REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– Call it another Thrilla in Manila, but the Philippines has been enraptured by a nationally televised political soap opera playing out between two titans of power -- a he-said, she-said involving two testy presidents.
Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has sought to leave the country for urgent medical care. But Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, trying to prevent yet another tarnished former leader from fleeing the nation, has issued some stern advice to his predecessor:
Bring the doctors here, because you're not getting on that plane.
Arroyo has threatened to defy a travel ban set by the nation’s Supreme Court to get a crucial bone biopsy she says is unavailable in her homeland. Arroyo and her husband, Jose Miguel, are under investigation for electoral sabotage for allegedly tampering with the results of 2007 congressional polls. She is also accused of illegally using taxpayer funds for her 2004 campaign.
She stepped down from the presidency last year and was then elected to Congress.
Arroyo has gone public in her campaign to seek foreign medical attention, insisting that her rights have been violated because she hasn’t been officially charged with any crime. This week, the president’s office fought back.
Aquino, who makes no secret of his suspicions that Arroyo's administration was guilty of corruption during its nine years in power, told reporters at a nationally televised news conference this week that allowing her to leave the country was an unacceptable risk.
Instead, he offered to fly in foreign doctors for any treatment at government expense.
His concern that Arroyo might never return because of corruption complaints is not unfounded: In February 1986, in the face of mass demonstrations against his rule, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his entourage were airlifted from the presidential palace in Manila by U.S. helicopters.
Not on his watch, insisted a president who has made fighting corruption a cornerstone of his campaign.
"We also wish for the immediate recovery of Mrs. Arroyo, but let me ask you -- if we allow an accused with a pending non-bailable case to travel to countries without extradition treaties with the Philippines to seek medical care for an ailment that can be addressed sufficiently in our own hospitals, is justice prevailing?"
Then he added, in a plea to the Filipino people: "In case she chooses not to return, how can we compel her to answer the charges?"
Arroyo said through her spokeswoman that she will not back down.
“We will pursue our Supreme Court petition because if we agree to the offer, it's like saying it's OK for them to curtail her right to choose where to be treated," the spokeswoman said.
An angry Jose Miguel Arroyo said his wife’s life could hang in the balance and called Aquino's administration "a bunch of schoolyard bullies."
-- John M. Glionna
Photo: The office of Congresswoman Gloria Arroyo released this photo of the former president wearing head and shoulder braces. Credit: EPA