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PHILIPPINES: Past Starting to Haunt New President

MANILA, Aug 20 2010 (IPS) - The past, centred around the democratic records of his popular politician parents, may have sent Benigno Aquino III to the Philippine presidency, but it is now also biting at his heels, less than two months after he assumed office.

Aquino sought the presidency amid the crest of public sympathy after the August 2009 death of his mother Corazon, who became president after the bloodless ‘People Power’ revolt against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. That revolt, in turn, has its roots in Filipinos’ anger after the August 1983 assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., the new president’s father and namesake.

President Aquino’s campaign was anchored on pledges to continue his parents’ legacy and the integrity of former president Corazon Aquino. Stickers, posters, and T-shirts had the images of his parents, which attracted many Filipino voters disenchanted with then President Gloria Macagapal Arroyo.

Thus far, Aquino has scored political points through steps such as keeping a promise to stop public officials’ use of sirens to cut through Manila’s traffic jams, refusing to live in Malacanang Palace, and ordering photographs of him around the city removed.

“His style of presidency rings a very good tone to majority of the Filipinos,” said Juan Santos, a businessman who voted for Aquino. “No ‘wang wang’ (Filipino slang term for sirens), sincerity, and simplicity strike a good chord versus the old (Arroyo) presidency of power and privilege.”

For sure, the 50-year-old Aquino remains extremely popular. He took office on Jun. 30 with a record-high trust rating of 88 percent in this country of 94 million people, according to the respected pollster Social Weather Stations.

But the political capital he has will be sorely tested in a daunting list of challenges that have surfaced this early despite, or perhaps because of, Filipinos’ high expectations of him.

These include the thorny issue of land reform at Hacienda Luisita, the 6,500- hectare sugar estate in northern Tarlac province owned by his mother’s family, where he has adopted a hands-off policy though he goes there during weekends.

Then there are yet another attempt at peace talks with a separatist group in the south, where most Filipino Muslims live, calls for genuine autonomy by indigenous groups in the north, and an armed communist insurgency that has persisted since 1969.

Aquino has named a new negotiating panel with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to discuss expanded autonomy for a Moro homeland. Seeing this, leaders of indigenous groups say they are also thinking of reviving failed attempts to get an autonomous region in the north.

The 1987 Constitution provides for autonomous regions in the country’s north and south to address long-festering resentment about poverty, identity, resource use and human rights.

But the autonomous region in southern Mindanao ran into problems of governance and the MILF, one of several rebel groups, continues to engage the Philippine military in clashes.

These challenges, now up before President Aquino, relate to issues of social equity and justice that his mother’s government had tried to address after the 1986 Revolution.

The most emotive issue, however, is Hacienda Luisita and how the new president will act – or not act – regarding this political minefield. A case questioning its land ownership deal with its 10,000 farmers is pending before the Supreme Court, and stems from a controversial aspect of the 1988 land reform law passed by the Corazon Aquino government.

That law allows the distribution of stocks in Hacienda Luisita to farmers as an option to land ownership, a mechanism that critics say watered down agrarian reform in a country where huge swathes of land have been owned by a few families and worked on by landless workers for generations – as well as fuelled the communist insurgency.

Hacienda Luisita Inc (HLI) had offered the stock option in 1989, but the government’s agrarian reform council shelved it, saying it did not benefit the farmers. HLI now says that 70 percent of the workers who participated in a referendum it called last Aug. 6. chose stock options over getting a piece of land from the estate. Some of the farmers, however, have brought another case questioning this before the Supreme Court.

“If I get involved, it will appear that I am interfering,” said Aquino, who added that he has divested his HLI holdings. To the farmers, he said: “They have interest there and they should tell me which direction they would like to take.”

But deciding not to act is no less a decision, some say. A hands-off policy “is a horrible misconception of his responsibility,” a reader, Cesar de los Reyes, wrote to the English-language ‘Philippine Daily Inquirer’.

“It is his moral responsibility to correct the injustice done to the farmers, more so that he belongs to the family that caused so much grief to the farmers,” De los Reyes added. “People expect him to do this not because he is a member of the family that owns Hacienda Luisita, but because he is the president of the people.”

Apart from these, Aquino’s first six weeks have seen lawsuits arise from four of his earliest orders, including one creating a ‘truth commission’ to look into corruption under the previous government, another that has resulted in civil servants losing their jobs, and a third increasing a road toll tax.

Announcing this truth commission may have made headlines, but legal expert Joaquin Bernas recently said that the legal basis for creating it is at best unclear. “Rhetoric can have its value if it does not backfire,” he counselled in a commentary this week.

Commented Ricky, who works as a family driver: “Well, Noynoy (the President’s nickname) has stopped the use of ‘wang wang’, sure, but our problems are so much bigger than that.”

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