MANILA — Philippine President Corazon Aquino on Monday defended her five-month-old government against criticism that it is weak and internally divided, and she blamed the reluctance of Filipino and foreign businessmen to invest here for the nation's lingering instability.
Employing some of the strongest language she has used since coming to power in February, Aquino accused the business sector of abandoning her and the Philippine nation at a time when "we are at the foot of a steep mountain and the flood waters are rising."
"When I agreed to stand as candidate for the presidency, I did so with the assurance that I could count on all of you for your support," she told more than 1,000 corporate executives from the Philippines, the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia after a lunch sponsored by several chambers of commerce here. "That support has not been forthcoming.
"Let us get one thing clear. The support is not for me, but for your country, for yourselves and your posterity--unless you all want to be immigrants."
Businessmen here often complain that they cannot invest in new, job-producing enterprises because Aquino has failed to stabilize the country. But, as the business leaders listened in stone-faced silence, she accused the business community itself of responsibility for the continuing instability.
"You complain of the uncertainty," the president declared angrily. "I am telling you that it is uncertain because you are uncommitted."
Noting that the same group of executives formed a key component of her support during her challenge of deposed President Ferdinand E. Marcos in February's flawed presidential elections, Aquino declared: "I remember your wild applause when I vowed to remove the obstacles that prevented you from being the engine of our economy. I have removed the obstacles, but where is the engine?
"Five months ago, the excuse was Marcos. You gave me the impression that you did not want to put out your best silver because he might steal it, as he had done everything else. Well, he's gone. So where is it?"
Aquino also gave full support to her labor minister, Augusto Sanchez, who was loudly booed by the group when his name was announced before Aquino's speech. Sanchez's liberal labor policies have drawn a storm of protest from the business community, which has been troubled by a record number of strikes and labor actions that many corporate heads have cited for their reluctance to boost their investment in the Philippines.
Since Aquino took office Feb. 25 after a military-civilian coup ousted Marcos, there have been nearly 300 strikes affecting 118,000 employees--double last year's figures. But Aquino said big business should try to compromise rather than complain.
"The militancy of Philippine labor is the inevitable result of years of economic plunder and mismanagement, from which you all suffered, but from which labor suffered more," Aquino said.
Only a labor minister who is seen as sympathetic to labor's cause can help bring about needed compromises, she said, adding that "Minister Sanchez is the man for the job under today's prevailing circumstance."
In the speech, which her aides billed as a major policy address by the president at a time when the nation's economy and government are both seen as weakening, Aquino also justified the aggressive actions of the presidential commission that is investigating and seizing the wealth of Marcos, his relatives and cronies.
Filipino and foreign businessmen have accused the committee of Gestapo-like tactics in its efforts to trace and freeze Marcos' assets here and abroad, and they have charged that the committee's seizure of more than 200 large corporations has deterred new investment.
Past Support Recalled
Aquino reminded the businessmen that they "cheered wildly" when she pledged to hunt down the former president's hidden wealth during her campaign speech to the group Feb. 3, adding: "All I am going to ask is two questions: Do you want these thieves to get away with it? Second, why are you worried about (the presidential commission)? Only those who were involved in the robbery of our nation have reason to fear it."
As a concession, though, Aquino pledged that the commission, which also has frightened private businessmen by appointing its members to the boards of corporations it has seized, "will disengage from all sequestered enterprises at the earliest time possible."
The commission is just one issue on which Aquino's own Cabinet ministers have disagreed vehemently among themselves, but Aquino said such internal argument should not be interpreted as weakness, as charged by many critics.
"Where some see weakness and confusion, I see strength in a government that is able to listen to the widest range of views," she said. "As was dramatically proven by the fall of the Marcos regime, the strength of a government lies not in its ability to speak with a single voice . . . but in its ability to keep the trust and confidence of its people."