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Whither Asia's pioneers of protest?

Corruption cases against Filipino President Arroyo haven't sparked another 'people power' revolt.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2008

Moral authority: Clergy led past revolts against corrupt leaders, but some bishops like Deogracias Iniguez now say they shouldn't interfere in politics.

david montero


Manila, Philippines

As President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo found herself engulfed in a kickback scandal in February, she received a delegation of 40 priests at the Presidential Palace.

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On the face of it, the sight was familiar: Corruption brought priests – including prominent opposition leader Cardinal Jaime Sin – to the palace doors in 1986, where they led thousands of citizens in toppling Ferdinand Marcos, one of Asia's longest-ruling strongmen. Their People Power Revolution inspired democratic outbursts around the world. Filipinos did it again in 2001, with Cardinal Sin again leading thousands to force out President Joseph Estrada – and put Ms. Arroyo in.

But the priests who turned up at Arroyo's door in February came not to protest, but to offer a prayer in support.

The move shocked many in the Philippines, and critics say it underlined a dramatic change: Arroyo has divided the Catholic church here more than at any other time in its history, blunting its moral authority as a force of opposition to government corruption. That is a central reason why, despite repeated outcries for the president's resignation, a "people power" revolution has not materialized again.

"At this point, the Catholic church would not want to take up the role of bringing out 'people power.' It divides them, and it reveals that they're divided," says Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bayan, a leading opposition group. "[People power] is not going to come from the Church or be led by the Church."

Another corruption scandal was not what cheering crowds expected when Arroyo took office in 2001. "I will strive to give you a bright future," she said at a jubilant inauguration, while Sin warned the same gathering, "We must never let the mistakes of our past best us again."

Yet the Arroyo administration has become synonymous with corruption. In 2007, Transparency International ranked it 131st out of 160 on its corruption perceptions index.

In the most recent allegations, Arroyo's husband is accused of trying to influence a $330 million deal with Chinese telecom company ZTE, while her former socioeconomic planning secretary is accused of seeking a $5 million kickback. An official tasked with overseeing the deal blew the whistle in February, bringing thousands onto the street in protest. The case is still under investigation by the Senate.

Accusations of grave human rights abuses have also mounted from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, particularly regarding the death and disappearance of some 900 outspoken opposition figures, among them many priests.

Grievances like this brought down Mr. Marcos and Mr. Estrada. But while opposition parties and the military have both attempted coups against Arroyo, citizens have not provided the outpouring needed to sustain these actions.