BANGKOK – Joseph Estrada, the disgraced former president of the Philippines, faces the prospect of spending his remaining years in prison after a special court in Manila found him guilty of amassing around US$15 million in bribes and kickbacks. During the 30 months he ruled his country, from mid-1998 to the start of 2001, Estrada accepted payoffs from gambling lords and orchestrated (with social security funds) sales of stocks, channeling much of the profits into his personal aliased account.
Estrada literally defined plunder: as a senator in the early 1990’s, he was a member of the congress that crafted the law under which he was convicted. For many Filipinos, there is more than enough poetry in this fact, and certainly more irony than Estrada’s action-comedy movies of the 1960’s ever mustered.
There is no underplaying the significance of the court’s unanimous decision to convict the first Philippine president ever to undergo a criminal trial. This is, after all, the Philippines, where Imelda Marcos is still living free and easy. Despite massive evidence of the widespread death, poverty, suffering, and dysfunction she and her late husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, inflicted on the Philippines, the only real disappointment she has subsequently endured has been losing the last presidential election she was allowed to contest.
The Philippines is not a country used to seeing powerful people punished. When officials are accused or suspected of corruption, they do not quickly resign, as in Korea or Japan. Instead, they often seek immunity by running for public office. When a bloody coup against Corazon Aquino’s fledgling democratic government failed, the leader of the putsch escaped from a floating prison – and then successfully ran for senator.