- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

In May, President Bush welcomed Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the White House and toasted her as an essential ally in the war on terror. The Bush administration’s attempts to work with the Southeast Asian nation are important, as the region is a hotbed of terrorism and the Philippines is an old friend to America. Unfortunately, Mrs. Arroyo’s inabilities as a leader and lack of control of the military make an already volatile country even more dangerous. Philippine Congressman Imee Marcos — daughter of former President Ferdinand Marcos — said on Monday that Mr. Bush’s planned state visit to Manila should be postponed due to a security breakdown in the archipelago. We agree. The message needs to be clear that Mrs. Arroyo must get a grip on the chaos.

The situation in the Philippines is deteriorating from bad to worse, and this has global implications. Last month, Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, a leader of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiya terror network, escaped from a maximum-security Philippine prison with the help of Philippine police. Al-Ghozi was jailed for possession of explosives and is tied to numerous bombings across Asia. Jemaah Islamiya was responsible for last year’s car bombings in Bali and is suspected to be behind yesterday’s deadly blast at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, among many other attacks. As a result of al-Ghozi’s escape, which is the result of corruption in Mrs. Arroyo’s government, the world can expect many more bombings and countless more innocent deaths like yesterday’s.

This is not the first time that terrorists have escaped from Philippine custody. Islamic radical Abu Sayyaf guerillas, who kidnapped and beheaded Americans, have paid their way out of captivity. In one instance, Abu Sayyaf fighters were allowed to slip out of a building that was surrounded by Philippine soldiers. Last summer, Faizal Marohombsar, head of a major kidnap-for-ransom gang, somehow gave the shake to 24 armed cops guarding his cell. The failed July 27 military coup is a shocking warning as to how fragile Mrs. Arroyo’s hold on power is. Military chiefs have even refused to appear before the legislature to address the mutiny. This bold lack of respect for civilian authority is a consequence of the way the president came to power without a democratic election. Two and a half years ago, it was the intervention of the generals that ousted her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, and placed Mrs. Arroyo in office. Because the reality is that she owes them for her position as much as she needs them to keep it, the brass is untouchable.

Bizarrely enough, during the official state of rebellion declared after the military coup, it seems to be the free press that is under siege. On Sunday morning, Philippine police arrested Ninez Cacho-Olivarez, editor and publisher of the Manila-based Daily Tribune, a leading voice of political opposition, after she published a series of articles on alleged corruption in the Arroyo administration.

The president and her advisers should know that trying to muzzle their opponents gives credibility to their criticisms. During congressional elections shortly after its inauguration in 2001, the Arroyo administration declared a state of emergency and issued arrest warrants for four opposition candidates and three opposition senators on coup charges, which were dropped after the polls closed. One of those charged was Panfilo Lacson, a former general who increased discipline in the ranks and nearly eradicated kidnapping as head of the national police. A growing number of Filipinos think Mr. Lacson — who is running for president — offers the best chance to quell domestic disorder and control the military. Mrs. Arroyo clearly cannot do it.

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