Feb 12, 2011

A Reading of the Estrada Administration - One Year After

by Miriam Coronel Ferrer
Third World Studies Center, University of the Philippines

What we are witnessing in the Philippines today is the regularization of politics. Since the ratification of the 1987 Constitution, there have been to two successive presidential elections (1992 and 1998) and several more congressional and local government elections. Leadership or succession is defined by the electoral process, with candidates running under a party of convenience. Indeed, the business of government is on track - not only in performing functions but in helping friends and dipping one's fingers in government coffers.

There are old faces but there are also new and younger ones. Others are both old and new - for example, the group of young, well-groomed members of the House of representatives dubbed by the media as the "Spice Boys." They are children of traditional politicians or political clans who somehow have displayed fortitude on some issues (e.g., they joined the 20 August 1999 rally in Makati against corruption, cronyism and charter change). On the other hand, a number of the politicians who built their prestige in opposing martial law have bowed out. This year witnessed the death of old political figures: Marcelo Fernan, Geny Lopez, and Raul Manglapus. What better image of regular politics as that manifested as the natural cycle of life and death?

Insurgencies that put the Philippines in the conflict map in the last three decades have also succumbed to war fatigue -- a boxing match of talking and fighting pushed to the sidelines but still there, nonetheless. In any case, today is not a situation ripe for insurrection or more radical change as evident in the failed coup attempts, the failed scenarios of revolutionary upheavals, and failed election protests such as that of Miriam Defensor Santiago over Ramos who won only with a small 20% of votes. What we have is a relatively stabilized order (especially if compared to Southeast Asian neighbors) punctuated, over the last 13 years, by:

·         occasional massive mobilizations pitting the mobilizing capacity of the state against that of society: in 1991 (Cory administration) - on the US's lease renewal of Philippine military bases; in 1997 (Ramos administration) - on proposed charter changes; and, again, in 1999 (Erap) - on Marcos cronies, press freedom, and charter change. 
·         natural and man-made disasters of grave proportion: the 1989 earthquake in northern Luzon and Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 (Cory); the interplay of drought and massive rain; boats sinking and airplanes crashing. 
·         violent crimes that shock the nation's sensibilities (e.g., Chiong sisters case, Lopez scion murder by minors).

The issues recur but there are always shifting of alignments, not to mention the changes in signature outfits -- from Cory in yellow, to the tobacco-chewing Ramos to Erap with the wristband.

All three presidents however have their respective claims to fame, or platforms of governance: in the case of Aquino, the restoration of formal democratic institutions and rights; in the case of Ramos, economic growth encapsulated in the slogan "Philippines 2000." The Estrada administration, on the other hand, vows to help the poor ride the wave of economic development through an ambitious synthesis of being pro-poor and pro-market.

Policies that warmed the hearts of many to Erap

In the early months of President "Erap" Estrada's administration, he assumed some positions and brought forward several policies that somehow supported his claim to institute reforms. These include:

·         The announcement in his first State of the Nation Address in 1998 that he will abolish the "pork barrel" (government funds at the disposal of members of congress) as a means to bridge the fiscal deficit of up to P100 billion. The "pork barrel" comes in the name of the Countrywide Development Fund and the Congressional Additions and Insertions whereby members of Congress are able to directly access funds from the national budget for their pet projects. Opposition to this government largesse in the hands of Representatives was widespread because of the avenues for corruption and patronage that it provides. Thus, its abolition elicited a wide range of support from Church, POs and NGOs. It was argued that Estrada could do this at the risk of provoking Congress to veto his own legislative agenda because of the popularity he enjoys. 

·         President Estrada also earned brownie points from human rights groups for his pro-Anwar statement and publicized meetings with Anwar's wife and representative, Azizah in the Philippines and in Malaysia during the APEC meeting, to the consternation of his Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon who had to deal with an angry Malaysian government. 

·         His image was also strengthened by his appointment of people with integrity, including known leaders of the NGO movement, to government posts such as Hon. Hilario Davide as Chief Justice; Horacio "Boy" Morales as Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary; Karina David as chief of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council tasked with undertaking socialized housing for the poor (David resigned in October 1999); and Edicio de la Torre as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. 

·         His support for the passage of the Clean Air Act; statement that he will push for the repeal of the Mining Act,in a meeting with Minewatch, and promise that he will order an investigation into the permits issued by the National Commission on IPs to mining companies. (Today, 24 July 1999) 

·         His economic managers somehow managed the period of financial crisis, with statistics eventually showing encouraging signs of recovery (e.g., continuing low inflation and interest rates). 

In his 1999 SONA, President Estrada pledged that every single centavo of the coconut levy (a fund managed by close Marcos associates during martial rule, sourced from coconut farmers' contributions) will go back to the farmers.

The President's casualness also somewhat endeared him to the general public. He ate with his hands with camped out farmers in front of the DAR. His preferred outfit are light jackets and cotton shirts, aside from the "barong Tagalog." He does his own driving of vehicles during visitation tours and punctuates his speeches with catchy statements using conversational Filipino, or puns.

In the early part of his term, Edicio de la Torre, in a talk at the Institute of Popular Democracy, sized him up as one whose pro-poor stance stood out as a personal commitment, and not just as an obligation of the sate; and as one who has legitimized being pro-poor and made it a crucial issue. (Conjuncture, )

Contrary actions that have cast more and more doubts on Erap and his administration

Marcos, Corruption and Cronyism

Other steps taken by President Estrada have, however, tainted his administration very early on. His first controversial act was to allow the burial of the remains of deposed president Ferdinand Marcos at the Heroes' Cemetery. Estrada's friendship and loyalty to the Marcoses is well known. He credits much of his success as longtime mayor of San Juan to the support he got from the former First Couple. He was among the loyal friends who attended Marcos's inaugural in Malacanang in February 1986, several days before the family was booted out of the Palace. Because of the uproar over the hero's burial, the plan was scrapped. But the Marcos tag did not subside, especially after several failed deals for the disposition of the Marcos's wealth, preceded by friendly visits of the Marcos scions, now House Representative, Imee, and Ilocos governor, Bongbong.

Several former close associates of Ferdinand Marcos has also been resurrected. Including no less than his executive secretary Ronaldo Zamora and Danding. Cojuangco has been able to retrieve his 23 percent share in San Miguel Corporation, although it is argued the way for this return was paved during the Ramos administration (Rocamora, 1998). But what irked many was when Estrada lauded him as the father of agrarian reform. Cojuangco converted his lands in Negros into a corporation co-owned by farmworkers where he, nonetheless, enjoys control.

President Estrada's association with dubious characters has also besmirched his integrity. Among these friends is Mark Jimenez, Estrada's former presidential adviser on Latin American affairs until his dismissal in July 1999. Jimenez is facing extradition charges from the US.

Some appointments made by Estrada have generated protests from various constituencies. Controversial appointees include Department of Envrionment and Natural Resources Secretary Antonio Cerilles whose only credential for the job is to have whipped up votes for Erap in his part of Mindanao, and Justice Secretary Serafin Cuevas, reportedly a concession to Iglesia ni Kristo.

Senate investigations of the P3M textbook scam involving an Estrada relative; the diversion of a P200m Motorola contract for hand-held radios to a firm allegedly run by a high government official; and the controversial P31.6B sale of PCIBank's controlling interest to Equitable Bank using SSS and GSIS funds also hound the presidency.

It is not a secret that many of Erap's friends have been making a killing by virtue of their close ties with the presidency. Among those cited by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism as favored pals is presidential adviser William Gachalian (Wellex Industries and Waterfront Philippines/plastics tycoon), one of more than 60 people appointed as such. Another is Dante Tan whpo got the exclusive government franchise to run an on-line bingo business in the country. (I Magazine, ) The controversial tobacco and airline magnate Lucio Tan had not only been winning his tax cases, with government assistance he was able to wiggle a suspension of the collective bargaining agreement with the trade union of Philippine Airlines for 10 years. For not closing down the beleagured airline, called him a hero. Gatchalian and the two Tans exemplify today's prime "booty capitalists." Booty capitalism has been defined as a variant of rent capitalism whereby a "social group with an economic base outside the state is plundering the state for particularistic interests" or "extracts privilege from a largely incoherent bureaucracy." (Hutchcroft 1994:220, 230)

Critical observers of the economic scene have also attacked the protection given to monopolies such as the Philippine Airlines including limiting the flights of competing foreign airlines; a presidential order that placed all petrochemical product imports at the discretion of petrochemical producers and users; an administrative order protecting present providers of port services as purportedly a mean to modernize the industry; and a reconcentration in the telecommunications industry, among others. (De Dios, 1999a)

Consequently, the word "cronyism" has gained a revival, along with the cynicism and disgust that the word elicits. A survey of top executives of Makati Business Club in July shows their growing worries about this cronyism and influence peddling. (cited in Tiglao,1999) There are worries that cronyism will feast on the sale or privatization of state firms (e.g., National Power Corp) Filipino economist Emmanuel de Dios (1999a) lamented that, "Takeover, not production, has become the name of the game.... The remarkable fact is that all these have occurred in just one year."

Creeping authoritarianism

In just one in year in power, Estrada has managed to raise the specter of martial rule. Statements about allowing warrantless arrest, introducing a National ID system, and about about banning strikes have not sat well among human rights-conscious sectors of society. His filing of a libel suit against Manila Times for a photo caption that insulted him (he later withdrew the charge after the publisher, Robina Gokongwei, issued an apology) and his alleged injunction on movie producers and government corporations to pull out their ads in Inquirer have revived press freedom issues. Another controversy erupted surrounding the subsequent buyout of Manila Times to interests that allegedly have ties with Erap. The manipulation of the business aspects of media to tighten the reins on critical newspapers was viewed by some as an indirect assault on the press.

In contrast to former President Ramos's more serious engagement in talks with rebel groups, Estrada showed a glaring disinterest in seeing through the peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front, and a "Rambo"-like mentality in dealing with the communist insurgency and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In January 1999, fighting broke out once more in MILF areas, breaking a ceasefire that more or less had been in place since November 1997. The creation of Maglanco (Maguindanao-Lanao del Sur-Cotabato City) Development Council (Administrative Order Npo. 48) to address MILF concerns without realizing implications on GRP-MILF talks, the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development and other existing bodies and processes also belies a disjointed approach to Mindanao peace. Meanwhile, when talks with the National Democratic Front broke in July 1999, and the immunity from arrest of NDF negotiators and consultants expired, the military arrested political activist Vicente Ladlad. Because of the absence of an arrest warrant, Ladlad was subsequently ordered released by the court.

Many sectors from civil society also fear that Estrada's proposed charter changes which his administration is now whipping up into a campaign called Constitutional Correction and Development (CONCORD) will open the gates to self-serving amendments, especially in the hands of the present Congress. Notably, some pro-charter change Representatives have identified the following changes that they wish introduced: extension of term from three to four years, restoration of the two-party system, and removal of the party-list system, along with the synchronization of elections, team voting for top two posts in national and local elections, regional election of senators, federalism, parliamentarism. Estrada, on the other hand, said charter changes will be limited to economic reforms, including allowing foreigners 100 percent ownership of lands and corporations.

Walden Bello decribed the creeping authoritarianism under the present dispensation in relation to Estrada's popularity: "Erap is a 'democrat' in the sense that he knows he has the numbers to push through what he wants, without the need for guns. But he has never been known to be a partisan of liberal reforms. ... (T)o many of those prominently associated with him, liberal freedoms are simply fine words ... to be rewritten to suit ambitions and dreams of permanent domination. ..."

Eroding Pro-poor Credentials

Despite being "para sa masa" or pro-poor as the touted lynchpin of the Erap presidency, the administration took time to spin off its anti-poverty program the shape of which has been set by the "Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act" passed in December 1997. The Act called for the formation of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) as the lead agency, acting as a coordinating and advisory body for the President's poverty eradication program (Republic Act 8425). It is chaired by the President, and members include the heads of 10 departments, 3 agencies, the leagues of government units (league of provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays), and representatives of 14 basic sectors (including urban poor, children, victims of disasters and calamities, and IPs).

Original NAPC head Orly Sacay was replaced after six months for slow action. It tok three versions before the Act's Implementing Rules and Regulations was finalized and the NAPC was convened only in late April 1999. AS a result, some of its funds were allocated to other departments.

The selection process in appointing civil society representatives in the NAPC was marred by contention. NGOs and POs who took the lead in the drafting of the Social Reform Agenda have been displaced by other groups who supported Erap's election campaign. The former complain that members were handpicked by President "in violation of processes upholding the principles of constituency, transparency and principled engagement.." (NPC 1999) Apparently, members of the NAPC were directly appointed by Erap following an administration guideline authorizing the president to do so. This, according to some NGO groups contravened an earlier promise from NAPC officials to respect the results of sectoral consultations and assemblies in the selection. Consequently, some basic sectors were allegedly disenfranchised. They demanded meaningful participation of groups in existing multi-sectoral consultative bodies like the Philippine Council for Sustainable Development and the framework based on sustainable development enshrined in PA21 adopted. [NPC et al]

"Lingap para sa Mahirap" Program provides the Estrada administration's schema for NAPC's intervention. Lingap will target the poorest 100 families. DILG Memorandum Circular 99-54 (31 March 1999) authorizes the governors and mayors to identify depressed barangays/municipalities in their territories after which the barangay head (in consultation with the barangay assembly) identifies the poorest families. Lingap began August 23, 1999 and Pampanga was chosen as first pilot area.

The program includes "Enterprise Development for the Poor." A cluster of selected families group themselves into a cooperative-like enterprise bound my mutual guarantees for the loans they take out.

The "Food, Nutrition and Medical Assistance Component" of Lingap includes a health insurance package (known as "Medicare para sa masa") tied up with PhilHealth and medical assistance fund. In the latter, P500,000 will be allotted to each House representative and P1 million to each senator for their identified government hospital. For the former, the Department of Health (DOH) will be issuing a "Health Passport" to Lingap beneficiaries, with the DOH paying an annual premium of P1,188 per family to PhilHealth. The passport has the seal of the Office of the President in front, and of the DOH at the back cover. Beneficiaries can literally use this as a passport to avail of services and assistance in government hospitals.

Through the P2.5 billion Lingap program, the government hopes to meet its target of poverty reduction of 2% per year. But an examination of the program will show that Erap's "revolution against poverty" is hardly one that can bring about far-reaching change but more of a circular or orbital motion. Why?

Its approach is welfarist:The idea of delivering government services to a select segment is only an extension on a larger scale of the Presidential Action Center which handed out promises of employment, money and goods to poor who lined up in Malacanang. The practice was stopped after two people died in a stampede. It is no different too from the support given to on-line bingo since earnings will go to the anti-poverty program, or as Erap cajoled, "If you play this game, you will be helping the poor and you may even become a millionaire." AS the National Peace Conference pointed out, supporting gambling as a way to rob the rich is a poor version of social reform. 
It is easily given to politization and reinforces patronage: The key role given to government officials and legislators in identifying beneficiaries builds up their role as benefactors; obviously, they will use this power to promote their political careers. As noted, these funds could easily end up as pork-barrel funds. The selection scheme, notably, provides very little role for the NGOs and POs. 
It is unsound and impractical: The family, said Erap in his speech during the first meeting of the NAPC Government Sector (12 January 1999), was chosen instead of the barangay because "for every Filipino, the family is important. Life and the value of peaceful and meaningful development begins in the family." The harking back to family and family values obviously has a sentimentalist appeal, but operationalizing the family, particularly the poorest family, as the lead agent in the fight against poverty would be difficult. The fact that these families may be dispersed and therefore be disparate units could make integration of services and actual economic activity difficult. Also, as De Dios (1999b) has pointed out: for one, the very poor are lacking in human and social capital needed in entrepreneurial activity; for another, it assumes that all families in the cluster want to do the same activity. Moreover, the "100 families" scheme (in 78 provinces and 84 cities for a total of 16,100) will never meet the target to reduce poverty incidence from 32 percent in December 1997 to 20 percent by the end of Erap's term. To meet this target, it should achieve a multiplier effect of 1:2,000 (population increase factored in). 
The overall scheme is not integrative and remains bureaucratic. De Dios (1999b) sums it up best: The scheme lacks a comprehensive framework since the administration's six-year socio-economic development plan has yet to be released. As a consequence, the tendency is to compartmentalize and bureaucratize rather than integrate the program among the different agencies with only the NAPC as the coordinating agency. The NAPC is thus concentrating on its own programs to be financed by the Poverty Alleviation Fund.

In all, Erap para sa Mahirap Program with its five components (food security, modernization of agriculture and fisheries within the context of sustainable development, low cost mass housing, protection of the poor against crime and violence, and active participation of the LGUs in implementation) is a narrower set of reforms compared to the original Social Reform Agenda, with asset reform, notably agrarian reform and recognition of ancestral domain, not mentioned. Also, the emphasis on LGUs emasculates the active role of civil society organizations. (Ibid.)

Other developments that impede pro-poor reform include the slashing of funds for the DAR in the 1999 budget; the Supreme Court case questioning the constitutionality of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act enacted in 1998 as part of the Social Reform Agenda,the issuing of permits for mining explorations over large tracts of ancestral domain, and the absence of funds and continuing confusion within the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples [NPC et al.];

The failure to reform is further made evident in poor revenue collection. The BIR has 36 pending tax cases evasion worth P70.7 billion, excluding the P26.5 billion tax case against Lucio Tan. (Manila Standard, 30 August 1999) The amount is more than enough to bridge the P68.4 billion budget deficit this year. Tax credit scams also deprive the government of sources of funds. Sixteen finance officials are now being investigated for alleged fraudulent issuance of tax credit certificates totaling P245 million.

Like all past administrations, Erap's suffers from too much politization of the function of governance. Not that the need for comprehensive solutions is not appreciated. As noted by Angeles (1999): "The government is already aware that the causes of poverty are interlinked and must be tackled in a coordinated way. However, it could not move beyond conventional and sectoral approaches because of poor bureaucratic coordination, heavy politicization of government service delivery, and poor support for micro-level participatory development initiatives. "


Jokes about poor English and as college dropout, and other foibles have been used to insult him but somehow they also humanize him. His actor background playing heroic masa roles is widely used by himself and his supporters to explain his empathy with the poor. Detractors, on the other hand, attribute his barumbado character to the same. Many loving wives who seem to have worked out a peaceful co-existence provide fodder for his macho image.

Indeed, Estrada's background as a politico does not fit the usual type: landed elite, lawyers. His popularity described as a revenge of the masses tired of "so brilliant and yet so corrupt" politicians. His loyalty to friends despite their shady background finds confluence in Filipino "pakikisama" (comradeship). Thus somehow he has managed, after oneyear in power, to rise above his critics although a survey by Pulse Asia reported a decline in popularity rating by 13 percent to 61 percent for the period May to September 1999. Even Cory, in attacking cronyism, castigates the friends but not the person whose friendship they enjoy. Said Cory in her sppech at the 20 August rally in Makati, "The issue is trust. Not trust in the President but in the company he keeps."

Erap is definitely not another Marcos. This simplification into a set Marcos model will only lead us astray in our analysis. For example, Erap's consolidation of his supporters under the reconstituted Lapian ng Masang Pilipino (LAMP) to prepare for the 2001 senatorial election has been criticized as another ala Marcos tactic - the formation of the ruling party, Kilusan Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement). But this attempt at party consolidation is a logical strategy for ensuring continuity of the brood and policies. Both Cory and Ramos attempted to do this with the Lakas-NUCD. They failed the moment their annointed (de Venecia) lost the presidential race. Loyalty can only be expected as long as one is in power.

As for the corruption and cronyism, it is argued that "Reports of Estrada administration corruption do not, so far, indicate anything more than the usual for Filipino rent seeking." (Rocamora 199_)

So if Erap is not another Marcos, what is he? Like all past Philippine presidents, he is the chief mediator in the bargaining table called the Philippine state where various socio-political actors haggle. Unlike Marcos, Erap is malleable. Faced with tough competition over spoils and policy-making from all sectors, he will blunder and blunder, listening to one and then to another, no longer able to trust his own instincts but ultimately falling back on them. Erap's heart might be in the right place but his instincts were honed by the same patrimonial politics responsible for his rise in the ranks. His own helplessness about the lack of state revenues, state indebtedness, corruption and the unscrupulous use of his name, will push him to every now and then to show some muscle beyond the borders of the law, only to be forced into retreat by opposing forces.

The issues (poverty, greedy and corrupt politicians from top to bottom rungs of the government bureaucracy, underdeveloped economy and lack of resources, unequal distribution of wealth and access to opportunities) can really be addressed head on only by a strong-willed, reformist administration able to sidestep vested interests and whip its intrumentalities in line, regulate business practices, and weed out misfits in government service.

In this quest, the plurality of forces in present-day Philippine society can be both boon and bane. The liberalization of the economy has allowed for the entry of more varied enterprises, each wanting to enter the opened, supposedly leveled fields. The ex-"ins," the new "outs," and new "ins" have ensured what Hutchcroft has noted a certain social mobility, a "steady creation of nouveaux riches " whose "anarchy of particularistic demands" continuously choke the state apparatus. (Hutchcroft 1994:217,222)

Even in the NGO community, the plurality lends itself to a volatile dynamics. New NGO players have displaced those who were able to get access and exercise influence in the past two administrations. "This has intensified conflict with the community in particular in the agrarian reform and anti-poverty arenas, within the DAR and the NAPC." (Rocamora 1999)

Bargaining has thus become more complicated and multi-sided. Ultimately, those in power will favor certain groups. But it is becoming harder to simply do so. Because government is constantly under the scrutiny of various reform-minded sectors in society, including a very intrusive and opinionated mass media and ubiquitous NGOs, each bargain has to be explained and justified. In several instances, bargains have been rescinded due to public outcry, manifesting that political imperatives can prevail over crony satisfaction.

Bargaining has also been set within the parameters of law and a constitutional set-up that allow the legislative, judicial and executive branches to check each other, even as the presidency does remain the most powerful political institution in the country. Their conflicting political interests prod them to expose the dirt of the other (not exactly the noblest of intention!).

Moreover, the increasing demands of an economy dependent on international aid and foreign investments require a modicum of economic rationality. In addition, it has been noted that "private enterprises can be both rent-seekers and entrepreneurs at the same time" (Shinggo Mikama, 1997:69) and that rent-seeking may also register significant production growth (Hutchcroft, 1994:219). The liberalization of the economy and the transfer of power from Cory to Ramos to Erap have broadened, if not leveled, the playing field. The multiple actors could provide the state with more room for maneuvers from the more traditionally entrenched economic elites, and for imposing regularization of processes by pitting one set against another or distributing the shares; as well as produce some measure of economic progress.

The push-and-pull (of the state) can allow for either a forward march or a downward spiral. Or it can essentially retain the status quo, a psuedo-industrializing pseudo- democracy, with variations only in leadership personalities and styles.

The contest continues. Meanwhile, sights of abject poverty abound everywhere. One picture stands out: a line-up of a dozen men from one urban poor barangay in Manila facing the camera, showing the scars from their operation that left them with only one kidney because they had sold their other kidney to agents for P70,000 to P100,000 each. Soon the country can earn a new sobriquet of "kidney-suppliers."

*Spice boys - Well-groomed young members of the House of Representatives in their early 30s, namely, Mike Defensor, Rolando Andaya, Jr., Robert Ace Barbers, Miguel Zubiri, Ricky Sandoval 


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Bello, Walden. 1999. "Yellow and Black (With Apologies to Stendhal)," (Perspectives Column), Business World, 16 August.
Coronel, Sheila S. 1998. "The Pare Principle," i Investigative Reporting Magazine, No. 4 (October-December).
De Dios, Emmanuel. 1999a. "A Crisis Without Consequence, Recovery Without Reform," revised paper delivered before Kilosbayan, 9 July 1999.
De Dios, Emmanuel. 1999b. "Can He Do It?, Assessing the Estrada Administration's Anti-Poverty Programme," Paper presented at the annual Philippine Political Science Association conference, 23 July 1999, Balay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines
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Tiglao, Rigoberto. 1999. "Estrada and Co.," Far Eastern Economic Review, 12 August. 

European Solidarity Conference on the Philippines
Supporting Peoples Development Initiatives
10-12 September 1999
Reading International Solidarity Centre, Reading, UK

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