Is the US angling to take advantage of Charter Change to finally scrap national patrimony provisions in the constitution?


JULY 26- At her State of the Nation Address yesterday, President Gloria-Macapagal Arroyo declared that “[i]t’s time to start the great debate on Charter change.” Incidentally, her announcement, which was widely seen as an attempt to deflect calls for her ouster, came just a few days after an analyst from an influential conservative US think-tank also said that “[i]t’s about time” to change the constitution. 

While lamenting the outbreak of political instability triggered by allegations of electoral fraud against Arroyo, Dana Dillon of the Heritage Foundation sees a silver lining. He writes: “The good news is that the scandal has forced both the Philippine Congress and the President to begin the process of reforming the Philippine constitution.”[1]

While Dillon’s July 18 essay entitled “Crisis in the Philippines: What does it mean for the US?” is by no means a conclusive declaration of US policy, it gives a hint of how Washington may be playing its hand in the country’s latest political crisis.

Dillon, Heritage’s resident specialist on the Philippines, d0es well to implicitly remind us what the three overarching interests of the United States are in the country: First, the US wants to continue deepening the US and the Philippine militaries’ relationships in the so-called “war against terror.” Second, the US wants the Philippines to continue opening up its economy to trade, pay its foreign debt, and ensure a conducive environment for foreign investments. Finally, the US does not want the Philippines to fall into China’s embrace.

While Dillon’s is just one assessment from one well-connected outfit, his views as to the US’ interests in the Philippines are broadly shared in establishment circles in the US. They just differ on what interests they emphasize and on what recommendations they prioritize.

The prominent RAND Corporation, for example, also stresses the need to keep the Philippines out of China’s loop and – like the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) – has advocated coopting the Philippine military and using the country’s territory for power-projection in the region.


As various political forces and elite factions slug it out for power, it would be safe to say that the US couldn’t care less who gets to occupy Malaca?ang – just as long he or she would give the US what it wants. With all its interests at stake, we can safely assume that the US embassy is not just watching idly by as the crisis unfolds.

The goal of the US – as it was during the anti-dictatorship struggle in the 1980s – is to manage the outcome of the crisis, ensure that its preferred factions stay in power, and keep those clamoring for changes inimical to US interests marginalized. Indeed, US officials have publicly and repeatedly stressed in recent weeks that the US will not be tolerate extra-constitutional or “People Power”-type uprisings.

Dillon hints that the US strategy may well be to take advantage of the situation to push for constitutional change. “The post-Marcos constitution is overly detailed and includes numerous restrictions that retard economic development,” Dillon writes.

By “restrictions,” Dillon is referring to the national patrimony provisions limiting foreign ownership of lands, resources, and corporations. While they have repeatedly been undermined by exemptions and other creative interpretations, these provisions have served as a final legal barrier to the wholesale application of neo-liberal free market economic policies in the country and consequently, the wholesale domination of the local economy by foreign business interests.

It is worth recalling that in 1971, the US welcomed Marcos’ imposition of martial law because he promised to draft a new constitution favorable to foreign investors.[2] Ever since the 1987 constitution enshrined the national patrimony provisions, however, successive politicians, US embassy officials, USAID “technical consultants,” and their local Filipino counterparts at the UP School of Economics have been attempting to scrap them, arguing, like Dillon, that they hinder the country’s economic growth. As we have argued in our book The Anti-Developmental State: The Political Economy of Permanent Crisis in the Philippines, however, such a line of reasoning is both empirically baseless and theoretically infirm.[3]

Aside from the national patrimony provisions, the US will also be to get rid of other provisions in the constitution that restrict the presence and operations of foreign military forces. Scrapping all these contentious provisions become easier as debates on the proposed shift to a parliamentary system drown out everything else.


As the political stalemate drags on, the US embassy is now conceivably scanning the horizon and continuously assessing which elite factions could best safeguard their permanent interests in the country in general and – if Dillon is heeded – which ones are amenable to the constitutional amendments they want. The factions out there, for their part, are now expected to launch a bidding war, offering the most tempting deals in an effort to win the US embassy’s blessings. “What everyone is trying to do,” confides one of the 10 cabinet secretaries who recently resigned, “is to get the American approval.”[4]

Though some in Washington are no fans of Arroyo, it is not yet clear whether Washington has in fact abandoned her camp. Arroyo’s decision to pull out Filipino troops from Iraq last July 2004 was the most public and perhaps, most serious rift between Manila and Washington since the closure of US bases in 1992 and the ensuing rapprochement between the two. Incidentally, Dillon was the same analyst who, in the aftermath of Philippines’ withdrawal from Iraq, castigated Arroyo for being “an equal opportunity weakling,” accusing her of “working against American interests on a variety of issues.”

Aside from the Iraq episode, the other serious public rift between Malaca?ang and the US embassy has been over how to proceed with the “war against terror.” US officials have accused the Moro Islamic Liberation Front of coddling “terrorists” – a charge which Philippine officials have so far refused to echo. Finally, a lot of China-watchers in the US have clearly been pissed off by Arroyo’s flirtation with Beijing. Dillon, in particular, singles out Arroyo’s decision to secretly sign a protocol with China on exploiting South China Sea’s contested resources.

Arroyo’s decision to push through with rewriting the constitution may be her bid to stay in Washington’s good graces. Though she was initially reluctant to begin the process for Charter Change now, her administration knows what’s at stake. “If Americans decide to drop support of the Philippine president, it crumbles,” the President’s chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao, acknowledged.[5]

Interestingly, the most vocal proponent of Charter Change is none other than Fidel Ramos, who more than anyone in the Philippines perhaps has the easiest access to the corridors of power in Washington. Having averted what could have been the final collapse of the Arroyo government last July 8, Ramos has warned Arroyo that he will be “very, very unhappy” if she doesn’t go along with his plans.


Since the United States is not omniscient or all-knowing in that it can predict with certainty who its best allies would be, it may also be conceivably be betting on two or more horses. On the opposition side, it is worth watching the actions of former National Labor Relations Commission chief Roy Se?eres, a previously little-known player who is now weaving his way in and out of various opposition circles. Acknowledging personal ties with many high-ranking US officials, he has interestingly claimed to have been regularly meeting – just “for coffee” – with former Ambassador Francis Ricciardone weeks before the political crisis erupted.

Se?eres, along with close Ramos aide Fortunato Abat, are among the convenors of the recently launched coalition Unity for Truth and Justice, perhaps the broadest anti-Arroyo opposition coalition to date. Among its initiators are Horacio Morales, the former communist turned political operator of ousted President Joseph Estrada, under whose presidency the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US was cemented; former Defense Secretary Renato de Villa; and Amina Rasul, the Harvard-educated Muslim “peace advocate” who recently hosted in Manila a member of the Iraq Governing Council, the appointed body installed by the United States in Iraq after the invasion. Aside from them, it’d be interesting to watch how recipients of USAID largess, such as the Makati Business Club, various “civil society” groups, the Cory crowd, and others, behave in the coming days.

If US officials share Dillon’s view and take to his prescriptions, we should expect the US to fully back those who are in favor of constitutional change in general and its preferred changes in particular by giving them funding, consolidating their organization, brokering the formation of alliances, providing intelligence, etc – as it has done in the Philippines before and in various other countries throughout history. To help out in the operations, we should expect the US to marshal its entire arsenal of agencies well experienced in political intervention overseas, such as the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and their conduits.[6] <#_ftn6>

For if Arroyo is an “equal opportunity weakling,” an “equal opportunity toughie” would know what to do once the opportunity arises.#

*The author is an analyst with Focus on the Global South, a policy research and advocacy group. He is co-author of The Anti-Development State: The Politics of Permanent Crisis in the Philippines (UP Department of Sociology and Focus on the Global South, 2004).

[1] Dana R. Dillion, “Crisis in the Philippines: What does it mean for the US?” The Heritage Foundation, Web Memo #799, July 18, 2005
[2] William Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 121.
[3] Walden Bello, Marissa de Guzman, Herbert Docena, and Marylou Malig, The Anti-Development State: The Political Economy of Permanent Crisis in the Philippines, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Department of Sociology and Focus on the Global South, 2004
[4] Raymond Bonner and Carlos H. Conde, “In Manila, US drawn into fight,” The New York Times, July 23, 2005
[5] Ibid.
[6] For more on the National Endowment for Democracy and US political intervention, see among others, William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, Common Courage Press, 2001; Barbara Conry, “Loose Cannon: the National Endowment for Democracy,” Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 27, November 8, 1993; Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), National Endowment for Democracy: Paying to Make Enemies of America, October 11, 2003.