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Contract Killings


Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Human rights activists say there have been over 800 extra-judicial killings in the Philippines

The government of Philippine President Gloria Arroyo is under fire from many segments of the society after being rocked by fresh charges of corruption and human rights abuse. At this time it doesn't appear that public disapproval will swell to the levels that washed away her predecessor Joseph Estrada, who relinquished power following months of protest over his plundering of the economy for his own benefit. But President Arroyo must move quickly to clear the air if she hopes to maintain credibility and effectiveness until the end of her term in 2010. The new corruption charges don't directly implicate President Arroyo, but they come uncomfortably close, and not for the first time. The president's husband, Jose Miguel Arroyo, along with former elections chairman Benjamin Abalos Sr, are accused of demanding a $130 million kickback in negotiations for a $330 million government broadband contract with the Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corp. The contract was cancelled in September last year after growing criticism that it was hugely overpriced. The allegations were revealed to the public in startling fashion on nationwide television during a Senate investigation into the deal by government consultant Rodolfo Lozada. Mr Lozada has also alleged that the president's own security forces tried to keep him from testifying by kidnapping him and holding him for 24 hours. Last Friday about 10,000 protesters joined an opposition rally in Manila demanding President Arroyo's resignation, and on Sunday a Mass led by Roman Catholic groups was performed in a show of support for Mr Lozada. After the Mass, which was attended by around 3,000 people, a group of former officials which included ex-president Corazon Aquino and former Philippine ambassador to the United States Albert del Rosario, called on President Arroyo to resign and called on current officials who ''can no longer endure this wrongful governance'' to quit the administration. The former president urged Filipinos to ''unite once again and to rally behind people who reveal the truth and fight corruption''.Members of the clergy have made clear that they were not joining in the calls for President Arroyo's resignation, but have said they were trying to protect Mr Lozada from ''harassment''. Segments of the Catholic clergy were, of course, heavily involved in the protests which led to the ouster of former presidents Estrada and Ferdinand Marcos. Adding to President Arroyo's troubles is a report released this week by the Commission on Human Rights, which found that soldiers looking for members of the militant separatist group Abu Sayyaf in Sulu province, had killed seven innocent villagers, including two children and a pregnant woman. Human rights activists say there have been over 800 extra-judicial killings in the Philippines since President Arroyo took over in 2001.
The demonstrations have, till now, been relatively small but the mood of the general public can perhaps be gauged by the amount of scepticism which greeted the reports last week of an uncovered plot to assassinate the president.

In many respects the situation in the Philippines today is reminiscent of the situation in Thailand a little less than two years ago, when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was dogged by allegations of corruption in his cabinet over the procurement of CTX baggage scanners for the new airport, and the tax-free sale of his telecommunications empire to Singaporean interests, as well as human rights abuses centring on the ''war on drugs''. Mr Thaksin chose to dissolve Parliament to avoid scrutiny. President Arroyo does not have that luxury. Besides, if Mr Thaksin's experience is any example, and if the well-being of her country is taken into consideration, the best approach for President Arroyo would be to cooperate with the Senate inquiries, admit wrong where warranted and then put the matter behind her and move on.

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