TIME: Have you accomplished what you set out to do?
Arroyo: I inherited a complex nation with complex problems, both domestically and internationally. And I came in realizing that there is no silver bullet. It's not a sprint: it's a marathon. Nonetheless, a lot of things have been done. We are strengthening our revenue institutions. We are working on macro-economic fundamentals. Our interest rates are at their lowest in a generation. Our peso is stable. And we have been doing very important reform legislation that's been waiting for decades. For instance, the power sector reform law, the money laundering law, the special purpose vehicle law; these are reforms that have been waiting for many, many years and have finally come into being.
TIME: Is there much more you want to achieve in the time you've allowed yourself? You don't seem to have enough time to do it.
Arroyo: Any man or woman who thinks that he should be a superman or superwoman who should do everything himself will end up like a dictator who wants to be there for 20 years. It's very important to realize, as my father said, "That every President is not expected to build the whole edifice, but to add a fine stone to that edifice."
...Rather than say, am I satisfied? Am I not satisfied? What I would say is yes, we should be satisfied at the progress but not at the pace. For instance, another great reform that has been waiting for a long time is the modernization of our electoral processes. It's a shame that Filipinos are being sought everywhere because of our IT expertise, our call-center expertise, our business processing operations and backroom expertiseand yet we still do our elections by manual counting. So somebody had to exercise the political will to finally make the money available... and now we will finally have modern computerized elections in 2004 so that everybody's vote will be counted, and votes will not be counted that are not really there.
TIME: Will you run again in 2004?
Arroyo: I made my declaration [not to run] in December because I don't want to be distracted by politics. I have not talked politics since then. I don't intend to start talking politics in this interview or any other interview. I believe that my being freed from the burden of politics has enabled me to do these reforms in the BIR and Customs, to do the reforms on computerized elections, to finally have closure on major cases pending in the courts on good governance. All of these could not have been done if I kept thinking about, "will I run in 2004 or not?"
...I have been able to do unpopular things. Making peace with the MILF is not totally popular. But we have been doggedly pushing the peace process forward, to make sure that we show that the better alternative for the rebels is the peace process rather than a military solution. And I am feeling very gratified that peace is now within our grasp. These are the things that occupy my time: instituting economic reforms, booting out corruption and actively promoting the Philippine economy and [its] workers. You know, I am not only the president of 80 million Filipinos. I am also like the CEO of a global corporation of the 8 million Filipinos who live and work in 140 countries all over the world. They make our country proud, and they are a good basis for us to engage the world as partners rather than under the old feudal relationship of colonizer and colonized.
TIME: In light of the escape of terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, it looks more and more like the Philippines is one of the weakest links in the war on terror. Considering the MILF's history and the fact that they have probably trained international terrorists in their camps, is it contradictory to prosecute the war on terror at the same as to try to make peace?
Arroyo: No. It's not contradictory, because part of what we've always been telling them is that if they want to go to the peace talks, they have to prove their sincerity, renounce terrorism and help us interdict the terrorists. They have renounced terrorism and they are helping us find al-Ghozi. In fact, the imminence of the peace talks blunts the complication of his escape. Because now he has nowhere to run and hide. He is not going to be coddled and protected. He's going to be spurned or even turned in.
TIME: At this point, are you confident that there are no more camps where Jemaah Islamiah terrorists can be trained in Mindanao?
Arroyo: If there are camps, the peace talks do not in any way prevent us from hitting those camps. If there are camps, they are JI camps. And there is nothing in the terms of the proposed peace talks or the cease-fire that says that we will not go against terrorism, that we will not enforce the law. And our talks via backchannels with the MILF have confirmed thisthat they renounce terrorism too and that they will help us. They are looking for peace as we are looking for peace.
TIME: The MILF leadership may be fully committed to peace, but there may be elements in the MILF that will remain cooperative with international terrorism. How do you crack down on certain elements without complicating the peace process?
Arroyo: That is part of what the talks are all about. It is very clear that terrorism is not within what will be allowed. We will continue to enforce the law. These are part of the new conditions that I worked on to make the peace process more successful this timethat we can differentiate between terrorism and political aspirations.
TIME: That has been crucial to negotiations from the beginning, right? Recognizing political aspirations without recognizing terrorism.
Arroyo: When I first came in, we were already talking with the MILF. It got complicated after 9/11; [our] stance on terrorism vis-a-vis peace talks with the MILF had to be made very clear. But I think that that clarifying this in deed and in word is what has also helped move the peace process forward.