Approximately a day after her final State of the Nation address, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo left Manila to finally meet with US president Barack Obama. It will be recalled by many who have been following this cat-and-mouse game that Obama has snubbed the Philippine president twice before finally agreeing to meet with her this time around. Obama probably has his valid reasons; with the recession in full bloom, meeting with third world country leaders is probably not on his list of priorities.
What makes this particular meeting peculiar is its timing. The meeting comes on the heels of one of the strongest calls for Arroyo to step down before her term ends next year, amidst strong rumors and allegations of corruption, bribery and human rights violations, the worst in a Philippine administration since the time of President Ferdinand Marcos. During her State of the Nation address, thousands of protesters took to the streets demanding she step down immediately. There is also widespread skepticism about her intentions to actually step down next year (her term ends in 2010), as her supporters in the Philippine legislature have been pushing a bill for Charter change (lovingly called “cha-cha”) which, if passed, could change the structure of the Philippine government from a presidential to a parliamentary form, possibly paving the way for Arroyo to stay in power as prime minister.
Moreover, former President Corazon Aquino just passed away last Saturday. It will be remembered that Ms. Aquino was the president who was swept into power through the first bloodless revolution ever in 1986 ,via what is now famously known as People Power. Ms. Aquino was without a doubt a hero to many the world over, but during her term the strong presence of US military forces in the Philippines, established since the 1900’s, was removed in 1991, starting a marked decline in US-Philippine relations.
For almost a century, the US military had use of two major bases in the Philippines, Clark Air Force Base, and Subic Naval Station. The Philippines was the strongest ally of the US in Asia. It took a strong anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist mass movement and a majority vote in the Philippine Senate to finally end the US occupation. Many have posited the theory that Aquino agreed to this to ensure that her term would be popular with the masses, who were supposedly anti-American in nature. In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. While many hardcore leftists did want the bases out, many others saw it as an unwise, impractical move for the Philippines. With the bases gone, the Philippines was effectively removed from the radar screen of the US. With the economy of the Philippines in dire need of the continuing aid of the US after the mass plundering by Ferdinand Marcos, this was not a smart move.
It now seems odd that a very unpopular president (Arroyo), during a time when she faces enormous pressure and accusations, has finally been granted an audience with the leader of the free world. What they discussed in particular can only be the subject of speculation, but one can be sure that for Arroyo’s part, it would have been to secure the approval of the most powerful president in the world, effectively ensuring a blessing of her term in exchange for increased cooperation by the Philippine president in the fight against terrorism. How ironic can this be, when the Philippines is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and has been summarily scolded for various human rights violations by the UN. In April 2008, the UN Human Rights Council examined the human rights record of the Philippines under its Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Several member states raised the issue of impunity for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances but the Philippine government rejected recommendations for a followup report.
President Obama needs to brush up on his Asian foreign policy, and on the Philippines in particular. While meeting Arroyo, the US president repeatedly heaped praise on the corrupt Philippine president. Upon hearing the news of Ms. Aquino’s death, an official statement said that Obama was “deeply saddened.” What kind of message does this send to the millions of Filipinos who are looking at Obama to make good on his promise of change that everybody can believe in? It almost seems like double talk. In meeting President Arroyo, he has made a big mistake. Or perhaps, he is making good on his declaration during his inaugural address: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit, and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” even though that fist is being unclenched too late in Arroyo's term.