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Philippines' Arroyo learned toughness from Thatcher
( 2001-05-02 15:27 ) (7 )

Toughness is a trait Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo learned from watching Margaret Thatcher, Britain's "Iron Lady".

And it is the image of a tough, uncompromising woman with a sensible common touch which the four-foot-11-inch Arroyo is projecting as she confronts the biggest political crisis of her career.

"Take your best shot. Come here now, strike now, so I can crush you," Arroyo told an emissary of former leader Joseph Estrada before tens of thousands of his supporters stormed the gates of the presidential palace on Tuesday.

Later, dressed in a mauve floral suit and wearing pearl earrings, she warned coup plotters she would "beat them to a pulp".

A friend and college classmate of former US President Bill Clinton, the daughter of a Philippine president took power on January 20 at the peak of a popular uprising that ended Estrada's 31-month rule.

She fought back tears during her swearing-in and said she was taking office with a sense of awe at what people power could do.

But Thatcher remains a big influence.

Asked in a television interview what the most important lesson she learned from the former British prime minister, Arroyo said: "To be tough."

It is a pugnacity she has shown repeatedly since assuming the presidency.

When she turned 54 three weeks ago, and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippine offered to send her as a present the head of an American they had been holding hostage for months, Arroyo ordered an all-out war against them.

She offered the rebels two choices: surrender or the "peace of the graveyard".

Days later, soldiers rescued the American after a gunbattle.

A devout Roman Catholic, Arroyo said her rise to the presidency was divine providence.

When she met the presidential palace household for the first time after taking office, she took mass with them and said: "Pray for me that I will do what is right."

Married to a businessman and the mother of three children, Arroyo admits her stature was for a time a source of insecurity.

"I was always very self-conscious about it," she said in a television interview. "I overcame it only when I was elected to the Senate."

But her sense of humour shows through the tough exterior.

"He can take it," she told Reuters last year, referring to her husband, who lives in her shadow. "He will be Mr Thatcher."

Arroyo was Estrada's vice-president and secretary of social welfare until she quit her cabinet post in October last after corruption allegations engulfed the Estrada presidency.

She was the second woman in her country to rise to the top job, after Corazon Aquino who led a popular uprising in 1986 which toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and propelled her into the presidency.


A former economics professor, Arroyo is clear on where she wants the Philippines to go in what could be a 9-year tenure as president. Estrada had completed only 2-years of a mandatory six-year term and Arroyo would still be eligible to stand for re-election in the year 2004.

"By 2010, I would want...that many of the children of the farmers who are behind a carabao (water buffalo) are in front of a computer," she said.

"(I would hope) that our politics is a politics of programmes, people are voting for somebody not because he's a movie star or because she looks like a movie star," she said in a dig at Estrada, a former actor.

Arroyo and Clinton were classmates at Washington's Georgetown University in the 1960s.

"We were as close as classmates can be," she said. "I was 17 and he was 18...both coming from hometowns very far away from the big city."

Arroyo's father, the late Diosdado Macapagal, was president from 1961 to 1965.

Support from the Roman Catholic Church, a powerful institution in the 85 percent Catholic country, adds to her influence.

She says she has always lived under a principle she learned from her father:"Do what is right, do your best and God will take care of the rest."

With a doctorate in economics and a former senator, Arroyo has a flair for showmanship. In her campaign for the Senate in 1995, she captivated crowds by dancing the boogie on stage.

She is also a champion of women's rights.

"Women are on a leash...women are chained," she said. "Women are locked in dark boxes, never seen, never looked at, never heard and never listened too."

Arroyo was born on April 5, 1947 in Manila.

Unlike many women in the glare of power who look as if they have stepped right out of the pages of a fashion magazine, Arroyo likes simplicity.

"I am not physically vain," she said, when asked if she would prefer wearing designer clothes, "Those superficial things are far from my mind. We have so many other important things to attend to in life."



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