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Filipinos join protest over `crony' state

VOTED INTO office in an unprecedented landslide, Joseph Estrada - a former star of Filipino movies - finds his presidency subject to very mixed reviews one year on.

Some 50,000 protesting Filipinos marched in Manila yesterday through a tropical storm, to a rally led by Cardinal Jaime Sin and former president Cory Aquino- key figures in the uprising that dislodged Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Well-heeled businessmen joined peasant activists; crucifixes consorted with red flags. But the main hues were yellow, proclaiming support for the anti-Marcos movement.

Shreds of paper, also yellow, spilt from office towers in central Manila where the demonstrators converged on a statue to Ninoy Aquino, Cory's husband, shot dead in 1983 when returning from exile to a Manila run by Marcos.

The rally was crowded with ghosts. There were rumours that Communist infiltrators planned to disrupt proceedings with a bombing. "It is one of the scare tactics that were used by Marcos. That is why we are here," one man smiled.

A small placard in the crowd put the case in equally simple terms: "No to Cronyism - Preserve the Free Press - No to Constitutional Change". Cardinal Sin and Mrs Aquino assumed the podium. "The people of the world will laugh at us, if we have not learnt from our mistakes of the past. Never again! Never again!" said the cardinal. "What is better than to stand up for freedom and good government against the threat of tyranny and corruption?" said Mrs Aquino, while carefully not attacking the current President personally. Mr Estrada himself has shrugged off the criticism. "I am a President, not a psychiatrist," he said at one point.

Central to the rally was Mr Estrada's plan to change the constitution. He says it needs correction if the Philippines is to be globally competitive; the proposed cure - removing controls on foreign ownership of land and utilities. He denies darker political purposes.

But his opponents are suspicious. It has been suggested that reopening the document may lead to dangerous political adjustments. Under the 1987 constitution, presidents are restricted to one term.

Lack of trust in the Estrada administration is fuelled by an alleged crackdown on the independent Filipino press. Isagani Yambot, publisher of The Philippine Daily Inquirer, says the hard-hitting paper has become the victim of a "financial squeeze". After two exposes involving members of the President's extended family, advertising was withdrawn by government financial institutions and substantial private interests. As with press freedom, so with allegations of cronyism.

Mr Estrada has declared cronyism "dead and obsolete under my administration". But members of one commercial organisation, the Makati Business Club, said "the return of cronyism and influence peddling" was the most critical issue during Mr Estrada's first year.

The President says he will push on with constitutional change. But the controversy over his administration is unlikely to be smothered soon.