Hand-held people power at Web speed

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In the last Philippines uprising 14 years ago, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was toppled by activists using ham-radio broadcasts and mimeographed fliers. It took years to build political momentum and months to organize a single "people power" rally.

Today's protesters are armed with Web-linked mobile phones and Internet mass mailings. And the opponents of President Joseph Estrada, who faces an impeachment trial next week, are putting tens of thousands of people into the streets of Manila in a matter of minutes.

Call it "spam democracy" or "instant protesting," but the pace of events in this society now offers a cautionary tale for government leaders everywhere.

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"It's a perfect instrument for insurrection," says Alexander Magno, only half jokingly, as he thumbs the rubber buttons of a sleek blue mobile phone to read a text message.

"It's like pizza delivery. We'll deliver the rally to you on the spot," says the University of the Philippines political science professor and presidential critic. For example, earlier this week, 20 protest groups formed in different locations around metro Manila before forming five larger ones that united at the Presidential Palace.

"I don't think Estrada understands that he's getting hammered in cyberspace," Professor Mango adds. "The technologies of protest have taken a quantum leap from where they were before. We're not out painting on the walls anymore like we used to in the good old days."

Indeed, it has taken barely two months to rally massive public opposition to Mr. Estrada, who faces a Senate impeachment trial for allegedly pocketing about $11 million from tobacco-tax kickbacks and illegal gambling operations.

Estrada's trial in the court of public opinion, however, has already begun with the mounting reports of a lavish and lascivious lifestyle, a recent accumulation of real estate, and a pattern of cabaret-style cabinet meetings that have called into question his ability to govern.

The public has been made aware of the apparent escapades of Estrada in real-time. Professor Mango says that initially he was receiving about 10 anti-Estrada text messages - the latest perk of mobile Internet technology - each day. Now, he gets about 80.

"It's easy now to bring a million people to the streets nationwide," he says. "In a fast-changing situation, every cellphone becomes a transmitter. It's a far cry from when we had to deliver [fliers] to the provinces by courier," he says, recalling the difficulties of reaching outlying areas of the Philippines during the Marcos era.

Forced to call elections, Marcos succumbed to the swell of domestic and international criticism that sent him and his shoe-hoarding wife into exile, allowing Corazon Aquino to take control in 1986.

Today, there are more than 200 Web sites dedicated to the anti-Estrada campaign. Some are comical clearinghouses of jokes and cartoons; more serious endeavors include petitions of electronic signatures demanding the president's resignation. Activists download anti-Estrada songs and logos, and then arrive at rallies around the country with the same signs and slogans, building an image of national consensus.

To be sure, the Philippines is still a relatively poor country with a large technology gap. In a population of 74 million, there are about 2 million Internet connections and 3 million cellphones. But even in provinces and slums where Estrada, a former movie star, enjoys wide support, key local leaders who have influence also have mobile phones, and sometimes e-mail, as well.

In addition to the Internet and mobile phones, the Philippines now has an increasingly feisty media that is chronicling what appear to be the misdeeds of Estrada during his 2-1/2 years in office.

The Manila-based Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has been at the forefront of the Estrada watch. The PCIJ, an independent media group which provides reports to various newspapers as well as producing its own publications, says it has evidence that Estrada has built 17 mansions since he became president, housing his wife and four mistresses, as well as various family members and his mother.

In one home, he imported white sands from a favorite Philippine beach for placement next to a pool with a wave machine. Another home, in Manila, has luxuries like a 90 square-meter bathroom with Jacuzzi and sauna, a minitheater, and four kitchens.

"The houses are a paper trail, because you cannot build without deeds," says Sheila Coronel, executive director of PCIJ, as she prints out her latest chart tracking presidential properties. Last year, she says, Estrada declared 2.3 million pesos - about $46,000 - in income.

"So how can he explain just one house, the Wack-Wack [Manila] house, which alone is worth $200 million?" asks Ms. Coronel. Various officials leading the drive to oust Estrada quote CPIJ's report in their impeachment complaint, accusing him of stock manipulation, graft, and various conflicts of interest in the 66 companies held "by Estrada, his wife, mistresses, and children."

Estrada remains popular among the poor, though some admit that his personal habits ought to be reformed. But his supporters say that the controversy is based more on class prejudice than malfeasance: The educated middle-class opponents never thought "Erap" - the backwards spelling of "buddy" in Filipino - was up to the job.

The poor masses are left out of the digital communications. But they are being reached by new publications like the Pinoy Times, which was started last year by the publisher of the muckraking Philippine Daily Inquirer. The language of the paper is the vernacular, Tagalog, rather than the English that the "educated classes" read and speak, and the price is just five pesos, or about 10 cents.

Since the call for Estrada's resignation heated up six weeks ago, a Pinoy Times Special Edition - a weekend tabloid featuring new "findings" about Estrada's excesses and vampy pictures of his "favorite" ladies - began selling fast. It already has a circulation of 300,000.

"Now, we are in a more democratic milieu, even though a good number of the media are held captive because they have owners or investors who are cronies of Estrada," says Vincente Tirol, the paper's publisher.

"We saw the need for a paper that addresses the masa [masses]. They elected Estrada to the presidency, but they hadn't realized that there is a difference between acting and governing. We wanted to give them a paper that they could afford to read."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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