Philippines: Aquino's presidency and the Yellow Priest

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Is change finally coming to the Philippines?

For one Filipino-American Catholic priest and supporter of the new president Benigno Aquino III, the answer is a qualified "yes."

The Taiwan-based Father Joy Tajonera is part of a group that urged Aquino to run for office after the politician's mother, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, passed away.

He began shuttling back and forth on the two-hour flight between Taiwan and Manila during the campaign, and became active in the "yellow ribbon movement" supporting Aquino's candidacy. He even had a bright-yellow, Roman Collar shirt and yellow cossack made to show his support for Aquino and for change — an eye-catching get-up that earned him the label "The Yellow Priest" from the Philippines media.

Now, just past 100 days into Aquino's presidency, Tajonera's still a believer. And he insists Aquino — nicknamed "Noynoy" or "PNoy" — is the real deal.

"One encouraging thing I hear from both young and old is optimism — that it's possible to hope that the country will be better," said Tajonera, who at 51 is about the same age as the new president. "That sense of hope is what helped Noynoy get elected — people are clamoring for change."

The Philippines has long been one of Asia's underachievers, trailing far behind its peers in the region due to a potent mix of corruption, clan-based politics, long-running armed rebellions, incompetence and the out-sized influence of a landed elite.

Aquino hasn't changed that overnight, of course. But Tajonera insists that the fledgling president has already succeeded in projecting a clean, humble image for his government. He's gotten the style right — now everyone's waiting for him to make more progress on substance.

Other analysts also give Aquino good marks."I wouldn't give him a perfect score, but I would say he passed the test of his first 100 days," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. "So far so good, in the sense that he has made key initial steps for fighting corruption and poverty — he's appointed people to key positions."

Most Filipinos seems to agree; Aquino's latest satisfaction rating was 71 percent, compared to just 11 percent dissatisfied, according to a survey by Social Weather Stations.

Philippines media made much of his recent, lower-key trip to the U.S. — spending a third what his predecessor did for a state visit to New York City, by lodging at Sofitel instead of the Waldorf, and eating at street-side hot-dog stands instead of Le Cirque.

Members of the "yellow ribbon movement" at a mall in Taipei. Father Joy Tajonera, far left.
(Courtesy of Joy Tajonera)

Tajonera ticks off several more examples of Aquino's more modest, down-to-earth ways. PNoy has scrapped "wang-wang" — the practice of Presidential motorcades using wailing sirens to get through metro Manila's notorious gridlock. He's done away with self-promotional billboards on public projects, which were widespread under his predecessor.

He gave his entire inaugural address and first state of the nation address not in English but in Tagalog, the Philippines' main dialect — a first for a Filipino president. "There's a divide in the country between those who have and have not — and those who speak English well and those who do not," said Tajonera.

And Tajonera has personally observed that government officials and police have a noticeably less "arrogant" and more polite, upright attitude.

Case in point: when one of Tajonera's relatives was caught speeding as he rushed to make a lunch with the priest during one of his trips to Manila, he tried bribing his way out of a ticket in the tried-and-true Philippines style — by passing a banknote to the cop along with his license. This time, it didn't work.

Still, there's plenty of reason to doubt whether PNoy can change the broader system. The most significant challenges are his lack of control of Congress and the courts, which could hobble his efforts at reform, said Tajonera.

Most Supreme Court justices were appointed by his predecessor and political rival, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a deeply unpopular and allegedly corrupt figure who nonetheless has her own formidable power base in Congress. And PNoy's governing coalition is "more a coalition of convenience than an honest coalition," said Tajonera, with many Congressmen wanting their share of pork in exchange for continued support.

Casiple added that Noynoy faces a "steep learning curve" because of his relative inexperience, and is learning under "very stressful conditions," including a hostile opposition and "political landmines" left by the previous administration."He has a lot of problems before him," said Casiple.

Meanwhile, PNoy stumbled in his response to the Sept. 7 hostage crisis, in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed by a disgruntled ex-cop.

And human rights groups fault Aquino for failing to stop so-called "extra-judicial killings" of leftists (16 so far on his watch, according to rights group Karapatan).

Perhaps most difficult to surmount is the skepticism of Filipinos themselves, who have long suffered under bumbling, corrupt leadership.

"Filipino people, especially the poor, have been disappointed so many times, sold out so many times, used so many times, it's not so easy to say things will change — it's easier said than done," said Tajonera.

That's one reason he's continued his active involvement in the "yellow ribbon" movement, a call for grassroots commitment to change. The group, organized by the late president Corazon Aquino's former appointments secretary Margarita "Margie" Juico, advertises a list of 10 pledges for good citizenship, including paying taxes, respecting the police and soldiers and taking care of the environment.

"The government cannot be reformed if the citizenry is not willing to change," said Tajonera, one of a core group of 50 to 60 people in the movement. "If you want change to happen in our society, then you must become part of the change."

The significance of the "yellow ribbon" goes back to the dark days of martial law (1972-1981) under Ferdinand Marcos. Supporters of pro-democracy activist Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino — father of the current president — wore yellow ribbons and sang the old U.S. ditty "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" as a show of solidarity for Ninoy during his seven years imprisonment.

(Ninoy was later exiled to the U.S. and assassinated on his return to the Philippines, launching his widow Cory Aquino into the presidency on the back of the "People Power" movement.)

For Tajonera, the significance is also deeply personal. He remembers declining an invitation to join Ninoy for Thanksgiving when he met him in New York City in 1982, something he now deeply regrets (Ninoy was gunned down the following year). Again in 1986, he declined a call from Cory Aquino's people to return to the Philippines and help build a new government. Now, he's finally ready to help.

"It's my redemption," said Tajonera. "Twenty-eight years ago I said 'no' to Ninoy, and 28 years later I said 'yes' to myself. This is the time."

He says he was among the first to urge Noynoy to run for the presidency, while attending his mother's funeral last year. Then, Noynoy's response was non-committal. "He just smiled — of course, it's a priest telling you what to do," he said. "It's typical Pinoy [slang for a Filipino] — you just smile, and don't say no. But I'm happy I did it."

Now, the unassuming bachelor who smiled politely that day holds the reins of power. Time will tell if he's able to put the Philippines on a better course.

"Corruption is one problem. Our attitude is another — we have an attitude of being complacent," said Tajonera. "Nothing will change with that kind of attitude, it won't work if you want to move the country forward."

"My hope and dream is the same as PNoy — that our country can learn the lessons of Marcos and Gloria. If we do that, then change is not impossible."