In June this year, Benigno Aquino was voted as the new president of the Philippines. Son of President Cory Aquino (who brought an end to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986), Mr Aquino spoke at his inauguration of his parents wish to bring ‘democracy, peace and prosperity’ to the Philippines. Winning an orderly and peaceful election in June with over 15 million votes (nearly 6 million ahead of his closest rival), Mr Aquino has already demonstrated his country operates a successful democracy. However, bringing ‘peace and prosperity’ to the Philippines is no small task.
Sensitive to “the suffering of the people”, the new president has promised to tackle corruption and raise standards of living in a country where a third of the population manages on less than one dollar per day. In October, Mr Aquino’s government confirmed that cash handouts totalling around half a billion dollars will be distributed next year to over 2 million poor families. Each will receive up to 32 dollars every month through the existing ‘conditional cash transfer’ programme, where poor families are given a regular payment for keeping their children in school and visiting healthcare centres. This extra funding is part of Mr Aquino’s efforts to cut the poverty level in the Philippines to 12.5 per cent by 2015, though his Social Welfare Secretary, Corazon Soliman, concedes the country will struggle to meet this poverty reduction target.
If cutting poverty isn’t a hard enough challenge, Mr Aquino has also set his sights on finally bringing peace to the Philippines. Since the late 1960s, successive governments have fought left-wing and Islamist rebellions in different parts of the country. These ongoing conflicts have killed more than 160,000 people and displaced over 2 million, with around 100,000 still uprooted by the fighting.
This week, the President ordered the release of 43 health workers accused of being communist rebels, following a move earlier this month where the government restarted talks with leaders from the National Democratic Front (NDF), an umbrella group of leftwing, Maoist and Communist Party organisations.
Following a successful two days of meetings, formal peace negotiations will start in Norway from February. And today, Mr Aquino has announced perhaps his boldest initiative yet, by unveiling his plan to tackle the Muslim insurgency on the island of Mindanao. Instead of increasing troop levels and ordering a fresh crackdown on Islamist militants, Mr Aquino plans to shift combat operations to civilian projects such as building roads, schools and clinics. Speaking at an armed forces ceremony, the President said that troops in the area will double as teachers and health workers and will be deployed to deliver social and medical services and rebuild rural infrastructure. “If we can stop poverty, then we can stop the war and the shooting,” declared Mr Aquino. By putting his faith in poverty-reduction measures as a way to eliminate the conditions which breed rebellion, Mr Aquino is bringing new hope that in the future his country can achieve the “peace and prosperity” his parents envisioned.