Crises Bring Out the Tough Talk in Arroyo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the five months since Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took power, she has been tested at the barricades, at the ballot box and by Islamic rebels in the jungle.

Her response has been consistent: tough talk and, if needed, military force.

Sworn into office the same day as President Bush, Arroyo assumed power amid turmoil and has moved from one crisis to another ever since.

When protesters took to the streets this spring and she feared a coup, she warned her foes, "I will crush you," and ordered the arrest of senators who opposed her.

When Islamic kidnappers seized 20 hostages, including three Americans, from a tourist resort last month, she declared, "I will rain bullets on you," and sent in 3,500 troops.

Her blunt language has surprised some and sparked criticism from others, who say she risks damaging her reputation by verbally sparring with her enemies.

But she has kept her grip on power in a country where coup plotting is a popular pastime. And she made a solid showing in elections last month when her allies won eight of 13 seats in the Senate, according to preliminary results.

The latest crisis to plague Arroyo is the kidnapping of more than 35 hostages in the last three weeks by the Abu Sayyaf rebel gang in the southern Philippines.

Military officials said today that they believe that one American hostage, Guillermo Sobero of Corona, is dead, either at the hand of rebels or of complications of diabetes. The guerrillas claimed Tuesday that they had beheaded Sobero, but Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan told a news conference today that Sobero may have died of infection instead. Sobero was last seen that day in the rebel camp, tied up and separated from the other captives, according to two hostages who were freed Thursday.

Adan said the military's conclusion was based in part on information provided by a freed hostage.

In her rhetoric, Arroyo has shown a willingness to put the lives of the hostages at risk to combat the long-term threat posed by the rebels, who have waged a campaign of kidnapping and murder in the region for the last decade.

"She's shown her toughness and political skills," said presidential spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao. "There could have been a perception that just because she is a lady, she might not be able to call on the military to go on an all-out offensive. It's a signal to the Abu Sayyaf and the nation and also to the military."

Much is at stake for Arroyo and the Philippines. Political instability and a series of high-profile Abu Sayyaf kidnappings during the last 15 months have tarnished the country's reputation, scaring off foreign investors and tourists alike.

Similarly, a soaring rate of piracy in the seas where the rebels operate has sparked concern about the safety of heavily used shipping lanes that link East Asia with Australia and the Middle East.

"The largest number of piratical activities are in our region," said Asiri Abubakar, a professor of Asian studies at the University of the Philippines. "We have the responsibility to protect the sea lanes. It is a problem not only for us but also for international trade."

The diminutive Arroyo, 53, was seemingly born to the job. Her father, Diosdado Macapagal, was president of the Philippines from 1961 to 1965.

She attended Georgetown University in Washington and was invited by President Johnson to stay at the White House. She also was a classmate and friend of future President Clinton.

Elected twice to the Philippine Senate, she was serving as vice president when she helped oust President Joseph Estrada in January in what has been termed a "constitutional coup."

After mass "people power" protests and a threatened military takeover prompted Estrada to flee the presidential palace, the Supreme Court declared the post vacant, and Arroyo was sworn in.

A devout Roman Catholic, Arroyo has portrayed herself as a hard-working public servant with roots among the common people. She sometimes wears bluejeans and pops up unexpectedly in public places. The palace put out a press release suggesting that people call her "Ate Glo," or "Big Sister Gloria," but the nickname never stuck.

"My father saw the presidency not as a position to be enjoyed," she said in a December interview. "My father regarded integrity and a capacity for self-denial as primary prerequisites for the presidency."

When she moved back into the sprawling Malacanang Palace, she chose the same small bedroom in the presidential residence she had occupied as a teenager, turning down the room used by Estrada, a well-known philanderer.

"Who knows who has slept there?" she was reported to have said.

Allied with former presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos, she has the support of the powerful Roman Catholic Church and the business community. She has made it plain she intends to run for election in 2004 when her term expires.

In April, Arroyo's administration arrested Estrada on corruption charges, touching off widespread protests.

Arroyo declared a "state of rebellion" and gave herself the power to order the arrest of her foes without warrants--a move of dubious constitutionality.

Among those she ordered taken into custody were former National Police Chief Panfilo Lacson and senators Juan Ponce Enrile and Gregorio Honasan. A onetime defense minister who helped topple former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Enrile was also a mentor to Honasan, who, as an army lieutenant colonel in the late 1980s, led two of the bloodiest coup attempts against Aquino. All three men were running for the Senate in the May 14 election.

Enrile was arrested and released on bail, but the police couldn't locate Honasan or Lacson. Arroyo eventually relented and let them come out of hiding to finish campaigning.

The election was viewed as Arroyo's first test of support as president. Though her slate of Senate candidates did well, some of her biggest rivals also won, including Honasan, Lacson and Estrada's wife, Luisa. Enrile is running 14th in the nationwide vote but has an outside chance of winning the 13th spot in the Senate when the final votes are tallied.

Although last year's economic downturn was one of the arguments for removing Estrada, the country's economy has not bounced back under Arroyo's leadership. The stock market has fallen, the value of the peso has remained low, the rate of growth is shrinking, and foreign investment is on the decline.

As president, Arroyo has become known for her strong language, and "crush" seems to be one of her favorite words.

When Estrada's supporters were allegedly plotting a coup in January, she warned, "I am not a happy warrior, but if forced, I shall crush you."

When protesters threatened to march on the palace in April, she taunted, "Strike now and I will crush you." A day after they backed off, she said, "I was hoping they would act, so I could crush them."

When the Abu Sayyaf rebels seized three Americans and 17 Filipinos from a resort on the island of Palawan on May 27, Arroyo pledged, "As your president, I will do everything to crush these bandits."

With the standoff with Abu Sayyaf in its fourth week, 11 hostages have escaped or been freed--but the kidnappers have seized at least 15 more. They also have killed at least two of their captives.

Among the hostages are missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham of Wichita, Kan. Like Sobero, they were vacationing at the Dos Palmas resort on Palawan when they were seized.

The military's inability to catch the rebels has left Arroyo vulnerable to criticism. Some say her generals are not aggressive enough and that their conventional tactics cannot succeed against a guerrilla group. Others criticize Arroyo for playing such a visible role and personalizing the crisis.

Rebel spokesman Abu Sabaya has taken to mocking the president during calls he makes over a satellite telephone to a radio station.

"Old lady Gloria, what was it you said? 'I will crush you'?" he taunted. "Well, here I am. I am not crushed."

Sen. Honasan, who was twice wounded during the 1970s as a soldier while fighting Islamic separatists in the southern Philippines, says Arroyo would do better to play a less noticeable part.

"We should stop reacting to Abu Sabaya," he said. "We should ignore him and do our work. It should not be a personal matter. We are allowing our emotions to get the better of us."

However, Tiglao, the presidential spokesman, says Arroyo has to make it clear to the rebels that she will not allow kidnapping for ransom--unlike Estrada, who let Abu Sayyaf receive as much as $25 million from Libya last year in exchange for the release of foreign hostages.

"She needed to send a message that we can no longer tolerate this Abu Sayyaf group," Tiglao said. "She had to send a strong statement because the previous administration adopted the ransom policy."

In the battle of words, there is no indication that Arroyo will back down. On Wednesday, she promised the rebels a "long and bloody war."

"We will meet fire with fire, and more. No ransom. No deal. No cease-fire," she declared.

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