President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may be acquiring a reputation for being the Nero of the Philippines. Nero, as every high school student knows, was the Roman emperor who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned. (Historical note: In 67-68 AD, while Nero was visiting Greece, trouble broke out throughout the Roman Empire, partly because of his extravagance, partly because of his unacceptable behaviour and partly because of his mismanagement of the empire.)
Ms Arroyo went gallivanting with a large entourage on a working visit to the United States even while Typhoon 'Frank' was battering a large section of the Visayas, killing 557 people, displacing 4 million and destroying P13.5 billion worth of public works, crops and private property. The typhoon also sank the Sulpicio Lines’ MV Princess of the Stars, killing more than 800 passengers and crew.
She said then that she could not cancel the US visit as to do so would embarrass the country. But was it not more embarrassing to see the leader of the country enjoying herself abroad while hundreds of her countrymen were dying and hundreds of thousands were suffering from the devastating effects of the strong typhoon?
Last week, a big part of Mindanao was threatening to erupt in flames over the very questionable memorandum of agreement on the creation of the Bangsamoro Juridical Entity negotiated by the Arroyo administration, and yet Ms Arroyo did not stay at home and instead left for the Olympic Games in Beijing.
Let’s grant that she wanted to be one of the 80 heads of state at the Olympics opening, but she could have returned immediately after the opening ceremonies to attend to the serious situation in Mindanao. Instead she stayed for three more days, to attend a luncheon given by China’s President Hu Jintao, to meet with some of the other heads of state and to stand as witness at the signing of a $150-million private deal between a Chinese firm and two Filipino corporations headed by her former chief of staff, Michael Defensor. What was so urgent about these things that she had to stay in China instead of hurrying back home to try to prevent a conflagration threatening to engulf a great part of Mindanao?
On a personal level, she also did a Nero when she left the bedside of her husband Jose Miguel Arroyo, while he was recovering from a life-threatening surgery, to be in China just to witness the signing of the $329-million national broadband network deal with ZTE Corp. Right after the signing, the copies of the agreement were reported missing. It was only after the Senate began looking into the questionable transaction that a 'reconstituted' copy of the agreement surfaced. Later developments tended to show that the deal was tainted with graft, and Ms Arroyo had no choice but to abort it.
Ms Arroyo is the most widely travelled president the country has ever had, having been, at last count, to 20 countries. On her trips abroad she would often bring members of her family and scores of congressmen and local government officials whom she wanted to reward for their loyalty. In the process, she spent millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.
In the last two years of her term, she has to moderate her wanderlust. Government funds are needed for important programmes and services, and there are many urgent matters that have to be attended to by a President in Malacañang.
Ms Arroyo cannot be a Nero most of the time, fiddling or attending to less important matters while the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. The threatened conflict in Mindanao can result either in the dismemberment of the country or in a bigger, more deadly and more devastating conflict than the war in the 1970s and 1980s when tens of thousands of soldiers, Moro rebels and civilians died and hundreds of thousands of others were displaced or left homeless.
Ms Arroyo, after watching 'the greatest show on Earth' that was the opening of the Olympic Games, after having fun hobnobbing with other heads of state in Beijing, and after solicitously standing as witness and hovering close by like a mother hen to her favourite courtier at the signing of a private agreement, can now attend to more serious matters.
First, she has to tell the nation the whole truth about the so-called Bangsamoro Juridical Entity. Second, she has to assure the nation in clear, unequivocal terms that she will not resort to any subterfuge, including the setting up of the BJE, to prolong her stay in Malacañang beyond 2010. She can stop fiddling around, stay put in Manila, and be honest with the nation for once.
Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer