast to admit ``my own share of human limitations and moral imperfections''. The president said that he was placing his trust in God. His pious people must be doing likewise. (The Sunday Times) For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service
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