Early in her presidency, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo called the Philippines “a deeply divided society.”  It is a forceful statement, and I agree with it.  But I am not sure how the president precisely meant it, and what policy direction, if any, it was intended to signify.

She could have been referring to the major fault lines that have historically troubled our nation, namely, the communist and Moro insurgencies.  But the peace negotiations with the communists and the Muslim insurgents hardly moved under her administration.  She was more inclined to pursue a military solution in both cases. The recent revival of peace talks on both fronts appears to be an afterthought, an initiative being pursued largely for image purposes rather than to bring these conflicts to a meaningful and just closure.

Of late, Ms. Macapagal has styled herself as a president of reconciliation, taking her cue from the incoming head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Archbishop Fernando Capalla, who challenged her to reach out to all sectors of society in the spirit of unity.  Archbishop Capalla had in mind a moral leader who would stand above short-term partisan interests to begin the healing of the nation.

But it is a role that is easily hijacked by political needs and instincts during an election season. It is time to reconcile with Joseph Estrada, the deposed president who still commands a big chunk of the so-called “masa” vote.  Thus, the president now refers to herself as the “president of Edsa II and Edsa III,” an assertion that many participants of both events will dispute by the way.  Her recent statements about Erap have been conciliatory, leaving little doubt that the government will not oppose his request to travel to the United States for surgery, and, to go home later under house arrest instead of detained in a military camp.

It is also time to reconcile with the Marcoses and their cronies, notably Danding Cojuangco, portions of whose wealth are still under sequestration or held in escrow pending resolution of various longstanding cases.  Ms. Macapagal is now given to using buzz words like “win-win solution” and “principled agreement,” in accordance with this newly professed role of mediator and unifier of a divided nation. One wonders what the contours of a “win-win” solution on the contested coco levy funds might be like.

GMA’s image-makers can think of all the synonyms for unifier or peacemaker to improve her stature as a politician, but none of these will easily persuade a public that has seen too many political compromises being proposed in the name of national unity.  To succeed, Archbishop Capalla’s healing president needs to have a large vision and a singleness of purpose articulated by a consistent high-mindedness.  Though highly-educated, Ms. Macapagal possesses neither.  She bears all the disabilities of the immature political culture in which she was bred.

Were she more conscious of the disparities in wealth and opportunity that make our nation deeply divided, she would have spent more time building social trust and repairing a damaged economy than campaigning for another term.  Rather than push the country back to the status of a mendicant economy, perennially looking to the US for salvation, she would have instilled in our people the virtues of selfreliance, perseverance, and hard work as preconditions of a meaningful sovereignty.

If any reconciling needs to be done along the lines suggested by the archbishop, I argue it has to be between the vast masses of our people who have lived without hope and their leaders who have consistently failed them.  It has to be between those who have plundered the nation and the indigenous minorities they have consigned to penury.  If enduring reconciliation is based on repentance and forgiveness, then our politicians owe our youth a huge apology for having mortgaged their future with impunity.

The problem with conventional political reconciliations is that they are nothing more than mutual accommodations among rival factions of the elite.  The dialogue that produces them, if any, excludes those who are routinely wounded in these intra-elite wars.  As foot soldiers and pawns, they are not allowed to speak of the injuries and pains they have borne. They are in no real position to forgive until they themselves begin to understand the structural origins of their own suffering.

This is not to deny the power of genuine reconciliation.  The experience of countries like post-apartheid South Africa has shown how the dynamics of truth-telling, repentance and forgiveness can close the emotional wounds that litigation and mediation do not address.  Where the state itself had been the principal instrument of terror and oppression, truth commissions have worked better than regular courts in rebuilding relationships and restoring trust.

As a nation, we typically think of the law as standing above society, whose origins are other than the daily struggles of human beings to live in peace with one another.  Thus we find ourselves constantly at the mercy of conflicting interpretations by experts who we believe to have a privileged access to its true meanings.  Our concept of law is not supported by a strong commitment to democracy.  And the reason for that is the persistence of rigid inequalities that exclude the majority of our people from meaningful participation in the national life.  There is no genuine reconciliation without dialogue, and there can be no real dialogue without democracy.


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