The return of Martial Law, and other stories

Brett M. Decker

Posted on February 21, 2009

Michael Alan Hamlin interview with Brett M. Decker

Originally Published on: December 31, 2008

Last week, Global Filipino: The Authorized Biography of Jose de Venecia Jr., Five-Time Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Philippines, was officially released in Manila. Three former presidents of the Philippines-Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada-were present at the launch in Ortigas. However, Brett M. Decker, the book’s author, was absent due to a family emergency. In his first public interview on the subject, Brett, a longtime friend, house guest and colleague, discussed his controversial book with this column.

MAH: What surprised you most during the writing of this book?

BMD: What really surprised me was how reluctant Joe de Venecia (JDV) was to criticize President Arroyo, even after her family and allies ousted him from the speakership. Right up to the time the manuscript went to the printer, he was having second thoughts about publicly attacking her. “We were allies for so long,” he would lament. JDV is a very sentimental person who is not naturally vindictive.

MAH: Do you think this ugly split between GMA and JDV could have been avoided?

BMD: President Arroyo missed an opportunity to minimize political damage when the scandal over the national broadband contract first made news. JDV is not instinctively a renegade and is very pragmatic. If the President would have offered a way for him to continue to serve the country in a prominent position, he might have taken it. For example, she could have made him Foreign Minister. JDV is well-known and well-respected internationally and would have brought overseas prestige to this administration. Fair or not, on the international scene, President Arroyo is seen as a petty, small-time kleptocrat of a third-world nation of diminishing importance. The image problem is very real and discourages foreign investment. The Philippines has potential to be much more competitive in the region but clearly won’t make significant progress with its current leadership.

MAH: Do you think the final published draft of the book is too critical of the President?

BMD: Last week, President Estrada congratulated JDV for going public with his allegations about corruption in the Arroyo administration, but he added that he hopes there is a sequel in the works because obviously “JDV knows many things about this administration and he has many stories to tell.” I couldn’t agree more. The truth is that this book barely touches upon the massive corruption in the Philippine government or the many problems plaguing President Arroyo. The book isn’t about her. We had to address the ZTE scandal because it led to the Arroyos ousting the Speaker, which obviously is central to a story about the Speaker.

MAH: What other stories could JDV tell?

BMD: Former Speaker de Venecia was one of GMA’s closest advisors and defenders for many years, so he should know where some of the bodies are buried. Several senior administration officials have told me that there have been discussions in Malacanang about what conditions would be necessary for President Arroyo to declare martial law, or at least to institute major emergency powers unprecedented since Marcos. I would be surprised if JDV did not overhear some of those deliberations, and I think that the Philippine public has a right to know what the President has considered in regard to curtailing civil liberties. Some very extreme measures were being discussed during a couple of times when her presidency was threatened.

MAH: You don’t really think the President has considered moving towards a police state?

BMD: She has proven herself willing and capable of doing anything to maintain her grip on power. Don’t forget that she originally pledged not to seek election after being installed to finish out Estrada’s term. She reneged on that promise just as her father President Diosdado Macapagal reneged on his promise not to run for a second term four decades earlier. As the Hello Garci tapes revealed, her subsequent election was anything but clear-cut. Now she is putting muscle behind the charter-change movement wherein she could retain power by becoming prime minister. The Philippine Constitution wisely restricts a president to a single six-year term to limit the power any single executive can accumulate. President Arroyo already has been in power two more years than what the constitutional framers considered to be safe-and it is obvious that her family does not want to relinquish what such power can do for them.

MAH: What lesson can be taken from the political mess in the Philippines?

BMD: The tragedy is that Gloria Arroyo had an opportunity to make the Philippines a better place where more Filipinos could prosper. She had political pedigree, foreign support, and comes from the small circle of elites that runs the country. Outside of violent revolution, which I don’t think is in the Filipinos’ collective nature, reform must come from the elites, and she could have brought substantive change if she had been courageous enough to break from the practice that one must pay to play in her country. She wasn’t, and it is the poor who continue to suffer the most as a result.

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