Partying out the President


WHAT a blast! In Manila on a literary excursion last week (15-20 Jan 2001), I witnessed ''People Power 2'' from the beginning to its startling conclusion.

Manila in ''crisis'' remained a city of stark contrasts

The evening we arrived, the Estrada impeachment had Manila glued to the TV and radio.

The proceedings were tied in technicalities over key bank documents.

Over dinner, our hosts were buzzed by frantic mobile-phone messages. The Senate had voted 11-10 against admitting the evidence.

It implied that any hope of a legal ousting of the President would be thwarted by his allies in the Senate, who had now shown their hand in moving towards an early acquittal.

That night, the prosecution team resigned. While we slept, Manila - summoned by cellphone SMS - was taking to the streets. A carefully orchestrated movement was in the works.

The next day, thousands had gathered at the historic Edsa shrine, site of the 1986 ''People Power'' uprising that had ousted Ferdinand Marcos.

Classes were cancelled at most colleges to let students and staff join in the rally. On campus, black ribbons and ''No class before Erap resigns'' posters were everywhere.

At a book launch held at Cardinal Sin's palace, guests-of-honour Cory Aquino and the Cardinal were conspicuously absent. They were speaking to the 300,000-strong rally crowd. The conscious evocation of 1986's People Power was unmistakable.

Manila in ''crisis'' remained a city of stark contrasts.

Two nights before the President fell, Miss Saigon played to a full house of city elites. And while the rich live in estates with armed guards, the streets spill over with slum children and uncleared piles of rubbish.

Joseph Estrada himself embodies this juxtaposition.

Shooed into office on his mass appeal as a film actor playing underdog roles, he was distrusted from the start by the business elite and intelligentsia, who were among the known faces in the rallying crowd.

Accusations of graft gave his opponents a perfect excuse to stage an ousting. Yet ''Erap'' retained his popularity among the poor despite the millions he is said to have absconded.

The so-called ''popular'' uprising was more likely an affair of Manila's urban population, rather than the provinces at large.

In Manila, top writers in the opposition camp control the media and write speeches for politicans.

By Friday, the ''Edsa 2001'' rally had become a massive street party, hundreds of thousands strong and growing. To the sound of rock music and chants of ''Erap resign'', the rally teemed with clergy, political groups, families and young people dancing. The atmosphere was festive, buoyant.

''We don't overthrow bad leaders, we party them out,'' said protestor Alma Anonas, a journalist and veteran of the 1986 Edsa uprising.

The region has not settled down to the hard work of rebuilding confidence and economic stability

Yet despite the legendary bloodlessness of ''People Power'', the possibility of violence was present.

Estrada surrounded himself with his own demonstrators, some said to have been paid 150 pesos each to rally on his behalf.

These groups included street gangs who had thrown rocks and broken windows in downtown Makati.

There was fear that the two sides could meet and clash.

Still, it was clear that the military's sudden defection on Friday was the real clincher.

Estrada had been rendered toothless.

By their own admission, the military chiefs had been plotting a coup behind the scenes.

Joining the anti-Erap rally gave them the public legitimacy of ''enforcing'' the people's will. But just outside Manila, attack helicopters and tanks had quietly assembled.

Before the military's critical move, there was concern that Estrada could hold out till the May elections and obtain political reinforcements by poll-rigging, said our host Alfred Yuson, a writer and journalist in Arroyo's camp.

Estrada supporters could still attempt a comeback later in the year, he said.

Some pundits quote astrology when railing against Erap. ''The Year of the Snake is lucky for Estrada,'' said one insider, ''so he must be out before the Lunar New Year or he could escape''.

By the time we flew out of Manila, Gloria Arroyo had been installed as the new President.

To survive, she will have to marshall what support she enjoys among the Manila elite.

Already, she has earned a reputation in her camp for a quick temper.

Starker still, is the extent of the challenges ahead - the income divide, poor economic performance, an ascendant and politically active military.

Also, simmering racial tensions - resentment against a Chinese-dominated business elite and Muslim separatists in the wings.

Unlike its illustrious predecessor, ''Edsa 2001'' may be nothing more than a well-staged coup, rather than People Power re-enacted.

It is part of a series of corrections and political reshufflings across the region since the economic crisis: as incumbent governments from Thailand to Indonesia and Malaysia lose their grip on power acquired in a lost era of growth.

Singaporeans can observe the turmoil with relative serenity.

But the political disquiet of our Asean neighbours signals that the region has not settled down to the hard work of rebuilding confidence and economic stability.

© alvin pang
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