MANILA,  October 6, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva - Literally going the extra mile to press her unity and reconciliation bid with the so-called EDSA III forces, President Arroyo flew all the way to Pagsanjan, Laguna yesterday to join the 41st birthday celebration of Mayor E.R. Ejercito, a nephew of deposed President Joseph Estrada.

Mrs. Arroyo took a chopper flight from the MalacaŮang grounds to Pagsanjan that enabled her to return on time for her scheduled meetings with her Cabinet and the board of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye was quick to defend Mrs. Arroyo from accusations that the chopper flight violated her administrationís austerity program.

To conserve fuel for the cash-strapped government, the austerity program barred officials from the use of government vehicles for non-official business trips.

"One of the programs of the President is national unity and reconciliation. Itís a key program of the government and that activity this morning is tied up to that," he said.

Bunye said the use of the helicopter also enabled Mrs. Arroyo to conserve her "precious" time as chief executive and "attend to as many tasks and projects as possible."

While in Pagsanjan, Mrs. Arroyo led the ribbon-cutting and unveiling of the newly completed P29.3-million San Juan public market constructed through a loan from the Philippine National Bank contracted by Ejercito in behalf of the municipal government.

"Congratulations and happy birthday to you, Mayor Ejercito. Sana sa iyo magsimula ang paghihilom ng EDSA I, II and III para sa pagkakaisa ng ating bansa (Hereís wishing that you shall be the fount of healing for the wounds of EDSA I, II and III)," Mrs. Arroyo told her host.

The occasion was not altogether festive. Mrs. Arroyo also condoled with Ejercito, whose fifth child died after being born prematurely last Monday.

Interviewed by The STAR, Ejercito said he was grateful to the President for taking the time and effort to visit their town on his birthday.

Ejercito expressed his readiness to take on the challenge for him to play a key role in the unity and reconciliation of the EDSA I, II and III forces.

"Iíd like to do that, but my other relatives think otherwise. Iíve been trying my best to patch things up. Our nation has so many problems and we really need unity," he said.

But Ejercito clarified that he remains an active member of the opposition under the coalition of Estradaís Partido ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) and the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) in Laguna.

"Iím still with Estradaís team. But there is a saying that my loyalty to the party ends when my loyalty to the country begins," he said.

Ejercito is the son of the late character actor George Estregan Sr., younger brother of Estrada, whose real name is Jose Marcelo Ejercito.

A former actor like his father and uncle, Ejercito won a second term in office as the mayor of this famous tourism town where the Ejercitos trace their roots.

Mrs. Arroyo lost miserably in Laguna during the last May 10 elections despite having poured much of her campaign time and resources into the province. Opposition presidential bet actor Fernando Poe Jr. won by a wide margin over her in the province.

But the President joined Ejercito yesterday in a special thanksgiving Mass at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish Church, famous for a religious apparition during the Spanish times.

"Tapos na ang pulitika (The politics is over.) We have to work for the common good of our people. We have a newly elected president. We must all help to make our country a better place to live in," he said.

Ejercito thanked Mrs. Arroyo for the assistance of the national government to his town, currently classified as a fourth class municipality, to graduate as a second class municipality and get a bigger slice of the internal revenue allotment.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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