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The Marcos parallel

President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines died in exile in the US a few years ago. As he fled the country, crowds entered the Malacanang Palace to gawk at Imelda Marcos’ collection of over 3,000 pairs of shoes. More than anything else, those shoes symbolized the corruption and ostentatious vulgarity that brought Marcos down from an imperial Presidency of an impoverished country. Cory Aquino succeeded him as President, street power overturning the obvious electoral fraud in the Presidential elections, the government machinery had earlier declared Marcos elected in defiance of the tabulated facts.

The Marcoses had systematically looted their country, the many bank accounts frozen in tax haven countries are safe witness to that. From the first day of her incumbency, President Cory Aquino devoted considerable effort to recover the looted millions, most of her pains to that end resulted in frustration because of legal obstacles. While cash was difficult to locate, real estate was comparatively easier to trace, as was the details of Mrs Marcos extravagant shopping sprees in New York and other fashion capitals of the world. Even the aircraft carrying the Marcoses into exile had millions of dollars in cash and kind that were obviously fraudulently obtained.

To protect their paper trail, the Marcoses hired expensive lawyers who used every legal loophole in the book to protect their clients’ ill-gotten gains. Yet, the circumstantial evidence was so overwhelming that the Swiss Government had to act to freeze the Marcos accounts, believed to hold billions of ill-gotten US dollars. In the final analysis, the death of Ferdinand Marcos turned the corner for Imelda and her clan in a welter of sympathetic backlash. Acting the grieving widow to the hilt, her histrionics convinced a New York court that she was innocent in the case of the many hundreds of million dollars worth of real estate acquired by illegal cash. This technical victory was based on the lame defence was that she was simply a wife who did not know the details of her late husband’s dealings, an ample lie given that she had been Governor of Metro Manila and her high visibility political profile in foreign initiatives. Supported by her jet-set friends and buttressed by the underdog status of being a widow, she beat the rap.

Paraphrasing Neil Armstrong, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind”, this landmark decision in Mrs Marcos’ favour was “one small step in the rehabilitation of the Marcoses, one giant step in the institutionalizing of Third World corruption”. Within a year or so of this most inexplicable of legal idiocies, Madam Marcos has come back to a boisterous welcome in the Philippines. In contrast, her husband’s scourge and successor, Madam Cory Aquino, is in the fag end of her embattled Presidency, the Philippines in far worse state than when she took over. While some of the mess can be traced out to Cory Aquino basic indecision, the Philippines has seen a series of attempted military coups by the disgruntled younger officers of the Armed Forces interspersed by natural and man-made disasters. The most significant of the natural calamities of earthquake, typhoons and floods, etc has been the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo which has hastened the US evacuation of the volcanic-ash affected Clark Air Force Base, a substantial source of foreign exchange revenues for the Philippines. In the backdrop of the cessation of US-Soviet rivalry and the collapse of communism world wide, the US Bases in the Philippines have lost their importance overnight. Riding on the crest of Philippines nationalism, the renewal of the leases collapsed in the face of a reduced US offer. In the coming year or so, Subic Naval Base is also expected to be evacuated. While this may mean an uplift to Philippines nationalism, it will certainly hurt the Islands economy as it was a source of many Filipino jobs on and off the Bases.

Gregario Honasan, a Lt Col of the Philippines Army and now a fugitive on the run, was one of the close aides of Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, Marcos’ Defence Minister, whose defection triggered the events leading to Cory’s ascent and the Marcos exit. An idealist who was loved by his troops, Honasan’s reasons for becoming a rebel stemmed from his insistence on rooting out corruption at the highest level. With family and business ties to the elite that formed the main target of the young officers anger, Cory Aquino was unwilling (or unable) to move in that respect. The younger generation maintained that normal methods for investigating corruption and punishment thereof would not suffice, that the Marcoses and their cronies would not only go scot-free but would utilise their vast money treasure to hire the best accountants and lawyers to defy the course of justice while compromising the judicial process. As military men fighting the deep-rooted communist rebellion, they had come into daily contact with the idealism of rebel grievances and as so often happens, they began to identify themselves as the sane alternative to eventual communist advance in the face of the developing corruption which has been increasing the misery and poverty of the Filipino people.

Events have borne out the contentions of these young officers of Armed Forces of the Philippines. The masses have an extremely short memory and charisma has an unerring ability to whitewash misdemeanour. Time and again, corrupt leaders of the third world have managed to escape justice because they are blessed with a gift of the gab and magnetic personality. Coupled with populist slogans that arouse the masses with and which they never mean, this gives them a die-hard following that is vociferous in its support. Any allegation is washed off the Teflon-like hide of their beloved leaders, this segment of the masses are mesmerised by those whom they chose to worship. Such love is indeed blind as we are seeing a la Madam Imelda Marcos and her philandering son, Ferdinand (Bong-Bong) Marcos Jr, both now being touted as probable Presidential candidates.

Civilization is founded on the application of the written norms of justice, the swift, sharp implementation in the more martial form is decried as not keeping with parameters of the law. Here we are faced with a genuine paradox! Madam Marcos is certainly a crook as was her husband, conceivably she could even be elected President by the masses whom she and her late husband looted. Where is the constitutional obstacle to this great aberration? In the end the frustrated will look to military rule. As an absolute rule even martial law ultimately leads to absolute corruption. The Third World is indeed unfortunate.

There is a similarity of sorts between the Philippines and Pakistan. We have an embattled Prime Minister, buffeted by charges of corruption. Stung by the accusations, he has made a Reference of sorts to be investigated by a high-powered judicial commission. His Chief accuser is Ms Benazir Bhutto, who was ousted on similar charges of nepotism and corruption only a year or so ago. The public memory in this case is so short that the failure of the cases against her husband on technical grounds for influencing large bank loans to his friends, is not even seen as a travesty of justice. On the other hand, given that the judicial commission finds Nawaz Sharif and friends guilty of misdemeanour, will that make Asif Zardari more innocent? Strange as it may seem, this is more than likely in the public perception where persecution on political grounds has no relevance even if a crime was actually committed. If the courts do not apply their natural logic and are purely basing their evaluation on the evidence presented, which in such cases will always be scanty, justice will always be frustrated. White-collar criminals are now sophisticated enough to hardly ever leave any trace in the obtaining of pecuniary benefit.
The logic being applied by the Opposition in its campaign against the Nawaz Sharif regime is convoluted at best. The Opposition, led by the PDA, rails against Jam in Sindh, particularly the supposed political excesses of his Home Affairs Advisor, Irfanullah Marwat, who also happens to be the President’s son-in-law. Ms Benazir has an obvious grouse against the President because of her dismissal as PM and has been targeting him relentlessly as such. Given this antipathy for Mr Ghulam Ishaq Khan, why are they appealing to him to rid them of the Prime Minister? Even if the President and Prime Minister do not represent similar political views, which they certainly do, they would probably prefer to stay together out of Chanakhya’s maxim, “an enemy of an enemy is a friend”! The other court of appeal lies in the conscience of the Armed Forces. One of the major complaints of the younger officers of the Armed Forces of Philippines has been that the commitment of the senior officers has been compromised by various considerations for financial benefit, unfortunately for those optimists who prefer the use of this route, they will find that the younger generation, the potential Gregario Honasans of our Armed Forces, have been hopelessly compromised by plots, agricultural land and houses. How many will be prepared to rally to an idealistic stance in the greater interest of the nation and risk such material benefit?

One must commend the action of the Prime Minister in referring the matter to a judicial commission at great personal political cost. If anything, the PM may take solace in the knowledge that his Chief Accuser, Ms Benazir Bhutto, has been demanding the ouster of the President also and it is hardly likely that this experienced President will oblige and proceed to commit Hara-Kiri by knocking out his chief political prop.


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