MANILA, September 23, 2005
(STAR) By Aurea Calica - ‘No more chasing bully around schoolyard’  - The gloves are coming off.

Frustrated by the opposition’s continued rejection of her reconciliation overtures, President Arroyo has become combative, declaring yesterday that her administration will now take a hard-line stance against anti-government protesters who abuse civil liberties.

At the same time, she stepped up her bid to amend the Constitution, saying the "degenerated political system" only showed the need to change the country’s form of government.

"I’m tired of chasing the bully around the schoolyard. Those who will heed my call for unity are welcome. But to those who will not and continue to sow trouble, we will enforce the rule of law," Mrs. Arroyo told a regional assembly of barangay officials at the Clark Special Economic Zone in San Fernando City in Pampanga.

"Let us move, let us look for jobs for our constituents. That is our primary responsibility. Let us work together to fulfill this duty."

She said continued protests seeking her ouster over the dismissal of the opposition-initiated impeachment complaint against her are hampering her administration’s efforts to revitalize the frail economy.

"Instead of allowing the continuous mudslinging, help me ensure peace and order is maintained and create three million businesses and three million jobs. Help me develop two million hectares of agricultural lands to create two million more jobs. Let’s do that," she told the barangay officials.

Mrs. Arroyo made a pitch for changing the country’s form of government from the current US-style presidential system to a federal, parliamentary setup.

"The current troubles and misunderstandings only prove that the current system needs to be changed. I want the important discussion on this to begin in the barangays. More than anyone, you will be the ones to benefit from the change in the political system," the Chief Executive said.

In a stronger-worded statement issued by the Palace yesterday, Mrs. Arroyo warned that the government "will not tolerate activities that hurt the people and that undermine the rule of law."

She singled out last Wednesday’s anti-Arroyo protest rally in Makati City’s central business district, which has become a favorite rally venue because its mayor, Jejomar Binay, is allied with the opposition.

"The funny thing is, he’s giving the permit to rally to himself because he is also one of those spearheading these protest actions," Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez remarked.

Mrs. Arroyo said businesses there have been complaining about the "inconvenience and disruption of the businesses, resulting in economic losses (amounting to) millions of pesos."

"We cannot let this continue. Our policy of maximum tolerance has been abused, these rights have become licentious to the detriment of peace and order and the welfare of the greater majority," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"We should bear in mind that liberty is not a license. Liberty is the freedom to do right and never wrong," she said.

While the government respects people’s right to seek redress of grievances and peaceful assembly, Mrs. Arroyo pointed out that civil rights should also be exercised responsibly without disturbing peace and order.

"These rights to peaceful assembly and free expression, while guaranteed by the Constitution, are still subject to certain restrictions in conformity with law and which are necessary in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or the protection of rights and freedoms of others," the President said.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita warned on Wednesday that authorities will not hesitate to arrest those inciting to sedition.

Some protest leaders already have warrants of arrest against them and authorities are just biding their time, Ermita added. He did not give names.

"As a matter of fact, we know that there are people who have knowledge and are participating in all these who have warrants of arrest. So I don’t think the government or the authorities can be faulted if those warrants of arrest will be served," he said.

After defeating an impeachment challenge, Mrs. Arroyo told the gathering of barangay officials that she was determined to move on and step up efforts to get the sluggish economy going despite the opposition protests.

"We are already on the second phase of our economic reforms. What is this second phase of reform? It demands double the energy, double the discipline, double the result to succeed at the time when we are held back by the constraints in the global environment and we are held back by such a degenerated political system," she said in her pitch for Charter change to institute a new form of government.

"Let us work together in reforming the political system. Let us put more power, more capacity, more will and resources in the hands of the people," Mrs. Arroyo said.

She vowed to crack down on corruption and improve social services, especially health care and education, with fresh revenues generated from new taxes.

"Let us work together for national development. Let us work together for the rule of law to prevail," she exhorted barangay officials.

In her call for a shift to a parliamentary form of government, Mrs. Arroyo argued that such a move would fuse the legislative and executive branches of government and help stop political gridlock caused by quarrels between the president and the legislature.

But questions over the government’s contract with American lobby firm Venable LLP, meant to give the Charter change drive a boost, might threaten the renewed attempt to amend the Constitution.

Last Wednesday, National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales was ordered detained by the Senate for refusing to answer questions about the contract in an inquiry. — With Ding Cervantes

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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