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Corruption trials show justice is working

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The impeachment trial of President Joseph “Erap” Estrada resumed in the Philippines Senate on Jan. 2, with further revelations promised by the prosecution and “even more explosive” evidence promised by the defense. Estrada is accused of bribery, betrayal of public trust, violation of the constitution, and graft and corruption — and even among his supporters hardly anyone truly believes that he is not guilty.

Yesterday, Thai voters looked ready to give the Thai Rak Thai party of telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra up to 200 of the 500 seats in Parliament. But it’s unlikely that Thaksin will ever become prime minister, as he has been indicted by the National Counter-Corruption Commission for concealing his assets.

The Thai approach certainly saves time: You indict the man before electing him to run the country, not afterward. But the corruption problem is no joke in either country, and could sabotage their whole strategy for escaping from poverty. Some even fear that democracy has made the situation worse.

Estrada is certainly a democratic phenomenon. He is a ex-movie star with hardly any education, and a chaotic lifestyle that involved drinking half the night with cronies, sleeping until close to noon, and lavishing funds on five mistresses and a dozen children.

His film career consisted of roles in which he played brave underdogs from the streets, sentimental tough guys who did Robin Hood-style good deeds. Poor Filipinos, mistaking Estrada the populist politician for the screen character they adored, swept him into office two years ago over a divided opposition. Whereupon Estrada set out to make money out of the presidency.

The damage to the Philippines was severe even before Estrada’s legal problems began. Matters of state were decided over drink and cards by his “midnight Cabinet” of rich Chinese-Filipino cronies, and over 250 “executive orders” were issued that bypassed the normal administrative and political processes. In two years Estrada rebuilt all the negative stereotypes of the Philippines as a feckless and corrupt place that had been dismantled over 12 years by his predecessors, Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos.

It might have gone on that way for years, while the dream of a modern Philippines decayed. But then Estrada tried to cut Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis “Chavit” Singson out of managing a new commercial lottery game that was to replace the illegal “jueteng” numbers game that Singson had been running for years. When Singson heard that the local franchise for Bingo 2 Balls game was being given to one of his political rivals, he went ballistic and blew the whistle on the president.

“I normally collected 32 million to 35 million a month,” said Singson in a sworn statement in October. “Out of this amount I handed over to President Estrada in his office or his other houses the amount of 10 million pesos a month.” In total, Singson said, he had channeled more than 400 million pesos ($8 million) in payoffs from jueteng to Estrada, plus another 130 million pesos ($2.6 million) that he skimmed off tobacco taxes.

That is hardly enough to explain even the visible evidence of Estrada’s sudden new wealth, in the form of palatial mansions bought for his various mistresses. But then Ilocos Sur is just one of many provinces.

There is no reason to suppose that the president wasn’t doing the same thing in every province, and running other scams as well. But Singson’s whistle-blowing was enough to galvanize the opposition and break up Estrada’s coalition in the House of Representatives, which then delivered him to the Senate for trial in early December.

By comparison, Thaksin Sinawatra’s crimes in Thailand seem minor. He is accused of concealing assets worth 647.5 million baht ($15 million) when he was briefly deputy prime minister in 1997. His claimed family wealth even then was 22 billion baht ($1.2 billion), so this could be excused as a mere oversight — but the National Counter-Corruption Commission discovered that he had not mentioned the assets because he was busy transferring them to his maid, his driver and even his nanny in order to avoid tax payments due on them.

So Thaksin’s party is leading in the polls, thanks largely to the fact that it is vastly outspending all the other parties — but Thaksin, if found guilty, is looking at a five-year ban on holding public office. Even this hardly compares with the prison sentence awaiting Estrada if the Senate finds him guilty.

So does this prove that the Philippines and Thailand are hopelessly corrupt countries unsuited to democracy? Of course not.

It shows that unregulated wealth can buy votes, either directly or through massive campaign spending, and that plausible rogues can fool the voters and steal them blind. But you don’t need to go to Southeast Asia to learn that.

Germany and France, with about the same population as Thailand and the Philippines, are currently dealing with scandals involving illegal campaign financing and influence-peddling allegations against former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and current French President Jacques Chirac. It doesn’t mean their systems have failed. It means that they actually work.

The same is true for the Estrada and Thaksin scandals. The point is that the Southeast Asian countries now have systems in place for dealing with them.