MANILA, August 22, 2003 (STAR)  SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan - Itís unfortunate that "Jose Pidal" had to cast a long shadow over the commemoration yesterday of the 20th death anniversary of Benigno Aquino Jr. On Ninoyís death anniversary we should be sending a message of hope and sounding a note of defiance against all adversities faced by the nation.

Instead we look around and canít find anyone to look up to and inspire us to defy the odds.

A mutiny of supposedly idealistic young officers longing for reforms has been exposed to be nothing but a misguided power grab. There was a surreal moment when the mutineers griped about corruption before those paragons of virtue at the Senate. These days there is no battle between good and evil that can ennoble the nation. In the battle between Mike and Ping and their surrogates, people are simply waiting for both camps to cancel each other out. Even the princes of the Church have lost their way, unable to provide guidance to their flock when they canít straighten out their own lives.

Amid all the despondency, former President Corazon Aquino, ever the optimist, provided a bright perspective to the commemoration yesterday. The nation has come a long way since her husbandís death, she pointed out.

And if you think about it, sheís right. Weíre free. Weíre still poor, but weíre free Ė free to grab all opportunities to improve our nation and our lives. We donít have to rely on inept and venal public officials to make this nation great. We have to rely only on ourselves.

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It keeps getting harder though to keep your hopes up in this country.

Just consider the scandals Ė from Jose Velarde to Jose Pidal to Jose Didal. Didal? Thatís Pinoy slang for swindle, and thatís one of the nicknames given to Sen. Panfilo Lacson by his enemies in connection with the case filed against him in California by businesswoman Blanquita Pelaez.

The nation has lost its fascination for the Oakwood mutineers and has shifted its attention to the story of Mike, Vicky and Jose Pidal. Were it not for the horrible traffic jams yesterday and the face of Ninoy in streamers fluttering from lampposts, we would also have forgotten his death anniversary.

Text jokes are a good gauge of public opinion in this country. The Philippine National Police was pilloried for the escape of Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi. The Oakwood mutineers were initially lionized, then heaped with insults for their post-putsch performance.

Now text jokes indicate that in the battle between Ping and Mike, people believe the worst stories about both of them. The perception is that itís the pot calling the kettle black. Thank you for the sordid entertainment, gentlemen; may both your tribes decrease.

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Unless the Jose Pidal controversy is resolved conclusively, any administration campaign against corruption will be stalled. Already some officials in the Bureau of Internal Revenue, perceived as one of the most corrupt government agencies, are complaining that they are being unfairly singled out for lifestyle checks when the first to be subjected to such checks should be First Gentleman Mike Arroyo.

Everyone knows that the First Gentleman is not a public official, so such suggestions actually refer to the President herself and her family. Will such a lifestyle check, however, cover the bank accounts that Lacson finds questionable, and which are being claimed by the enigmatic Victoria Toh and her relatives?

The President may also have trouble finding an agency that can convincingly clear her husband of wrongdoing. Tell the nation that the National Bureau of Investigation has verified that the "Jose Pidal" signature is not the First Gentlemanís, and people roll up their eyes. If Lacson files a formal complaint in court against the First Gentleman and the case is dismissed, the opposition will say that MalacaŮang influenced the ruling.

Pulse Asia is releasing a survey showing that the Presidentís rating surged shortly after the Oakwood mutiny. I wonder what her rating will be after the Jose Pidal scandal. If the President is planning to run for president in 2004, she may consider sending her husband into exile. Or does she want him to serve as her lightning rod?

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For this President, there should be particular urgency to put this issue to rest. If Lacson proves his case against Mike Arroyo and, in effect, against this administration, itís the end of EDSA Dos and people power. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came to power on the wings of the Jose Velarde corruption scandal, and the parallels with the Jose Pidal case are not lost on Filipinos.

On the sidelines there is the Swiss investigation of bank accounts in the name of the wife and friends of former justice chief Hernando Perez, one of the Presidentís political advisers.

Another key player at EDSA Dos, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, was brought down by the Oakwood mutiny. The putschists seem to have run out of gimmicks and tales of woe in their recent public appearances, but their charges of corruption against the defense and military top brass have stuck.

In seeing to it that her husband is cleared of the Jose Pidal scandal, President Arroyo will be salvaging not just her familyís honor but also the spirit of EDSA and people power. As a child of the revolution, she was the repository of the peopleís expectations Ė unusually high, it must be admitted Ė and she cannot afford to disappoint.

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We are a nation adrift in a sea of cynicism and despair. People are in a hurry to get out of the country, many of them for good.

For those of us who intend to stay put, however, we have no choice but to do our part to make our nation a better place to live. We canít sit around moping the whole day or staging a coup attempt every three months.

I wonít call this the Spirit of EDSA because 20 years after Ninoyís death, and 17 years after the original people power revolt, there are people who are sick of anything that has to do with EDSA 1, 2 or 3.

Iíll call it the survival spirit. President Arroyo said it before: Reform or perish. Itís preachy but itís reality. Either we all change for the better or die.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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