Philippines | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores



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After succeeding ousted President Joseph Estrada in January 2001, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo worked to restore investor confidence in the Philippines, bring peace to its wartorn southern Mindanao region, and shore up her own support base. She cut public spending to trim the budget deficit, negotiated a ceasefire with the country's main Muslim rebel group, and led her coalition to victory in senate elections in May. Arroyo continued, however, to face nagging doubts about the legitimacy of her presidency, which began in January after massive street protests and military pressure forced Estrada from office over corruption allegations.

The Philippines won independence in 1946 after being ruled by the United States for 43 years and occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Once one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest countries, the Philippines has been plagued since the 1960s by economic mismanagement, widespread corruption, insurgencies, and 14 years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos. Twice elected president in relatively free elections, Marcos began ruling under martial law in 1972 to skirt a constitutional two-term limit. Following a blatantly rigged election, Marcos was forced out of office in February 1986 by massive "People Power" street protests and the defections of key military leaders and units. His opponent in the election, Corazon Aquino, took office.

Though she came to symbolize the Philippines's return to elected rule, Aquino managed few deep political or economic reforms while facing seven coup attempts. Her successor, former army chief of staff Fidel Ramos, ended chronic power shortages, privatized many state companies, and trimmed bureaucratic red tape.

With the popular Ramos constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Vice President Joseph Estrada took 46.4 percent of the vote and defeated seven other candidates to win the May 1998 presidential election. Estrada, a former movie actor, campaigned as a champion of poor Filipinos.

Almost from the outset, the Estrada administration was dogged by allegations of both corruption and that it gave favorable treatment to the business interests of wellconnected tycoons. Estrada's downfall began in November 2000, when the house of representatives impeached him on bribery, graft, and other charges, leading to a trial in the senate. After his supporters there blocked prosecutors from unsealing key evidence, civilian and military pressure forced Estrada to flee the Malacanang presidential palace on January 20, 2001. His exit followed massive street protests, a supreme court ruling declaring the presidency vacant, and, perhaps most importantly, a declaration by military leaders that they no longer supported Estrada.

As vice president, Arroyo, 54, became president under the constitutional line of succession. She faced the challenges of gaining legitimacy for her unelected administration, meeting long-standing demands of her middle-class and business supporters for more open and accountable governance, and cutting the budget deficit while launching programs to ease poverty among lower-class Filipinos. The poor continued to support the ousted Estrada in large numbers, according to opinion polls. In the first real test of her administration's popularity, Arroyo's coalition won 8 of 13 contested senate seats and a majority in the house of representatives in May 14 elections.

The elections came nearly two weeks after security forces on May 1 repelled tens of thousands of Estrada backers who tried to storm the presidential palace. Estrada, 64, went on trial in October on charges of plundering more than $80 million and for other offenses during his 31 months in office.

Reversing Estrada's hardline approach, the Arroyo administration signed a ceasefire in August with the 15,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting since 1978 for an independent Islamic state on southern Mindanao island. Although Manila agreed to rehabilitate Mindanao and begin negotiations on some MILF land claims, the rebels' separatist demands stand in the way of a durable peace accord.

Arroyo, an economist by training and the daughter of a former president, also revived stalled talks with the National Democratic Front (NDF), a coalition of Communist rebel groups that have been fighting Manila since 1969. In a setback, 28 people were killed in November in the bloodiest fighting in a decade between soldiers and the rebel New People's Army, the NDF's military wing, on Mindanao. Arroyo also ordered a crackdown against the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group after it seized some two dozen hostages on May 27 from a tourist resort. Most of the hostages were released, but some still remained in captivity at year's end. As part of its global campaign against terrorism, Washington in November pledged $100 million in security assistance and a further $1 billion in trade benefits.

Propped up by robust domestic demand, the Philippines' export-oriented economy weathered tough international conditions to grow by an estimated 2.8 percent in 2001, down from 3.9 percent in 2000. Unlike many Asian economies, the Philippines avoided recession despite government spending cuts and slack global demand for electronics parts, which make up around 60 percent of total exports. Overall, exports make up around half of the Philippines' gross domestic product.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Filipinos enjoy most basic rights and can change their government through elections. Many foreign and domestic observers, however, said that the street protests and military pressure that ousted President Joseph Estrada in January 2001 amounted to a "soft coup" that violated constitutional norms on removal of presidents.

The 1987 constitution vests executive power in a directly elected president who is limited to a single six-year term. Because she is serving out the remainder of Estrada's term, however, President Arroyo will be able to run in the 2004 presidential election. Congress consists of a directly elected, 24-member senate and a house of representatives with 201 directly elected members and up to 50 others appointed by the president.

Despite recent economic reforms, a few dozen powerful families continue to be highly influential in politics and hold an overarching share of corporate wealth and land. "Corporate ownership and control in the Philippines is highly concentrated within 40- 50 family groups," according to a March World Bank report. In the countryside, the wealthiest five percent of Filipinos control nearly 90 percent of the land, the Hong Kongbased Far Eastern Economic Review reported in March.

Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are widely considered to be rife in business and government. The Berlin-based Transparency International's 2001 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the Philippines in a tie with three other countries for 65th place out of 91 countries surveyed. The first-place country, Finland, is the least corrupt.

The official Commission on Human Rights (CHR) regularly labels the Philippine National Police (PNP) as the country's worst human rights abuser. PNP officers have in recent years summarily killed dozens of criminal suspects, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on human rights in the Philippines in 2000. They are also widely suspected of being involved in some of the dozens of kidnappings-forransom of ethnic Chinese each year, the report added. The roughly one million ethnic Chinese make up slightly more than one percent of all Filipinos but tend to be targeted because they hold a lopsided share of national wealth.

Both police and soldiers at times also torture and otherwise abuse criminal suspects and detainees, the U.S. State Department report said. In an effort to curb abuses, the PNP has in recent years prosecuted and dismissed for human rights violations dozens of officers and the CHR conducts human rights training for police.

The August ceasefire between the government and the 12,000-strong MILF brought quiet to many parts of Mindanao and allowed many civilians who had fled fighting to return to their homes. In other areas of Mindanao, however, the army continued to pursue the smaller Abu Sayyaf group. The 1,100-member Abu Sayyaf claims to seek an independent Islamic state, although the government and many others say it is little more than a kidnapping and extortion outfit. Fighting between soldiers and Islamic militants in southern Mindanao has in recent years caused severe hardship for many of the region's 15 million people. Clashes have at times forced hundreds of thousands of villagers to flee their homes. Hundreds have died either because of indiscriminate bombing, after being caught in cross-fire, while fleeing their homes, or from poor health conditions created by the conflict, according to the U.S. State Department and other sources.

Security forces have in recent years summarily executed dozens of suspected Islamic militants and alleged supporters, the U.S. State Department report said. The MILF and Abu Sayyaf routinely extrajudicially execute, arbitrarily detain, and torture soldiers and suspected civilian collaborators, the report added.

The Moros, or Muslims who live in Mindanao, say they face economic and social discrimination by the country's Roman Catholic majority. Muslim-majority provinces lag behind Christian-majority ones in Mindanao on most development indicators, a 1998 Asian Development Bank survey found. Critics allege that a semiautonomous government made up of former Islamic rebels that nominally rules four Mindanao provinces has little real power and has not done much to boost local economic development.

Amid this disillusionment, the mainly Christian population in 11 provinces and 14 cities in Mindanao not in the autonomous region, voted in an August plebiscite to remain outside the region. Meanwhile, Farouk Hussein, the candidate favored by President Arroyo, won a special election in December to become the governor of the autonomous region. The Muslim-led government was created under a 1996 peace accord that ended a 24-year insurgency by a separatist group called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Hussein replaced Nur Misuari, who led a November attack by a breakaway MNLF faction on an army outpost on Jolo Island after he was ousted as MNLF leader. The attack killed upwards of 100 people, although Misuari was later arrested while trying to enter Malaysia and his breakaway faction appears to be a spent force.

In the countryside, the 9,000-strong New People's Army (NPA) continues to fight small battles against soldiers, although the 32-year-old Communist insurgency is far less potent than at its peak in the 1970s. The NPA has in recent years extrajudicially killed dozens of local politicians, suspected informants, and others, according to the U.S. State Department report.

In rural areas, businesses and powerful landowning families hire private security teams that operate with near impunity. Dozens of peasants and pro-farmer activists seeking agricultural reforms and better working conditions disappear each year, the Far Eastern Economic Review said in March. A 1998 program to redistribute to landless farmers 4.3 million hectares of land owned by the state and large landowners has so far handed over little more than half of the targeted land, most of it publicly owned, the Review added.

The judiciary is independent, but courts are understaffed, heavily backlogged, and rife with corruption. In practice, poor people often have little recourse under the law, while wealthy and powerful Filipinos accused of crimes frequently use connections and bribe judges to evade punishment, according to the U.S. State Department report. The CHR said in 2000 that conditions in many of the country's jails and prisons were inhumane and that the Manila city jail in particular was unfit for human habitation.

The private press is outspoken, although newspapers often resort to innuendo rather than investigative reporting. In the countryside, illegal logging outfits, drug traffickers, and guerrillas occasionally harass and intimidate journalists. In the most serious incidents, gunmen have in recent years killed several journalists.

Although the government has introduced programs to curb violence against women, rape, domestic violence, trafficking of Filipino women and girls for forced prostitution and forced labor, and sexual harassment in the workplace continued to be major problems. The number of reported rape cases has increased by about 16 percent annually since 1992, according to the U.S. State Department report. Women who are raped or sexually abused in custody by police or prison guards often fear reprisals if they press charges, and those who do make complaints are often pressured into withdrawing them, Amnesty International said in a March report.

Filipino females enter high schools and universities in greater numbers than do males. In the job market, though, women face discrimination in the private sector, have a higher unemployment rate than men, and earn less than their male counterparts, the U.S. State Department report said. Women are also underrepresented in government and politics.

Studies in recent years by the government and international agencies suggest that the Philippines has at least 44,000 street children, some 60,000 child prostitutes, and at least 3.7 million working children. The government, UNICEF, the U.S. State Department, and others accuse the NPA of using child-soldiers.

Indigenous Filipinos, who make up around 18 percent of the population, face discrimination in mainstream society and are sometimes displaced by commercial projects from ancestral lands, according to the U.S. State Department report. Facing strong opposition from mining and agricultural interests, the government has been slow to carry out a 1997 act designed to award land titles to indigenous communities.

The International Labor Organization has criticized provisions in the labor law that make it hard for government workers to strike, require a union to represent at least 20 percent of workers in a bargaining unit before it can be registered, and penalize workers for strikes deemed illegal. Authorities have not in recent years penalized workers for illegal strikes. The law also places some procedural restrictions on the rights of private sector workers to strike. Private sector employers often violate minimum wage standards and try to intimidate union members, the U.S. State Department report said. Around 12 percent of workers are unionized, although only about 14.5 percent of this number are covered by collective bargaining agreements.