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The End of People Power

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Among the dead in last month’s massacre in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao, in which gunmen killed more than 57 people known to be supporters of a prominent politician, were nearly 30 journalists. It was the largest killing of reporters in recent history. This was one of the reasons the massacre made the headlines; but it wasn’t otherwise so unusual.

After the People Power revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, the Philippines enjoyed a honeymoon of roughly a decade. Under Fidel Ramos the country seemed to stabilise, and many Filipinos were proud of their vibrant media, vigorous debates, and noisy but free politics. Leaders from Singapore blasted Manila for allowing too much political openness and not creating enough economic growth, but Filipinos told me lower incomes were a price worth paying for the freedoms they had won. (Singapore has a GDP per capita of nearly $50,000 at purchasing power parity; the Philippines’ is about $3200.)

But then street demonstrations in Manila toppled an elected government in 2001, and have threatened to do the same to the current administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. By operating outside normal political institutions – trying to change leaders through protest rather than the ballot box – Filipinos institutionalised a culture of constant unrest, and made it nearly impossible for any government to operate.

In response, Arroyo’s government, backed by the army, has slowly stripped away those hard-won freedoms. The security forces have allegedly used targeted killings to silence leftists across the country, while Arroyo in 2006 briefly declared a state of emergency that gave her the power to detain people indefinitely. In the south, already home to Muslim-Christian warfare and a culture of political violence, the armed forces have launched a new offensive. November’s massacre, though one of the worst of recent times, surely won’t be the last.

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