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God's Country (Part 1)

God's Country (Part 1)

The year was 2009 and the decade was drawing to a close. The Philippines was once again back to its familiar role as the basket case of Asia, having clinched the ignominious title of being the most corrupt on the continent. In a period of nine years, under the watch of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, many of the gains excruciatingly obtained through former president and international icon of democracy Corazon Aquino had been wiped out. Institutions were alarmingly weakened or emasculated and their independence, as in the case of the judiciary, nefariously compromised. Scandal after scandal—one seemingly more brazen than the last—was being routinely swept under the rug; whistle-blowers and witnesses were being subjected to harassment, kidnapping, intimidation, and, in some cases, made to disappear altogether. The unwritten policy of the Arroyo regime ostensibly called for a wanton and total disregard of public opinion. Each time it was faced with incontrovertible proof of official wrongdoing, the standard response was to wave it off and dismiss it as mere political intrigue. Marcos, at least, had the sophistication to cloak his decrees with legal niceties. Arroyo simply thumbed her nose at the masses, as if daring them to do something about it, and merrily tap-danced her way through nine years of iniquitous and opportunistic governance. Under Arroyo, Delicadeza went the way of the Calesa.

As early as 2001, when Arroyo had barely warmed her seat, the first in a sustained series of scandals—delivered with the regularity of a metronome—immediately erupted. Correspondence secretary Veronica “Bing” Rodrigo accused first gentleman Mike Arroyo of taking a P50-million bribe in July. The bribery was said to have been for Arroyo to recall her veto on two franchise bills. The first bill involved the Philippine Communication Clearinghouse that sought a franchise to operate a clearinghouse where telecommunications companies were to interconnect for a certain fee. The second bill granted APC Wireless Interface Network a franchise to build a wireless telecommunication system nationwide. Rodrigo was a friend of Gloria Arroyo, having been classmates in grade school and high school. Their parents were also close friends.

Just four days after assuming office, Arroyo awarded a 0-million contract to Argentine firm Industrias Metalurgicas Pescarmona Sociedad Anonima (IMPSA) to rehabilitate a power plant in Laguna. A few months later, former Manila Representative Mark Jimenez, the man who brokered the transaction, accused Justice Secretary Hernando Perez of extorting million in exchange for a justice department opinion that favoured the deal.

Jimenez disclosed that the entire amount was actually million: Perez received million, the National Power Corporation “boys” got million, Malacañang was given , and million was retained by him. In April 2008, the office of the Ombudsman, headed by Merceditas Gutierrez, filed graft charges against Perez, his wife Rosario, Ernest Escaler, and Ramon Antonio Arceo Jr. By November, however, the Sandiganbayan dismissed the case as the Ombudsman failed to expedite the complaints, rendering Perez immune from the charges, indirectly acquitting him.

In October that year, Roberto Rivero, former consultant of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes (PCSO), accused the first gentleman of utilizing almost million of PCSO funds to finance the campaign of some senatorial candidates and to bribe radio commentators. Years later, in May 2007, another former PCSO senior executive, Cirilo Avila, said the funds were made to appear as payment for ad placements but were actually employed to fund the campaign of the People Power Coalition (PPC) of Arroyo.

Eyebrows rose when Gloria Arroyo agreed to stand as the godmother of the son of suspected jueteng boss Bong Pineda. Later events provided a glimpse of the nature of Arroyo’s ties to the Pinedas. In 2005, during the height of the Senate probe on the “Hello Garci” scandal, Army Capt. Marlon Mendoza quoted former COMELEC commissioner Virgillio Garcillano as saying that Pineda supplied P300 million to fund Arroyo’s presidential bid in 2004.

In Senate hearings on jueteng that began in May 2005, jueteng operators and bagmen averred that the President’s husband, Mike, her son Mikey, and her brother-in-law Ignacio or Iggy were among those who were receiving payoffs from gambling lords. The amounts reportedly ranged from P500,000 to P1 million a month. One of the key witnesses, businesswoman Sandra Cam, testified that in December 2004, she personally delivered the cash to Mikey and Iggy at the House of Representatives with the money coming from retired Chief Supt. Restituto Mosqueda, a former police director for Bicol and alleged protector of jueteng operations in Luzon. Richard Garcia and Demosthenes Abraham Riva also confessed to the Senate that the three Arroyos had been receiving payola from jueteng operations in Bicol. Michaelangelo Zuce, an aide Garcillano and a former staff member of presidential adviser on political affairs Joey Rufino, directly linked the President to jueteng by saying that before the 2004 elections, the President distributed money to several election officials in her house in La Vista, Quezon City, in the presence of Bong Pineda’s wife, Lilia Pineda.

From jueteng to high-finance, the array of anomalies ascribed to the Arroyo regime encompassed the entire spectrum of economic activity. Conceptualized by the Caucus of Development (Code-NGO), the PEACe bonds (Poverty Eradication and Alleviation Certificates) were issued by the government supposedly to help raise funds for the anti-poverty campaigns of its member organizations. But a number of those organizations like the Freedom from Debt Coalition took the Code-NGO to task for using its political connections to profit P1.4 billion from the bond floatation worth P35 billion pesos. They decried the fact the taxpayers had been saddled with an obligation of paying P2.5 billion a year for interest alone. Observers also noted that the government lost P5 billion in tax revenues from that transaction. They also posed a very fundamental question: If the government needed P10 billion so badly, why did it have to issue zero coupon bonds when it could have raised the same amount through regular treasury bills auctions at interest rates 3 to 4 percent lower? Socorro Camacho-Reyes, sister of then Finance Secretary Jose Isidro Camacho chaired the Code-NGO at the time.

Similarly, the Philippine National Construction Corporation (PNCC, formerly Construction Development Corporation of the Philippines or CDCP) and Radstock Securities abruptly announced a compromise agreement obliging the PNCC to pay Radstock P6.2 billion by ceding 19 pieces of real estate properties, 20 percent of the outstanding capital stock of PNCC, and 50 percent of PNCC’s share in the gross toll revenue of the Manila North Tollways Corporation for 27 years.

Senators Sergio Osmena III and Franklin Drilon cried foul because it disposed of almost all the assets of PNCC, a company inherited by the government after Marcos ordered state financial institutions to swap debt owed to them by the company for stocks. The deal, they pointed out, gave Marubeni/Radstock preferential treatment over other bigger creditors, particularly the Philippine government. As of December 2002, the PNCC owed the government through the Assets Privatization Trust P41.39 billion, according to the Commission on Audit, excluding pending liabilities amounting to P6.9 billion.

Issues on mismanaged funds by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) also caught the public eye. PAGCOR had been declaring negative cash flows that bloated to P850 million in 2003. Chairman Efraim Genuino (he had adapted his surname, in lieu of the original Ginogino, without undergoing the requisite court proceedings when he was still an insurance salesman), appointed by Mrs. Arroyo and a trusted point man of first gentleman Mike Arroyo, had entered into contracts with numerous private partners that many industry experts deemed to be onerous. Those “sharing” agreements were starting to cannibalize the profits of the government-owned corporation, which had been the third biggest source of funds, next only to the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs.

At the GSIS, president and general manager Winston Garcia directed his units to stop the processing of claims and loan applications because of financial difficulty while reportedly disbursing millions for the purchase of Juan Luna’s “Parisian Life” painting. In the meantime, Garcia wangled out a salary ofP540,000 a month and had appointed some 130 vice-presidents who made P70,000 a month. There were whispers that GSIS contributed at least P100 million to the campaign kitty of Mrs. Arroyo, who retained Garcia despite petitions from GSIS employees for his removal. Few were surprised by his retention since he belonged to a powerful political clan in Cebu that had been impugned of masterminding a vote-padding operation in the province that vaulted Arroyo over Fernando Poe Jr. in 2004.

Meanwhile, activists and journalists had suddenly acquired a nasty habit of falling dead while administration officials paid lip service to democratic ideals. As the latter were extolling the country as rapidly developing and modern, it was locked in a tight race with Iraq as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Jonas Burgos, an agriculturist and activist who had been providing technical training to left-wing farmers’ groups, was one of those ruthlessly abducted. He was the son of the late and esteemed opposition publisher Joe Burgos, whom the iconic Cory Aquino credited for “lighting our paths in the dark, long years of martial rule.” In an impassioned statement, she pleaded, “I appeal to the highest authorities of the land to send the clear signal to the field that Jonas Burgos must be surfaced immediately by whoever is holding him, and that no harm must come to him.” According to eyewitnesses, five persons dragged Burgos from a mall in Quezon City and forced him into a van. The license plate of the vehicle was later traced to the 56th Infantry Battalion camp in Bulacan.Commission on Human Rights Chair Purificacion Quisumbing summoned armed forces officials, including General Delfin Bangit, who headed the intelligence service of the AFP at the time, to shed light on Jonas’ disappearance. As of this writing, Burgos is still missing.

The darkness creeping across the land reached a crescendo when the Ampatuans of Maguindanao were implicated in what is widely considered to be the most heinous politically-motivated crime in the history of mankind: the grisly massacre of their rivals along with more than two dozen media people. That monstrous act drew attention to the inordinate special treatment accorded by the palace to its warlords, apparently as a reward for “special services” rendered during election seasons. The streak of oppression and injustice was by no means confined within the last few years of the Arroyo administration. One needed only to look back to 2003 when retired colonel Panfilo Villaruel commandeered an ancillary airport control tower, which was not even essential to normal operations, in protest over how the government was being run. After a brief and cursory negotiation, the aviation security group and the police SWAT team summarily liquidated him and his aide Navy Lt. Ricardo Catchillar, while the two were scuffling to surrender.

On the economic front, the gap between the wealthy few and the multitudes living below the poverty line had become even more abysmal. Arroyo had been boasting that under her leadership, the country was able to weather the global financial crisis and cited the stable foreign exchange rate as a testament to her sound fiscal policies. In truth, the only thing that kept the nation from falling over the precipice of economic ruin was the billions of dollars remitted by the Filipino overseas foreign workers. Multinational companies were shutting down local operations left and right primarily because of their dismay over the unprecedented level of corruption in government. In the new global economy, it is hardly surprising that major companies will seize opportunities to locate in places where doing business will be most cost-effective. As the business competitiveness of the Philippines continued to erode, more and more Filipinos trained their sights on employment abroad. Aside from the obvious brain-drain that this phenomenon fomented, the social cost was heartbreaking—leaving a trail of broken families in its wake. Wives and mothers were compelled to leave their families behind just to put food on the table. In foreign lands, they oftentimes became victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuses. Philippine embassies and consulates had, time and again, proven to be inutile insofar as providing vital assistance and protection in crisis situations involving Filipino workers.

The Filipino farmer—the rice farmer in particular—was again getting the raw end of the deal. Government subsidies had been discontinued, leaving the growers no choice but to price their produce higher because of costly inputs. Naturally, this situation impelled food officials to import—purportedly to alleviate the plight of consumers— from other Asian countries that owe their efficiency in production to their technical people who were trained at, ironically, the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. In February 2003, 600,000 metric tons of rice imported from India turned out to be rotten and mouldy. Kishore Hemlani, an Indian trader allegedly close to Arroyo, was said to have bagged the P9.5 billion contract for the rice importation.

Some of those behind the drive to import were making a lot of money by circumventing customs duties that, in turn, allowed the imported rice to be sold at a lower price compared to the commodity grown here. As a result, the local farmers were systematically discouraged from pursuing their means of subsistence since they could no longer sell their products at a price that would cover their costs and yield a decent profit. Many succumbed to the enticements of real estate developers and sold their lands for conversion into residential subdivisions.

Consequently, those rural folks, particularly their children—goaded by the promise of an easier way of life, where smarts and cleverness have supplanted hard work as the keys to prosperity—started to descent in greater numbers unto the cities and urban areas, looking for work and searching for the proverbial greener pastures. Unfortunately, meaningful work could hardly be found as companies embarked on programs to down-size their work forces due to global recessionary pressures in general, and their intention to relocate to more investor-friendly countries in particular. With so many schools and universities churning out thousands of graduates every year, prospective employers enjoyed the luxury of cherry-picking the best of the lot, leaving the average graduate dejected and grasping at every opportunity to work abroad. The exodus from the countryside exacerbated the already woeful state of congestion in Metro Manila. Teeming with people, many of whom were unemployed, the metropolis morphed into an urban jungle where drug-addiction and criminality were the norms.

Not surprisingly, the Arroyo administration pounced on the population issue and emphasized it as one of the major hindrances to progress. Hardly anyone pointed out that Japan, which is only slightly larger than the Philippines in terms of land area and considerably less endowed in terms of natural resources, had a population of more than 100 million in the 70’s when its economy lifted off to stratospheric heights. The same thing goes for the juggernaut that is China today; they have been able to parlay their population—the biggest in the world by a mile—into an ultra-potent weapon that has enabled them to climb the cusp of global economic dominance. Obviously, the Arroyo regime was aiming to divert public attention from the flagrant mismanagement that was causing the government to resemble the Cosa Nostra more than a professional service organization. As the late Peter Drucker, the famous management professor was fond of saying, the failure of any group or organization can ultimately be traced as emanating from bad management. Whether the awful governance that was inflicted on the Filipino people for almost a decade was caused by incompetence or by design is subject to debate. The preponderance of evidence, however, indicated a deliberate and devious drive to preserve power and enrich a selected few at the expense of the many.

Clinging to power was accomplished by ensuring that certain favoured generals and senior military officials were kept happy and content through high-level appointments and other emoluments. It became axiomatic that retiring generals who were supportive of the incumbent dispensation would automatically be installed to juicy civilian posts upon retirement, as a matter of course. As they lounged in their mansions, the common foot soldier was struggling to keep muddy water from seeping through the holes on the soles of his beat-up combat boots while negotiating the jungles of Mindanao while the ordinary beat policeman was trying to scrounge enough money to buy a pistol because they could not issue him one for lack of budget. Generals like Angelo Reyes, who never had a single day of combat experience, were strutting around like Patton and Rommel, while quintessential professional soldiers like Danny Lim, a product of the United StatesMilitaryAcademy in West Point, and Ariel Querubin, one of only two living Medal of Valour recipients, languished in the stockade for airing their grievances.

Rear Adm. Guillermo Wong, then Flag Officer in Command of the Philippine Navy, had exposed irregularities in the Philippine Marines’ procurement of equipment worth P3.8 million. This did not sit well with Marine officials. Then Armed Forces chief of staff Angelo Reyes offered Wong another post, chief of the Northern Command, practically demoting him. That drove Wong to resign. When asked to comment, Arroyo insisted that Reyes had done “the right thing.” Upon retirement from military service, she immediately appointed him as defense secretary. Reyes’ alleged involvement in selling arms and ammunitions to rebel and bandit groups moved 300 young officers and enlisted men of the AFP to revolt against the Arroyo regime. Reyes was forced to resign but Arroyo quickly installed him as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). For the pièce de résistance, General Jovito Palparan, who possessed a villainous reputation as a butcher of dissenters, was served up as an exemplar of a true patriot.

The politicization of the armed forces and the police scaled the apex when several generals were accused to have taken an active part in a vast conspiracy that rigged the 2004 presidential elections. The “Hello, Garci” episode plumbed a new low in the annals of Philippine politics. The enormous popularity of Fernando Poe, Jr. was poised to swamp Arroyo under an avalanche of votes. Instead, Filipinos slumped with jaws dropped in disbelief, as congress, behaving like fawning parasites, proclaimed Arroyo as the winner—literally under cover of darkness. It was, after all, perpetrated around midnight. As respected columnist Conrado de Quiros tersely put it, that unholy ritual bore all the hallmarks of the murder of the king, or more aptly, Da King. Ayear after the election, a recording of a telephone conversation between Arroyo and election commissioner Virgilio “Garci” Garcillano found its way to the media. During the conversation, Arroyo directed him to make sure that she would win by at least one million votes. In the twelfth century, William of Malmesbury quoted that the voice of the people was the voice of God (vox populi, vox Dei).For those who subscribe to that principle, cheating in an election is indeed a crime of the highest order. In thwarting the will of the Creator, a scoundrel not only puts himself of herself in a position to plunder material wealth from a country but, more profoundly, he or she extinguishes the hopes and dreams of an entire people.

In March 2004, Senator Panfilo Lacson accused Arroyo of vote-buying by authorizing the release of 728 million pesos purportedly for the purchase of fertilizers that would be distributed to local officials. Farmers later insisted that they did not receive fertilizers from the funds released by the Department of Agriculture. A Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) special report made public that billions of farm funds were diverted to fund the presidential campaign of Arroyo. Jocelyn "Joc-Joc" Bolante was the Agriculture Undersecretary when the fertilizer fund scam blew up. Bolante fled to the US and sought asylum, but the US courts denied his petition and he was eventually deported. Lacson also charged First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo of siphoning off at least P321 million in campaign funds and contributions and depositing the money in a secret bank account under the name Jose Pidal.

Six weeks before the May 2004 elections, two lawyers filed a disqualification case against Arroyo, saying she was behind the enhanced Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office’s Greater Medicare Access or GMA program. Public funds were allegedly spent to enrol families in PhilHealth. The program charged the premium cost of P1,200 for each family to PhilHealth and the PCSO. The ID cards, bearing Arroyo’s picture and name, were coincidentally distributed during the start of the election campaign.

The ensuing song-and-dance routine, staged by the Arroyo regime—that of commanding government investigative agencies to probe the election-related irregularities—only deepened the despair of many Filipinos. Invariably, report after report dismissed the allegations of election fraud and manipulation as baseless. Those findings were not totally unexpected coming as they were from commissions and bureaus whose leaders were beholden to the one who appointed them and who also happened to be the subject of the investigation. Nevertheless, the court of public opinion had already convicted Arroyo of stealing the vote and the people, from that point on, had to endure the depressing realization that they were being ruled by an illegitimate president.

As the political charade persisted and escalated over the next six years, shady deals involving billions of pesos in government projects were being hammered out in hotel lobbies, fancy restaurants, golf courses, nightclubs, and myriad other places frequented by the well-heeled. Somehow, the name of first gentleman Mike Arroyo and—in many instances that of presidential son Mikey Arroyo, who was reportedly in the process of importing 32 thoroughbred horses from Melbourne, Australia worth P384 million (at P12 million per horse)—would find a way to surface in the context of those transactions as movers whose imprimatur was de rigueur for the consummation of any “arrangement.” The influence-peddling industry became so cutthroat that even hard-nosed government suppliers and contractors, used to the S.O.P. way of doing things (a euphemism for kickbacks) were lamenting that what used to be a 20 percent standard cut for approving authorities had ballooned up to as high as 60 percent, depending on the nature of the project being laid on the table. Needless to say, corruption of this magnitude would inevitably impact the quality of the output. A bridge built out of sub-standards materials would be more prone to collapse, putting lives at grave risk. Contractors were being induced to cut corners since a large chunk of the proceeds had to be allotted “for the boys”. Unfettered greed was endangering the lives of common men and women. The GSIS-funded 5.1-kilometer President Diosdado Macapagal Boulevard in the ManilaBay reclamation area was a case in point. Described by many as “the most expensive highway in the world,” its contracts were approved during the Estrada administration and were awarded to three companies: Shoemart Inc., DM Wenceslao, and Jesusito D. Legaspi Construction (JDLC). The SM group of companies constructed its part of the boulevard for only P54,000 per lineal meter, while JDLC built its section, under the Arroyo administration, at a price of P302,000 per lineal meter.

The NBN/ZTE scandal, though, emerged as the centrepiece among the degradations attributed to the Arroyo regime. It involved allegations of corruption at the highest levels in the awarding of a US9 million construction contract to Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE for the proposed government-managed National Broadband Network (NBN).

In April 2007, Philippine Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Leandro Mendoza and ZTE Vice President Yu Yong hatched a multi-million dollar agreement for a National Broadband Network (NBN) that would purportedly improve government communications capabilities. On August 29, Nueva Vizcaya Congressman Carlos Padilla hinted in a privilege speech that Commission on Elections (COMELEC) Chairman Benjamin Abalos went to China to broker a deal for the NBN project. The following day, Abalos denied lobbying for the NBN project, although he did admit travelling to China four times. On September 5, Senator Aquilino Pimentel called for a Senate investigation. Consequently, three committees held joint hearings to scrutinize the issue: the Accountability of Public Officers & Investigations (a.k.a. the Blue Ribbon Committee) headed by Alan Peter Cayetano, the National Defense and Security committee led by Rodolfo Biazon and the Trade and Commerce committee spearheaded by Mar Roxas.

Jose "Joey" de Venecia III, son of House Speaker Jose de Venecia, Jr., testified on September 10 that he was with Abalos in China and that he heard Abalos "demand money" from ZTE officials. The younger de Venecia was president of Amsterdam Holdings, the company that lost its bid to ZTE for the NBN project. On September 11, the Supreme Court of the Philippines promulgated a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the NBN contract based on separate certiorari suits filed by Iloilo Vice-Governor and former Representative Rolex Suplico and Joey de Venecia III. Under political pressure from the opposition group, the court gave ZTE fifteen days to comment on the injunction. Suplico, a former opposition congressman, alleged that the agreement was sealed without public bidding and violated the Telecoms Policy Act, which required privatization of all telecommunications facilities. Congressman Padilla sued DOTC and ZTE officials of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, the Telecommunications Policy Act, the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Act and the Government Procurement Act at the Office of the Ombudsman. AHI also petitioned the Court to direct the DOTC to provide copies of the contract. The younger de Venecia testified on September 18 that Mike Arroyo personally warned him to "back off" from pursuing the project.

National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Chairman Romulo Neri and Abalos finally faced each other on the September 26 Senate hearing; Neri testified that Abalos told him "Sec, may 200 ka dito (You have 200M pesos in this deal)" while playing golf at the Wack Wack Golf and Country Club; they had been discussing the ZTE deal at that time. Neri later invoked executive privilege in response to some Senators' questions and shunned succeeding Senate hearings. Abalos announced his resignation as COMELEC chairman on October 1. Arroyo on her October 2 trip to China, informed Chinese President Hu Jintao of her "difficult decision" to cancel the deal.

On January 30, 2008, the Senate produced warrants of arrest for Neri and Rodolfo "Jun" Lozada, Jr., former chief executive officer of the government-run Philippine Forest Corporation and a consultant of the NEDA. Neri went into hiding while Lozada skipped the Senate hearing and absconded to Hong Kong.

On February 5, as the Senate arresting team staked out the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) awaiting Lozada's arrival, unidentified people whisked him "out of town", inciting his kin to cry for help. On February 7, Lozada finally surfaced as police deposited him to La Salle Green Hills, MandaluyongCity. Shortly thereafter, Lozada incriminated Mike Arroyo and Abalos in the ZTE scandal. The next day, in the Senate hearing, Lozada confirmed his NEDA boss Romulo Neri's testimony that Commission on Elections (COMELEC) chairman Benjamin Abalos and Arroyo's husband Mike were behind the kickbacks. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) secretary Lito Atienza, Neri, former Presidential Management Staff head Michael Defensor, Secretary for Special Concerns Remedios Poblador and Deputy Executive Secretary Manuel Gaite, reportedly conspired to facilitate the abduction of Lozada. Dante Madriaga, a ZTE-employed engineer, divulged that Arroyo’s group sought million as "advances". ZTE however refused to shell out more money unless they saw Gloria Arroyo's face at the signing of the contract.

With the deal in the eye of the storm for being allegedly overpriced by an estimated 0 million, Mrs. Arroyo deserted her husband, who was lying on a hospital bed fighting for his life, and flew to Boao, China to witness the signing of the contract. The official government press release proclaimed that Ms. Arroyo “came and went like a thief in the night” because she arrived in “in the wee hours of Saturday,” April 21, and “left at 3:30 p.m. of the same day.

As the public hungered for justice, restively yearning for retribution against the wicked, Arroyo one-upped all and sundry by springing Executive Order 464 on September 26, 2005. It prevented cabinet members, police and military generals, senior national security officials, and "such other officers as may be determined by the President" to attend congressional hearings without her permission. The attendance of two officers from the military before the Senate Committee on National Defense in connection with the “Hello Garci” scandal and the appearance of National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales in a Senate hearing regarding a controversial contract between the Philippine government and the Washington-based law firm Venable LLP triggered the edict. From that point on, E.O. 464 dissolutely shielded Arroyo’s people from all scrutiny and enquiries.

Filipinos seethed with anger and indignation as the Arroyo administration unleashed one affront after another against decency. They repeatedly took to the streets to mount public protests but failed to achieve critical mass as policemen hosed down marchers with water cannons and beat them up with truncheons. The military routinely blocked major roads and highways to prevent folks from the provinces from participating in demonstrations. Not even former vice president Teofisto Guingonga and two bishops were spared from getting drenched and being treated abusively by dispersal units.

A group of lawyers filed a petition with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the so-called “calibrated pre-emptive response (CPR)” and the “no permit, no rally” policy enforced against law-abiding citizens. The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) picked up the cudgels on behalf of over two dozen protesters who were arrested and injured in two peaceful mass actions that the police violently dispersed.