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Philippine president follows mother's footsteps in fight against corruption

The creation of a truth commission by the president, Benigno Aquino, to investigate corruption during his predecessor's nine years in office has been welcomed by many Filipinos.

Benigno Aquino, Philippine's president, has set up a panel to investigate corruption during the rule of Gloria Arroyo, above.
Benigno Aquino, Philippine's president, has set up a panel to investigate corruption during the rule of Gloria Arroyo, above.

MANILA // The creation of a truth commission by the president, Benigno Aquino, to investigate corruption during his predecessor's nine years in office has been welcomed by many Filipinos, but a similar exercise by his late mother to recover the billions alleged to have been stolen by the family and friends of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos has become "mission impossible".

More than 24 years since the Presidential Commission on Good Government was set up by Corazon Aquino, only US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) has been recovered out of an estimated $5bn to $10bn alleged to have been stolen by Marcos and his cronies. Camilo Sabio, who resigned as the 12th chairman of the commission last week, told a press conference that "hunting for the Marcos' millions today can be summed up in just two words - mission impossible".

Speaking to The National later, Mr Sabio said he welcomed establishment of a truth commission, but added that such a body "has to have a clear and defined mandate and preferably a time frame if it is to be successful". The Marcos commission "really has gone on for far too long. Successive governments have become less and less interested in pursuing cases," he said. "Over the years so many stories have come up about the stolen billions that it is almost impossible to sort the fact from the fiction."

Mr Aquino's minders have gone to great lengths to tell the public that the truth commission will not be a "witch hunt" against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the former president, her family and associates. So far no details have emerged on what shape the commission will take except that it will be headed by Hilario Davide, a respected former chief justice of the Supreme Court. "He [Aquino] wants to make sure it will not be a witch hunt, or appear as an act of vengeance on his part," a presidential spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told a press briefing on Thursday.

"It's a matter of showing political will that we will run after or bring a closure to scandals that took place during the previous administration," Mr Lacierda said. "And we'll build a strong case against the responsible officials." The Wall Street Journal, in a report last week, said: "Some of the biggest cases already have been investigated over recent years, but didn't result in the high-level convictions some had sought. Critics of the latest effort, including some economists and political analysts, question whether the complaints merit more time and money - and potential fallout.

"Mrs Arroyo is a member of Congress, just elected in May, and still commands respect in some circles, including among many foreign investors who credit her with stabilising the Philippine economy over the past decade. Those critics say they prefer Manila focus on fiscal reforms that will help lift the economy." Mr Lacierda did say commission cases will not be allowed to drag on for decades such as those handled by the Marcos panel.

Mr Aquino's mother, who died in August, set up the panel in February 1986, just days after she was swept into power following the toppling of Marcos in a non-violent "people power" revolution. It was her first act as president and one she claimed would "right the wrongs" of the past 20 years under Marcos. Twenty-four years on, all that has been recovered has been 85.64 billion pesos (Dh6.76bn), according to documents handed out by Mr Sabio.

"How much was allegedly stolen, I have no idea and I don't think anyone knows for sure," he said. The first chairman of the good government commission, Jovito Salonga, estimated the amount to have been around $5bn at the time but since then the high end of the range has crept up to $10bn. "What started out as a noble exercise really has dragged on for too long," Mr Sabio said. "Companies sequestered have been asset stripped over the years to the point where they are just shells ? no one wants to buy them," he said.

Jaime Bautista, a board member, said: "Our American and Swiss lawyers believe there are still many accounts out there deposited in a number of countries, but without the resources and the will to track them down my fear is that they will become dormant and forfeited ? after all it has been 24 years since this exercise started." Today, the Marcoses are firmly back in politics: Ferdinand Marcos Jr was elected to the Senate, Marcos's widow, Imelda, was elected to Congress and daughter Imee was voted in as governor of the family's home province of Ilocos Norte.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae