Businessmen in Philippines protest Marcos rule -- and a mounting financial crisis

Manila's businessmen have become the most powerful opposition force in the Philippines today. Ironically, they have no political organization or acknowledged leader. And they stress that their objectives are limited, aiming only to restore long-term economic confidence in the country. But, if implemented, their demands could destroy the basis of President Ferdinand Marcos's power.

Like many other Marcos opponents, Manila businessmen have a clear view of the future but no clear strategy for achieving it. This could prove their undoing.

The impact of the business community's revolt has already been enormous. Tacit acquiescence or active support by upper-middle-class businessmen once gave the regime its credibility. Now they demonstrate against the government.

Their revolt has shaken foreign investors and creditors, helping put the Philippines into a debt crisis. It has also prompted the United States Embassy to begin urging President Marcos to make major concessions. And the embassy's new pessimistic view of the political situation may in turn have affected Washington's attitude toward Mr. Marcos.

What triggered their newfound activism was, of course, the murder of political opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. on Aug. 21. The general view is perhaps summed up by a senior executive who says that, until the assassination, he tended to look on martial law with regret, not distaste: "We had 10 years [ under martial law] to get the economy into shape and we blew it."

Most businessmen had been -- at best -- polite, occasional critics of the regime. But few people were willing to attack these problems openly.

The assassination came as an emotional shock to the businessmen. Mr. Aquino was one of them: from a politically prominent, landowning family. He went to elite schools and was the same age as many top executives.

One of the biggest businessmen in the country, Enrique Zobel, was an Aquino friend who tried to intercede with Marcos when Aquino wanted to return. Others visited Aquino during his three-year exile in the U.S.

The killing also gave the businessmen and middle class a sense of new vulnerability. "If they can kill Aquino," a senior executive said, "they will kill anybody. None of us is safe."

The businessmen's open proclamation of no confidence in the regime makes it difficult for the Marcos government to negotiate the complex series of loans it needs to stave off economic collapse.

The government is trying to obtain $1.65 billion from the US, Japan, and international institutions like the World Bank. In late November the International Monetary Fund (IMF) tentatively agreed to lend the Philippines $ 630 million.This encouraged a committee representing the country's private creditors -- more than 350 banks worldwide -- to recommend a loan of $1.6 billion.

The negotiations are proving slower than the government hoped. Private creditors have suspended their decision until the IMF announces its plans.

Filipino businessmen say they are not surprised by the delay.They point out that although the government obtained a three-month moratorium on debt repayments last October, it has defaulted on $500 million in interest repayments. The government admits that it overestimated its foreign reserves by some $500 million recently.

And it also radically revised its foreign debt from $19 billion in late October to $24 billion in November. Jaime Ongpin, president of Benguet Mining and one of the government's most prominent critics, noted that it is actions like these that make foreign creditors even more dubious about the government's grasp of figures.

But the key long-term issue, as a leading economist, Jose Romero, president of Research and Management Company, points out, is not the current debt problem, but how to get new investment in the future. "You don't default on your loans and then expect banks to line up to offer you money," Mr. Romero says. Finding money to revive the economy will be very difficult -- and, he implies, it will be virtually impossible if Mr. Marcos is still in power.

Like many of his colleagues, he assumes that the Aquino murder was planned at the highest echelons of government. This sense of menace is one of the factors spurring the executive and his friends on in the opposition movement.

"If Marcos ever recovers his balance," he said shaking his head at the prospect, "he'll come after us."

The economic crisis that followed the murder -- $2.1 billion in foreign reserves dwindling almost to nothing, a third of the total leaving the country in the first two weeks of October -- confirmed their grimmest suspicions about the economy.

Businessmen have long expressed their concern about the fragility of the economy, the size of its foreign debt, and government support of sagging empires of rich but inept friends of the Marcos family -- the so-called cronies.

Now that catastrophe has struck, business leaders speak openly and angrily about what they see as a key cause of the economic crisis: the alleged depredations of the cronies and their patrons.

"These people have ripped off billions of dollars," an influential business analyst said. "Just look at any government contract for the past 10 years and assume they've taken 10 percent off the top. At least."

Asked about this allegation, a bank president of impeccable apolitical credentials agreed with the charge.

To rectify the political situation, one group of businessmen has put forward three basic demands: an exhaustive and impartial investigation into the Aquino killing, a clear-cut succession formula, and the convening of a national council for reconciliation. The demands are similar to those that US Ambassador Michael Armacost transmits "insistently" to Mr. Marcos whenever he can.

Some of the most prominent businessmen, like Benguet's Ongpin, whose brother is minister for trade and industry, stress that their primary concern is the succession. They want to make sure that neither the armed forces nor Imelda Marcos takes over after her husband.

"A military takeover is our worst possible scenario," Ongpin told journalists. What about Mrs. Marcos as successor, he was asked. He corrected himself. "That would be even worse than the military."

Some businessmen also say they do not want the President to resign. "That would cause chaos," said the bank president quoted above. "We just want this thick cordon sanitairem -- Imelda [Marcos], Ver [armed forces chief of staff], and the others -- to resign."

Others would like to see the President go, but feel it is a waste of time to insist on his resignation. "There's no way he'll leave," one of them concluded.

Instead, they seem to be hoping for a compromise that will allow Prime Minister Cesar Virata -- a technocrat close to the business community -- gradually to assume real power.

Some business leaders are talking to the military. A few others are drawing closer to the most left-wing opposition. Most, however, seem to be waiting for the economic crisis to deepen, forcing Marcos inexorably toward their solution.

With the country in a debt crisis and industrial raw material inventories running down, businessmen predict at least 100,000 layoffs in coming weeks. Then, they say, Mr. Marcos might feel the heat.

But if the new package of loans comes through -- especially $1 billion in emergency funding that the US government has reportedly promised to tide the country over until its other loans are made available -- the economic crisis might lessen temporarily.

This is what the analyst, who counts senior US diplomats among his close friends, expects -- and fears. Speaking before the loan was announced, he voiced his suspicions that "the US will bail Marcos out till 1987 [the next elections] and try to arrange a nice, orderly transition. But the change has got to come now. The house is coming down in two to three years. If these guys stay in charge of the economy they'll wreck it beyond repair."

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