Judith Rice talks with Stephen Alston of CAFOD about the future of the Philippines now that Fidel Ramos is President
IT TAKES a long time to count the votes in an election in the Philippines. Because the election covers all the posts in the land, from Mayor to President, each vote has to be counted a number of times. But last week the results of the May 11 poll were finally announced, and Fidel Ramos was proclaimed President.
The result was not unexpected, especially as Ramos, a former defence secretary, had the endorsement of the out-going president, Mrs Corazon Aquino. But his election is not good news for the poor or the environment, according to Steve Alston, one of CAFOD's Asia project officers. Mr Alston recently spent ten days in the Philippines and gives a vivid picture of a highly militarised country where the people struggle against ever more desperate poverty, and popular leaders are frequently murdered.
CAFOD has been working out a new policy in the Philippines with its partners there, and Alston went out to discuss ideas and assess progress. The intention is to focus on one area in greater depth — northwest Mindanao. In the past CAFOD has responded to individual requests for assistance which came from the country as a whole, and the consequences was that funds, knowledge and relationships were spread too thin. The hope now is that CAFOD will get to know Mindanao well and will build up solid relationships with its partners there. As a result, it is hoped, an integrated programme can be developed, addressing human rights and ecological needs as well as poverty and unemployment. Steve Alston believes this will also help the people evolve ways of raising issues that concern them at a national and international level.
But this sort of activity is feared by the military and the landowners. The week before Alston arrived in the Philippines. one of the Justice and Peace workers in the parish of Josefina was assassinated.
He had been warned that his participation in ''revolutionary programmes" was subversive and that he would suffer the consequences. one evening at sunset, as he ate with his family on the veranda of his home, a masked gunman appeared and shot him dead.
The incident was not unusual. Eight people in this parish alone have been killed for similar reasons in the past two years. The only investigation carried out are those mounted by the Church or other non-governmental organisations. It is difficult even for them to bring a case. Although the masked gunman who carried out this latest murder was recognised by one of the members of the victim's family, it is unlikely that a court would accept this identification as evidence.
The murders are usually undertaken by members of the community, and it is common for known assassins to rise high in the police force. The killings are part of a wider policy the Aquino government's "low intensity conflict strategy". This means "bringing the war into the village,"explains Steve Alston, "so that the people themselves become the first line of attack or defence, depending whose side you're on."
Ramos, as a former military man, is expected to give the army increased funding and support. He was the architect of martial law under Marcos and is seen as the armed forces' candidate, although right-wing elements in the army dislike him intensely. He is expected to take some drastic measures tc reverse the decline in the economy which has led to the Philippines being seen as the "sick man of Asia".
It is likely, for example, that he will revive the plans for a nuclear power station, which was a symbol to many of corruption and environmental danger and which was abandoned by Aquino.
Development agencies and community groups believe that Ramos will maintain the low intensity conflict strategy, and that he will seek to suppress organisation like them.
But surely, if Ramos was elected so convincingly. on an 85 per cent turnout in the most peaceful elections in the Philippines'history, he must be the people's choice?
It is not so simple, says Steve Alston. The rural people are cut off from news and analysis and merely want to survive; those in Manila have little leisure to reflect and arc forced into reacting to a situation he describes as "anarchic". Aquino's years saw little planning of the economy: 70 per cent of the population is now living below the poverty line.
What is more, although the rigorous counting of votes makes electoral fraud difficult. there is less control over the campaigns leading up to the election. Bribery is rife and many votes are bought. Mrs Aquino came to power on a slogan of "people's power", with a policy centred on ambitious plans for land reform but she found that her own interests as a member of one of the largest landowning families on the country were more compelling. The land reform she eventually pushed through was, says Steve Alston, "laughable".
Her administration was not a success; Steve Alston is even less optimistic about her successor.