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Islamic militancy and the government's shaky finances topped the Philippines's political agenda in 2002. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo tried to reign in a growing budget deficit by cracking down on rampant tax evasion while bringing in U.S. troops to train soldiers battling Muslim rebels in the southern jungles. Despite her crowded agenda however, President Arroyo effectively made herself a lame duck by unexpectedly announcing in December that she would not run in the 2004 presidential elections.
The Philippines won independence in 1946, after having been 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 insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption.
The country's economic and political development was also set back by Ferdinand Marcos's 14-year dictatorship. Marcos was finally chased out of office in 1986 by massive "People Power" street protests and the defections of key military leaders and units. He was succeeded by Corazon Aquino, who had been cheated out of victory in an election rigged by the strongman's cronies.
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 more forceful successor, former army chief Fidel Ramos, ended chronic power shortages, privatized many state firms, and trimmed bureaucratic red tape.
With the popular Ramos constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Vice President Joseph Estrada defeated seven other candidates to win the 1998 presidential election behind pledges to help poor Filipinos. Almost from the outset, the Estrada Administration was dogged by allegations that it was corrupt and that it gave favorable treatment to the business interests of well-connected tycoons. The House of Representatives impeached Estrada in November 2000 on graft, bribery, and other charges. During the resulting trial in the Senate, his supporters blocked prosecutors from unsealing key evidence. This led to massive street protests and a public withdrawal of support by military leaders that forced Estrada to resign in January 2001.
As vice president, Arroyo became president under the constitutional line of succession. She faced the challenges of gaining legitimacy for her unelected administration, meeting the 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. In the first major test of her administration's popularity, Arroyo's coalition won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House in the May 2001 legislative elections.
Arroyo's decision in 2002 to temporarily bring in hundreds of U.S. troops to equip and train Filipino soldiers fighting the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the southern Mindanao region sparked controversy. Leftists claimed that the U.S. troop presence smacked of American neo-imperialism. Other critics alleged that the Filipino troops had few successes to show for their training. Most of the U.S. forces departed in July after a six-month stint. Washington says that Abu Sayyaf guerrillas are international terrorists on the basis of past links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorism network. Recently, however, Abu Sayyaf's raison d'etre seems to be kidnappings for ransom and other extortion.
While trying to wipe out Abu Sayyaf, Arroyo, 54, continued peace talks with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting since 1978 for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. The government and the 15,000-strong MILF signed a ceasefire in 2001, though the rebels' separatist demands stand in the way of a durable peace accord. Separately, Arroyo's government made little progress in reviving stalled talks with Communist rebels, known as the New People's Army, who have been waging a low-grade rural insurgency since 1969.
Arroyo, a U.S.-trained economist, said that her decision not to run in 2004 would avoid worsening the country's political and social rifts and leave her free to deal with the economy. Earlier, she launched the crackdown on tax evasion with several highly publicized arrests of alleged tax dodgers. The Philippines loses an estimated 10 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or about $7.6 billion, to tax evasion each year, according to the U.S investment bank Morgan Stanley. This has contributed to a hefty budget deficit of around 5.4 percent of GDP, which makes it costlier for the government to borrow money while leaving less for education, infrastructure, and other critical needs.
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 forced President Joseph Estrada to resign in 2001 amounted to a "soft coup."
Elections continue to be violent, though less so than in the past. Many election-related killings are attributed to local militias linked to politicians. In addition, the New People's Army has claimed responsibility for some poll-related deaths. The military said that 86 people, including 10 candidates, were killed before and during local elections in July 2002. Some 100 people were killed in violence related to the 2001 national elections, according to the U.S. State Department's global human rights report for 2001, released in March 2002.
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, President Arroyo could have 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 play an overarching role in politics and hold an outsized share of corporate wealth and land. "Corporate ownership and control in the Philippines is highly concentrated within 40-50 family groups," according to a 2001 World Bank report. In the countryside, meanwhile, the wealthiest 5 percent of Filipinos control nearly 90 percent of the land, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reported in 2001.
Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are widely believed to be rife in business and government. The Berlin-based Transparency International ranked the Philippines in a four-way tie for 77th place out of 102 countries in its 2002 corruption survey, with top-ranked Finland being the least corrupt country.
The Philippines's human rights record has improved considerably since the Marcos era, although many problems remain. Police and soldiers recently have committed "a number of" summary killings, including alleged members of organized-crime groups, according to the U.S. State Department report.
The human rights group Amnesty International warned in July that the government's increasingly tough law-and-order stance--including a decision to set up a special police unit that will use military-style tactics to target kidnapping gangs--risked increased human rights abuses if not accompanied by criminal justice reforms. The London-based rights group accused the police of making "widespread" illegal arrests and using torture to extract confessions.
To combat such abuses, the government has expanded human rights training for the police and military. Authorities have also dismissed, and in some cases prosecuted, dozens of police officers accused of rights violations. Local and international human rights groups and the U.S. State Department accuse both soldiers and Islamic militants of politically motivated killing, torture, and other rights violations in Mindanao. The conflict has caused severe hardship for many of the region's 15 million people. Clashes in past years forced hundreds of thousands of villagers to flee their homes.
Moros, Muslims who live in Mindanao, say that 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, moreover, that a semiautonomous government that nominally rules several Mindanao provinces has few real powers and has done little to boost local economic development. Composed of former rebels, 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, which is separate from the MILF. Muslims make up around 5 percent of the Philippines's population.
In the countryside, the 9,000-strong New People's Army and smaller Communist groups recently have committed summary killings of "many" local politicians, judges, ordinary villagers, suspected informers, and military and police officers, according to the U.S. State Department report. The guerrillas have also recently kidnapped, tortured, and illegally detained opponents, the report added.
In rural Philippines, 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 reported in 2001. In urban areas, security also remains a problem in the south and other areas targeted recently by bombs in markets, churches, and bus stations.
The judiciary suffers from corruption, inefficiency, and shortages of judges, according to the U.S. State Department report: "Personal ties undermine the commitment of some government employees to ensuring due process and equal justice, resulting in impunity for wealthy and influential defenders."
The U.S. State Department report also described prison conditions as "harsh," citing overcrowded jails where official corruption is rife and inmates are given inadequate food and have limited access to sanitary facilities. Prisoners are also routinely beaten, according to the Philippines's official human rights commission. 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 often are pressured into withdrawing them, Amnesty International said in a 2001 report. The Philippines's private press is outspoken and vibrant, although often journalists resort to innuendo rather than investigative reporting. At least two journalists were killed in 2002, bringing to 39 the number of journalists killed in the Philippines as a result of their work since democracy was restored in 1986, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Government programs to protect women exist, though rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment on the job, and trafficking of Filipino women and girls abroad and at home for forced labor and prostitution continued to be major problems, according to the U.S. State Department report. Prostitution is illegal but widespread; an estimated 500,000 women work as prostitutes in the Philippines, according to a 1998 International Labor Organization (ILO) study.
More Filipino women than men enter high schools and universities. In the job market though, women face some discrimination in the private sector and have a higher unemployment rate than men, the U.S. State Department report said. Women also hold relatively few posts in government and politics.
Recent studies by the government and international agencies suggest that the Philippines has up to 200,000 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 have accused the New People's Army of using child soldiers.
Members of the Philippines's indigenous minority have limited access to basic services and are sometimes displaced by commercial projects from their ancestral lands, according to the U.S. State Department report. Because they tend to live in mountainous areas favored by guerrillas, indigenous people, who make up around 16 percent of the population, also suffer disproportionately in army counterinsurgency operations, the report added.
Trade unions are independent, though organized labor is hamstrung by strict labor laws. The ILO has criticized labor law provisions that make it hard for state 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 because they did not follow proper procedures. Officials have not recently penalized workers for illegal strikes. The ILO has also called on the government to take measures to promote and encourage collective bargaining in the public sector. Making matters tougher, union leaders say, private sector employers often violate minimum-wage standards and dismiss, or threaten to dismiss, union members. Around 11 percent of workers are unionized.