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The case of Philippine ex-president Arroyo

Publication Date : 18-10-2012


The ordinary citizen may be forgiven for thinking that the country’s hospitals serve a secondary, nonmedical purpose: as temporary (but better-appointed) detention centres for the rich and powerful.

Recent history is filled with many examples of well-connected or deep-pocketed criminal suspects developing medical maladies of a sudden. In that sense, the continuing saga of former President Gloria Arroyo follows a very Filipino pattern. But if Arroyo is truly ill, why is she running for Congress a second time?

Yesterday, the Sandiganbayan allowed Arroyo, the chief defendant in the 366-million peso (US$8.8 million) Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office plunder case, to enjoy the privilege of hospital arrest. (The antigraft court could hardly rule otherwise, having allowed deposed President Joseph Estrada the same privilege while Arroyo was in the Palace.) The court imposed five conditions before allowing Arroyo to be detained at the Veterans Memorial Medical Centre (VMMC), including entrusting the Philippine National Police (PNP) with full control over all visiting rights.

The fifth condition stipulated that Arroyo will shoulder all medical and hospital costs related to her detention. This seems just right—after all, why should the state pay for the additional costs that the accused incurs?—but it is precisely the loophole, or the bureaucratic door left ever so slightly open, that allows the moneyed and the powerful to avoid jail. If you can afford it, you can choose a hospital suite over a squalid detention centre anytime.

To be sure, we cannot discount the real possibility that Arroyo is very ill. Last Monday, on the same day the peace panels of the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a framework agreement in the Palace, Arroyo failed to attend the scheduled arraignment for the plunder case. (This is not the first time her medical troubles hit the headlines on a heavy news day; last year, she was rushed to the hospital on the day President Benigno Aquino delivered his second State of the Nation Address.) Earlier this week she was said to be suffering from ischemia; the director of the VMMC, Dr. Nona Legaspi, told the Inquirer that Arroyo’s cardiologist had informed PNP doctors that “it would be risky for her to attend without having the stress echo test.”

We also recall that she underwent three surgeries last year, including a five-hour-long operation on her spine. (That explains the neck braces she wears.) She has also suffered from other ailments, such as shingles.

It may be the case that her physical condition deteriorated after she left office on June 30, 2010—if an ordinary person feels drained after a rush of adrenaline, a person at the pinnacle of Philippine politics may feel drained and weak and vulnerable to all sorts of ailments after the adrenaline of power is gone. Or it may be the case that she is merely faking it.

There are many Filipinos who believe that this is all an act, designed to attract the people’s sympathy. The online guessing game about the photographs purportedly showing her walking without her neck brace, only for her to put it back on after onlookers are spotted, is only one proof of public scepticism.

But let us for argument’s sake say that she is in fact quite ill. Isn’t it mystifying that she would continue to consider herself physically fit for legislative work? How can she hope to discharge her functions faithfully? What does serving as a legislator even mean, when the lawmaker spends her time in the hospital, consumed by medical and legal problems?

Arroyo, however, is merely being the typical Filipino politician: Either she sees the position she was elected to and seeks reelection for to be a part-time job, or she sees it as serving her personal interests.

Only someone who can justify public service as a part-time occupation can possibly rationalise an almost complete absence from Congress, with no opportunity (or inclination) to make one’s self heard in the most contentious legislative issues of the day. And only someone who sees the position as providing legal relief for one’s self can possibly justify wasting her constituents’ right to faithful and responsible service for another three years.

Running for reelection? This wouldn’t be the first time Arroyo puts private ahead of public interest.


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