February 10, 2006


One thing that is striking about the stampede at the Ultra stadium that killed scores of poor people seeking to win prizes at a television game show is how quickly the government of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is being called to account for the tragedy. It is a testament to the Arroyo regime’s continuing alienation from the people and its growing political isolation from even the smaller and better-off sections of the population.

No matter that the giant TV network, ABS-CBN, is the most directly culpable being the organizer of the “Wowowee” extravaganza whose popularity the network used to the hilt to outdo its rival noontime show at GMA 7. (In fact many TV viewers were turned off at the apparent effort of ABS-CBN to use their show biz talents to soften the impact of the disaster, trumpet the efforts of management to assist the victims and parry the accusations of criminal negligence against it.)

If anyone wants to look for responsibility on the part of public authorities, one should logically look immediately to the local government of Pasig where the Ultra is located as well as Metro Manila police officials who appear to have been sleeping on the job even as the crowds started to swell into an unmanageable size. (It did not escape the attention of the discerning public that both the city mayor and police chief in the national capital region were members of the government Task Force tasked to investigate the disaster even as they both needed to be investigated for their probable sins of omission relating to the stampede.)

It boggles the mind of the struggling but otherwise still fairly comfortable middle class and the elite with their self-indulgent lifestyles how and why the horde of “Wowowee” fans withstood the punishment of queuing up for 2 to 3 days or more outside the Ultra.

They were exposed to the elements, packed like sardines and were without toilet facilities. They were constantly edgy at the thought of not getting the chance to join the raffle promo but desperately hopeful nonetheless for a chance to hit the jackpot.

The answer stares all of us in the face once more – poverty – the extreme, grinding kind. This coupled with the aching desire of millions to escape it by means of a magical raffle ticket because no decent jobs are available. Or, more realistically, the poor taking the gamble, for a chance to have a few thousand pesos that can pay mounting debts, get medical attention for a sick family member, buy the children some food and clothing or fill some such mundane, everyday need that some of us take for granted.

It is therefore not surprising how the preventable disaster of the Ultra stampede has quickly slammed into the Arroyo administration’s face especially with it crowing about the “phenomenal” peso appreciation and the 2005 growth figures that indicate a “surprisingly resilient” economy that is allegedly poised for “take-off”.

Most people put the blame squarely on the Arroyo regime for the intolerable depths of poverty and misery that millions of our countrymen have descended to in the past five years.

Most people have also lost all hope that this government can lead the country out of its socio-economic rut when the legitimacy and moral integrity of the Arroyo presidency are under serious doubt and the regime’s political viability is constantly being challenged by a broad, if disparate, array of oppositional forces who want her out.

The fragility of the Arroyo regime is betrayed by recent events. The much more critical pastoral statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has unhinged Malacañang to the extent that it has temporarily scuttled the scheme to cancel national elections in 2007 as a bribe to legislators to support the Arroyo-de Venecia drive to amend the Constitution and thereby cement Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on power.

The obvious restlessness in the military and police ranks is causing GMA and her corrupt generals sleepless nights. So Mrs. Arroyo has promised, if not yet released, billions of pesos for the AFP and PNP; her media handlers ensure front-page publication of photos of a smiling commander-in-chief posing with fighting units of the military to belie rumors of a brewing mutiny; notorious officers accused of grievous human rights violations are callously promoted despite the hue and cry from the victims and local and international human rights advocates.

No, people are not buying the administration line to “move on”. Even its drive for charter change -- with amendments that constitute a very real threat to civil and political liberties, to a revival of Marcosian martial rule, to the bargaining away of territorial integrity, patrimony, and national sovereignty and to the prolonged grip on power of the Gloria/Mike Arroyo-de Venecia-Ramos clique -- are not being taken seriously because people see it merely as a ploy to distract the people and divert the anti-GMA movement into puerile debates about presidential vs. parliamentary systems.

Gone is the bluster, the disdain and the arrogance that GMA personally displayed, even flaunted, when she felt secure in her hold on power. Once again she tries to morph her aloof image into that of a leader whose heart bleeds for the poor and oppressed. She visits those hurt at the Ultra in the hospital, inaugurates supposedly pro-poor projects left and right and is the sweet and kindly school marm guiding impressionable young minds to enlightenment. But all these tired publicity gimmicks have little effect in covering up the crisis of leadership that just won’t go away.

Meanwhile those working for regime change through democratic means – whether constitutional or extra constitutional – are slowly but surely, and in an accelerated fashion, coming together for this government’s day of reckoning in the not too distant future.

Feb. 10-11, 2006


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