Joseph Estrada, the disgraced former president of the Philippines, faces the prospect of spending his remaining years in prison after a special court in Manila found him guilty of amassing around $15 million in bribes and kickbacks. During the 30 months he ruled his country, from mid-1998 to the start of 2001, Estrada accepted payoffs from gambling lords and orchestrated (with social security funds) sales of stocks, channeling much of the profits into his personal aliased account.
Estrada literally defined plunder: as a senator in the early 1990’s, he was a member of the congress that crafted the law under which he was convicted. For many Filipinos, there is more than enough poetry in this fact, and certainly more irony than Estrada’s action-comedy movies of the 1960’s ever mustered.
There is no underplaying the significance of the court’s unanimous decision to convict the first Philippine president ever to undergo a criminal trial. This is, after all, the Philippines, where Imelda Marcos is still living free and easy. Despite massive evidence of the widespread death, poverty, suffering, and dysfunction she and her late husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, inflicted on the Philippines, the only real disappointment she has subsequently endured has been losing the last presidential election she was allowed to contest.
The Philippines is not a country used to seeing powerful people punished. When officials are accused or suspected of corruption, they do not quickly resign, as in Korea or Japan. Instead, they often seek immunity by running for public office. When a bloody coup against Corazon Aquino’s fledgling democratic government failed, the leader of the putsch escaped from a floating prison – and then successfully ran for senator.
The wheels of Philippine justice need retooling, so much so that the country’s Chief Justice himself recently called for an emergency summit to discuss a rash of extra-judicial killings that have the claimed the lives of leftists, human rights workers, and journalists under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There have been few convictions for these crimes.
Yet Filipinos themselves simply cannot seem to imagine their leaders behind bars.
Even before Estrada’s conviction, opinion polls showed that 48 percent of Filipinos wanted clemency, if not a guaranteed pardon from Arroyo. More than 80 percent said Estrada should be allowed to languish in a lush private family vacation home where he already spent the last six years awaiting his verdict.
Is this lack of appetite for justice a part of Filipino culture, or learned behavior? Has an overly forgiving nature prevented Filipinos from achieving closure in so many painful chapters of their history, or are the ravages of impunity to blame? With so few examples of justice clearly dispensed, and overwhelmed by examples of villains so easily forgiven or forgotten, perhaps Filipinos could not bring themselves to demand what they could not imagine.
Estrada’s conviction gives Filipinos the clearest illustration of what the rule of law may bring to their society. Estrada remains adored by the masses, but so far the public’s reaction to the verdict has been nonviolent and almost subdued. Notwithstanding the opinion polls, it does seem as though the public not only accepts his conviction, but that they respect it as the outcome of a fair system that has been allowed to work.
This suggests not only that justice in the Philippines has a chance; equally important, it suggests that Filipinos will give justice a chance. If the Estrada saga leads to a firm yet dignified exercise of justice, Filipinos may discover a taste for more of the same.
Roby Alampayis Executive Director of SEAPA, the Southeast Asia Press Alliance. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)