Philippine President Arroyo
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GWEN IFILL: Madam President, welcome.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: The Philippines and the United States have been described as very staunch allies, certainly you were in the war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq. Could you describe the nature of that relationship?
PRESIDENT GLORIA MACAPAGAL ARROYO, The Philippines: You know, the Philippines and the U.S. have had a strong relationship with each other for a very long time now. We have a shared history. We have shared values, democracy, freedom, and we have been in all the wars together in modern history, the World War, Second World War, Cold War, Vietnam, Korea, now the war on terrorism.
The war on terrorism has made our relationship even closer. Even before 9/11, the Philippines was already fighting terrorism in southwestern Philippines. That’s why when 9/11 happened, we could understand the pain. And the Philippines was one of the first countries to joint the international coalition against terrorism.
And in a way it also benefited the Philippines, because what used to be a lonely fight now became an international fight, and we had friends to help us in our own fight. We had the U.S. To help us. We had our neighbors to help us, because of the recognition that terrorism is not one country’s fight alone.
Of course, each country, especially [in] Asia, must be more responsible now for its own political and economic security. Nonetheless, terrorism knows no borders and therefore we should have regional and international partnerships to fight terrorism, and this is the context in which the relations between the U.S. and the Philippines have become stronger today.
GWEN IFILL: Last week, of course, there were bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco which were attributed, or at least linked in first analysis to al-Qaida. Do you think that the back of al-Qaida or of other terrorist organizations which have been operating in the Philippines, for instance, do you think the back has been broken?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: We take great interest in what happened in Riyadh because Filipinos died in that bombing incident.
GWEN IFILL: Of course.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: And what it tells us is that while there has been progress in the war on terror, the war isn’t over yet, and therefore, we still need to continue to do our international, regional and bilateral partnerships to fight terrorism.
And we have to realize that if we’re going to win this war, we have to have a comprehensive approach, and that’s why I also appreciate the partnership of the U.S. in helping us alleviate poverty in Mindanao, where the terrorists are being recruited, because while we don’t say that poverty is the cause of terrorism, what we say is that poverty feeds terrorism, as terrorism feeds poverty because it takes away resources.
GWEN IFILL: That’s what you meant yesterday at the White House when you said they were twin evils.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Yes, yes.
GWEN IFILL: So what can the United States do to address both of those evils, not just one? For instance, the United States has been involved in attempting at least, and then withdrawing, to sending troops to help you fight terrorists in the southern Philippines. How does that address your other needs, your economic needs, your needs to alleviate poverty?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Well, the United States has also been helping us very much in alleviating poverty, especially in Mindanao, which as I said, where the breeding grounds of terrorism are. And I believe that with this kind of comprehensive approach, fighting terrorism directly through military assistance, and fighting poverty that makes terrorism operate more successfully, then we will be able to defeat this threat once and for all.
GWEN IFILL: Shortly before you left to come to the United States, you authorized strikes against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Yes. Yes.
GWEN IFILL: The president specifically mentioned that suspected terrorist group yesterday in his remarks. Where do you think — what progress do you think you have made in trying to stem that wave of terror?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Well, what I said before I left was that I was ordering the military to launch aerial and artillery attacks on embedded terrorist cells, whatever is the proper noun that they’re carrying. There were specific terrorist attacks that happened in the Philippines in the last few weeks, Koronadal, Shohorna, Igoia, one small city and two small towns, but nonetheless, nonetheless, innocent people were killed, and we could directly trace where the assailants came from, so I have ordered the military to run after them to take punitive action against them.
GWEN IFILL: And where stands the action against Abu Sayyaf?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: The Abu Sayyaf just lost their last two hostages, because they were able to escape, and it just shows that the Abu Sayyaf is almost a spent force. And I think that it is time that we concentrate now on making sure that the Abu Sayyaf doesn’t grow again, doesn’t recruit again, and recruitment comes from the poor people of Solor and Basilan, who feel great economic exclusion.
So it is important to address the ancient economic exclusion, poverty, socio-economic grievances. That is the final solution, at least for the Philippines, to the problem of terrorism. But we have to tie that up with our international efforts because while it — while poverty aggravates terrorism, there is still the international connection and we have to break down and break apart terrorist cells wherever they are and also cut off the flow of funds between them.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about something else the president mentioned yesterday. He said he was elevating the Philippines to the level of non-NATO ally. What is the significance of this? Does that put you in the position, for instance, to be able to pursue contracts for Iraqi rebuilding?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: The contracts for Iraqi rebuilding are commercial contracts. I think being in the coalition of the willing puts us in the radar screen, but we also have to compete with other countries that are in the coalition of the willing, but the Philippines is a country that has produced world class skilled workers that we have seen all over the world. They are probably our best asset, and of course, we intend to extend their services to the reconstruction of Iraq. We would like to be able to help Iraq, with the use of our skilled workforce, rebuild its economy.
So the meaning of being a major non-NATO ally is not with regard to that, but rather with regard to having first preference in defense assistance. It’s a similar relationship as what the United States has with countries like Israel and Egypt, and Australia.
GWEN IFILL: You have decided not to run for reelection, last I checked, in 2004. Why not?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: I feel that if I am freed of the burden of politics, then I can do more and I can take more unpopular decisions. I can have as my guidance for decision whatever is right, not whatever is popular. And I would like to be able to spend the rest of my tenure building a legacy of improving our economy so that we can create more jobs for our people, healing the deep divisions in society that the Philippines is still suffering, because we have undergone major turmoil, political turmoil since the year 2000, and also working to modernize our electoral system so that we will become more politically mature in the 21st century.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk politics for just a moment. In the time that has passed since the war in Iraq, your popularity has not exactly taken off on wings. It’s sunk somewhat.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: It sunk before the war in Iraq when I took what was a very unpopular decision of — unpopular with the Filipinos, of joining the coalition of the willing, but it has recovered now.
GWEN IFILL: It has recovered now.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Yes.
GWEN IFILL: So you won’t rethink your decision to run?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: You know, I want to — I want to do my, my governance freed of the burden of politics, so I don’t want to talk politics at all.
GWEN IFILL: When you leave here to go back home, what will you be able to say that you achieved in your trip here to visit the United States — because obviously it wasn’t just your meeting with the president, but members of your Cabinet meeting with members of his Cabinet and business leaders as well?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: I would say that we were able to define the relationship within our two countries toward something that is suitable for the 21st century, a modern relationship, revitalized and maturing. We look at the world and analyze the world, and see what we can do that is in line of our mutual interest and also in line with, you know, what the whole world needs, because this is a world where we really have to all work together.
GWEN IFILL: Does the potential for terrorism, something you can’t predict, something you can’t really prepare for in any specific way, does that threaten to derail those kinds of hopes and dreams you have?
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Well, we’ve been, I think, quite successful in addressing terrorism in the Philippines. We’ve been quite experienced in that. We have more experience than many other countries, and so I believe that especially with the attacks that we’re doing now, with the punitive action we’re doing now on the terrorist lairs, I think that, that great progress has been done, but as long as there’s terrorism in the world, the work is not yet over because terrorism knows no boundaries and can strike anywhere, any time, and that’s the reason why we must have constant cooperation with one another.
Exchange of information is crucial, and of course, making sure that terrorism does not spread like a contagion, because it will spread like a contagion if we do not address the breeding grounds of terrorism, at least as far as all these Southeast Asia is concerned, which is just the great poverty that exists in many areas of our country and our region.
GWEN IFILL: Madam President, thank you so much for joining us.
PRESIDENT ARROYO: Thank you.