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Bincheng Mao is an agenda contributor at the World Economic Forum. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
It was a warm spring morning 36 years ago when millions of people swarmed the streets of Manila, demanding the ouster of a kleptocratic president from power. Subsequently, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. fled the Philippines with 24 gold bricks, luxury clothes enough to fill 67 racks and gems hidden in diaper boxes — merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of his ill-gotten wealth.
The Filipino Supreme Court later released an estimate that shocked the world: Marcos and his immediate family siphoned nearly $10 billion from the people. The brazen corruption included an airline he seized after it billed his wife, not to mention myriad Swiss bank accounts and Panamanian shell companies. Meanwhile, during Marcos’ rule, six out of 10 families lived in abject poverty.
It is the duty of every responsible government in the world to combat corruption. Yet, efforts aimed to recover Marco’s unscrupulous wealth are now threatened by the incoming Filipino president: Marcos Jr., the kleptocrat’s own son.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is poised to continue the grim legacy of his family as he attached himself to other corrupt politicians during the campaign. At the outset, he formed an alliance with Jinggoy Estrada, a former acting president who was indicted on a charge of allegedly stealing 183 million pesos in the notorious Priority Development Assistance Fund scam. It was deeply disturbing that anti-corruption advocates called the Marcos-Estrada alliance a “cartel.”
Now as president-elect, it is highly unlikely for Marcos Jr. to pursue further charges against his own ally.
Citizens from around the world should take lessons from the social media disinformation campaign employed by Marcos Jr. aimed at whitewashing his family legacy. He has used social media to target young people who were not alive during his father’s dictatorship, convincing people that his father’s rule symbolized “a golden age” for the country. Social media companies should flag posts containing such clear disinformation when possible, in a manner consistent with the flagging of election-related disinformation in the U.S.
Successive Filipino governments have attempted to address Marcos’ kleptocracy through the Presidential Commission on Good Government, or PCGG — an agency seeking to recover Marcos’ illegal billions since 1986. As president, Marcos Jr. is well positioned to control the hunt for his family’s wealth. Now is the time for the world to facilitate this anti-corruption effort in a country keen on attracting foreign investments by demanding the Marcos Jr. government preserve the PCGG as a precondition for further economic ties.
The U.S. State Department’s website describes the bilateral relationship with the Philippines as one based on “a shared commitment to democracy and human rights.” The U.S. should not only seek to secure this commitment from Macros Jr.’s government but also protect Filipino rights activists and dissidents. Those who have warned that Marcos Jr. could rule without constraint may face political persecution, which occurs on a frequent basis in the country. The U.S. should set an example for the world by expediting political asylum for Filipino activists at risk.
During his campaign, Marcos Jr. repeatedly urged voters to “move on” from the kleptocratic legacy of his family and instead embrace “unity,” even though he continues to benefit from his family wealth. In other words, Marcos Jr. only sees reconciliation when he escapes the blame.
Corazon Aquino, leader of the 1986 People Power Revolution in Manila, offered an alternative vision: “Reconciliation should be accompanied by justice; otherwise, it will not last. While we all hope for peace it shouldn’t be peace at any cost but peace based on principle, on justice.”