Doing Easy Time in the Philippines

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When President Joseph Estrada was deposed in a popular uprising, his followers staged months of counter-protests. Then he was put on trial and the underlying fear was that a heavy sentence for the former action-film star would provoke violent outcries. Today, however, though Estrada received a sentence of life imprisonment, his fans kept calm, taking some comfort, it seems, in the fact that the penalty doesn't mean life in a prison cell.

For the court ruled that the sentence would be served at Estrada's estate, a couple of hours outside Manila, where the former actor is currently building a museum about his life in politics and on screen. He has also constructed his final resting place, a brown marble tomb under a solitary banyan tree. Estrada, 70, will, it seems, have a comfortable retirement as he tends his vegetable garden and rice paddies and looks after his ducks and other animals, the same place he has spent most of the six years it has taken for the court to reach a verdict.

The current President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was first sworn in after Estrada was deposed in 2001, hopes this will be the end of the matter. Her spokesman Ignacio Bunye appealed for calm on the streets, as the authorities feared mass demonstrations in support of the deposed President. "We hope and pray that the rule of law will prevail," Bunye said. "Meantime, we have a country to run, an economy to grow and a peace to win. We hope that this sad episode in our history will not permanently distract us from this goal."

The verdict had little effect on the markets in the Philippines; investors were relieved. "It seems like there was no violent reaction so far, so that is why investors are taking advantage of the bargain prices in the market," said Astro del Castillo, director of the Association of Securities Analysts of the Philippines. "This is one thorn off our back."

The Arroyo administration has scored some recent successes. Last month the economy grew 7.5% in the second quarter from the previous year — which was above market forecasts — as private and government consumption boosted growth to its strongest level in two decades. And, though the troubles in fractious south have flared up in recent months, the government is planning to hold talks with some Muslim separatist groups.

However, if the Estrada verdict is a victory for her government, it's a Pyrrhic one. Said Benito Lim, a political analyst and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University: "If the government thinks this decision will lead to closure, that is not going to happen. Estrada is appealing his case; this alone will take at least a year. And, in the meantime, he insists he's not guilty. And there are plenty of people that believe him."

And a fresh corruption storm cloud is brewing over Arroyo's government. Members of her government have been accused of ramping up the price of a government broadband contract with a Chinese firm, ZTE Corp. The country's Supreme Court has issued a restraining order to keep the deal from going through for now. Opponents have resurrected old, unsatisfactorily resolved scandals as well, including one that involves her election victory in 2004. All this could slow down her government as Arroyo approaches her last two years in office.

Meanwhile, Estrada has returned to his country estate, to attend to his ducks and dig the weeds from his vegetable patch. The people of the Philippines have grown used to corruption, says Benito Lim. "I don't know if Estrada or Arroyo are guilty of the allegations made against them," he said. "But I would say that, though the Philippines did not invent graft or corruption, our politicians have turned it into an art form. The problem is we read and hear about it all the time, at many levels of government. And nobody is ever punished for it. Even Estrada has been found guilty. But he didn't actually go to prison."