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NOVEMBER 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 45 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Sending Up Estrada
Think People Power in cyberspace. On the Philippines' cheeky websites, the press is getting laughed out of office
By RAISSA ROBLES

The opposition forces arrayed against Philippine President Joseph "Erap" Estrada have potent weapons not available to the People Power movement of 1985-86. Then opponents had to rely on telephone and fax to get their message across. But at the turn of the 21st century, the Internet is revolutionizing, well, revolutions, and bashing the greatest performance of this actor-turned-politician's life — the presidency — has unleashed Filipino creativity and ingenuity and opened a new political frontier.

Anti-Estrada activists have created dozens if not hundreds of sites where people can register everything from their names on virtual petitions, to their outrage at the president's latest misstep, to the latest joke — often about the president's mental capacity. They can even demonstrate online. During Saturday's huge demonstration in Quezon City, suburban Manila, Filipinos across the globe participated in real time by holding their own simultaneous "electronic rally" in a chat room, bringing "cyber-placards."

That rally was hosted by pldt.com, an Internet site set up in 1998 by Geronimo Kaimo to protest against the fees charged by the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company. But by 1999, pldt.com had turned its attention to Estrada, specializing in political satire. Kaimo thinks he is making an impression on the president. While the online demonstration went off without a hitch, during a similar event a week earlier, hackers managed to shut down the three host servers. But Kaimo had anticipated the attempt. "We had two back-up servers," he says. The chat room was back in business in ten minutes.

At elagda.com, participants can sign an "Erap resign" electronic petition by typing in their e-mail addresses. Site creator Vicente Romano says the goal is to send one million signatures or however many have been gathered by November 15. The petition will then be e-mailed back to participants who will be asked to e-mail, fax, phone or text by cellphone the document on a specific day to the targeted government office or official. Response to the call has been so enthusiastic that on the second day when 18,000 had registered, the traffic caused the server to break down.

Romano has guaranteed confidentiality and promised not to use any of the addresses for commercial purposes. He is president and CEO of Philippine Synergized Systems, Inc., which organizes I.T.-related events, but says he does not worry about political retaliation because he believes "the whole economy is collapsing and we'll go down with it." After 27 years in the I.T. field, he wanted to use his expertise "to find a better way to harness the Internet politically."

It is unlikely that electronic petitions or virtual rallies will cause Estrada to resign, but he just might get laughed out of office. The president has provided plenty of grist for the Filipino sense of humor, which has long been well developed when it comes to lampooning the foibles of politicians. In this case, there seems to be plenty of material for jokesters to play with. pldt.com invites visitors to play a game called "Stop the Bad Man From Crossing the Street or He'll Eat Your Children," accessed by clicking on Estrada's face. The screen shows the president waddling across a street; clicking on the figure makes it tumble off the screen. But that's not the end of it: another Erap waddles in, and still another and another. There is no way one can win this game.

The anti-Erap website (Anti-erap) asks visitors to compare and contrast ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Estrada. One participant wrote: "Marcos and Erap are both men who have proven something. Marcos proved that you can be very rich if you become president. Erap proved that we don't need a president."

The Foolitics section of a site called Philippine Update.com (Philippineupdate.com) uses some very basic cartoon animation to show the president in dialogues with an aide: Spokesman — "Sir, why did you refuse America's offer to help in the hostage crisis?" Estrada — "I'm sure we can bungle the job on our own." The site also portrays Estrada as a fat cat with a sledgehammer going up against a clever little mouse (the media), which is similarly equipped: Estrada — "Stop misquoting me." Media Mouse — "But you said it in your speech." Estrada — "Yes, but I didn't mean it."

The eponymous site erapjokes.com has comic putdowns like: "Why did Erap shoot his wife when he bought a house? Because the contract reads: 'Execute all 3 copies together with your wife...'" It has not been updated recently — an indication that the situation has become too serious to be defused by humor?

Never in the Philippines. Most of the other political sites continue to poke fun at the president. Even though he spent his professional life in the media spotlight, Estrada has shown he has a very thin skin when it comes to such satire. But in the Internet age there is next to nothing he can do to stop it — short of resigning, that is.

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