DECEMBER 11, 2006 (STAR) President Arroyo is facing growing criticism over the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, whose last-minute cancellation has raised questions about her handling of the event.

The government insisted a looming typhoon — and not planned street protests and reports from foreign governments about a pending terror attack — was the reason for pulling the plug on the high-profile event.

But after the storm passed far from the summit site on Saturday, politicians, opposition groups and analysts blasted Mrs. Arroyo’s decision.

"It’s a sign of a weak government," said Tomas Osmeña, mayor of the city of Cebu, where the ASEAN summit and a wider East Asia Summit, a meeting of regional leaders, were supposed to begin yesterday.

"We would not have canceled it and we live here," Osmeña said.

The abrupt cancellation, terror worries and other problems — X-ray security machines were covered in plastic bags to keep off rain dripping through the $10- million convention center — have given her critics more ammunition.

"It’s brand-new and the roof is leaking," said one official with the ASEAN business and investment summit held before the main events were canceled. "This will be remembered as the summit that failed."

Mrs. Arroyo had wanted to use the ASEAN summit and its associated meetings to showcase the progress the Philippines has made during her presidency.

But critics say her report card is not looking good.

Poverty is still widespread with more than 40 percent of the country’s 84 million people living on less than two dollars a day, and her administration is regularly cited as one of the worst in the region on human rights.

Just before the canceled summit, Japan said it was concerned about the killings of left-wing journalists that have been blamed on the government, and said improvements on rights would be a condition for further aid packages.

"Arroyo is not fooling anyone," said Lidy Nacpil, one of the organizers of a series of protests by leftist groups that had been planned for the summit.

"Not even the ASEAN leaders would have believed her alibi of a typhoon," she said.

The President had earlier been harshly criticized over the convention center site, where squatter camps were bulldozed to make way for the summit – whose theme, chosen by Mrs. Arroyo herself, was "a caring and sharing community."

Despite assurances from Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia that the building would be completed on time, workmen were still painting and decorating as local and foreign media moved in last week.

But the main source of public anger at Mrs. Arroyo was her decision last week to try to bypass the Senate as part of her unpopular plans to change the Constitution in what is seen as a way to solidify her power in office.

The proposal has triggered street protests which include those from the powerful Roman Catholic church, and other religious and business organizations, as well as broad civil society and social movements.

"Political noise in Manila over Arroyo’s plans to change the Constitution might have played a part in the decision to cancel the summit," said one delegate to the summit who asked not to be named.

Ben Diokno, a professor at the University of Philippines, said Mrs. Arroyo had been "scared of the mass action" that had been planned for the summit.

"Political survival for her comes first," he said. "The weather was a good excuse."

Unilateral decision

Officials have proposed Jan. 8-13 as the new dates for ASEAN and East Asia Summit, the top organizing official said yesterday.

Marciano Paynor, head of the summit organizing committee said Manila will be waiting for confirmation from the members that are expected to respond in a week’s time.

Under the tentative schedule, the foreign ministers will arrive on Jan. 8 and hold meetings on the same day and on the following day.

The leaders will arrive on Jan. 11 for the summits from Jan. 12 to 13.

ASEAN would meet with China, Japan and South Korea on Jan. 12, and the East Asia Summit will be held on the 13th.

According to Paynor, early indications were that "most of the ASEAN countries are willing" to accept those dates.

Paynor assured all the ASEAN Leaders will attend the Cebu summit in January.

"We’re awaiting confirmation next week either by telephone, email, fax or whatever means," he said.

He said the new dates for the summit have been agreed upon by senior officials.

Paynor said the East Asia Summit – composed of the 10 ASEAN members plus China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand – will also take place even in the absence of leaders who cannot attend the summit.

He said member countries may designate representatives to the rescheduled summit if leaders could not make it. "Leaders are leaders and their calendars are always full," he said.

Paynor was referring to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will be in Europe at the time the EAS will be held in Cebu. He also cited former US President Bill Clinton, who was not able to attend a Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit but was represented by Vice President Al Gore.

During the news conference, Paynor stressed the Philippines’ decision to postpone the summit due to the threat posed by typhoon "Seniang" was the right decision.

"The typhoon has not been as strong and devastating as ‘Reming’ or ‘Milenyo.’ We still feel that we made the right decision considering the safety of the delegates attending the ASEAN Summit," he said.

The two summits had been set for this week in Cebu but were postponed due to adverse weather conditions brought about by an approaching storm.

The announcement to postpone this week’s meet came a day after Britain, Australia, the United States and other nations warned against travel to Cebu, citing fears of a terrorist attack.

Foreign ministry officials privately said the gathering had been called off because of fears of an attack as well as worries about political protests against President Arroyo.

Some ASEAN members sent special planes to collect senior delegates after organizers on Friday called off the event because of the approaching typhoon.

Lower-level officials had to scramble for airline seats out of Cebu over the weekend. The city, however, suffered only steady rain, which leaked through the roof of the multi-million peso convention center.

At a rushed dinner session Friday night, ministers managed to sign four agreements to speed up economic integration. A business forum on the sidelines of the main meeting also went ahead.

"Where others see a storm, losses and leaks we see the opportunity to improve ourselves and toughen ourselves more," said Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia.

Diplomatic sources said the postponement of the summits was unilaterally decided by the Philippine government without consultation from the regional bloc’s members.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo took the responsibility of recommending the postponement of the Leaders’ Summit but emphasized he did not give the approval.

"I made the recommendation. Of course, I can’t make the final decision. It’s not a one-way street. We’ve to get the consensus of all," Romulo told a news conference last Saturday.

Sources said ASEAN members were not consulted by the Philippines as host country on the postponement, contrary to the pronouncements made by Romulo and Paynor.

"Only the Philippines decided. The ASEAN members were not consulted on the postponement. Sino ba ang matutuwa sa decision na ito?" one of the officials revealed.

Sources said the postponement was decided after most of the delegates, senior officials and economic ministers had started arriving.

They said that ASEAN members and the international community could have doubts on the country’s political stability since the postponement happened when a "political" storm hit the country, referring to the controversy sparked by the Arroyo administration’s initiatives to amend the Constitution.

"It’s the perception of our reliability and our commitment to push through a Summit and the second thing (is) we’ll send wrong signal to our political stability," another official remarked.

The host country’s decision came as a shock to ASEAN and Philippine officials. Some of the officials were even in the middle of drafting major documents on Friday to be signed by the leaders during the summit when the decision was announced.

They said the government’s decision to postpone the summit, which Paynor described as agonizing and most painful, was very "embarrassing" for Filipino diplomats and the host country.

Security officials, on the other hand, assured the safety of the summit for next month.

The Philippine National Police (PNP) maintained the postponement had nothing to do with terror threats or adverse travel advisories.

Deputy Director Isidro Lapeña, PNP deputy chief for operations, said the terror threats and advisories were not the primary reason for the postponement but rather the threat posed by typhoon Seniang.

"If the postponement was due to terror threat, we, in the PNP, were supposed to know about that," he said.

The summit’s assistant secretary general for security Leo Alvez said the 5,000 military and police personnel tasked to secure the summit will remain in Cebu.

"The security forces would remain intact, Some personnel though will be allowed to go on scheduled break to be with their families during Christmas Day or New Year," Alvez said.

Alvez said the lull would be an opportunity for security forces to improve their readiness and intelligence gathering.

Lapeña added the postponement would also necessitate the adjustments of security measures for the summit in January. AFP, Pia Lee-Brago, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Non Alquitran, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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