By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: June 30, 2010
MANILA — Benigno S. Aquino III was sworn in as the 15th president of the Philippines on Wednesday and promised sweeping reforms that he said would improve the quality of life for the country.
Mr. Aquino, 50, takes over a country that saw much political turbulence in the nine years under his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He reiterated a pledge to investigate allegations of corruption and abuses under her government and promised to listen to ordinary Filipinos and ensure that their welfare was protected.
“You are the reason why, today, the suffering of the people will end,” Mr. Aquino told a crowd estimated by police officials at half a million.
“Here, on this day, ends the reign of a government that is indifferent to the complaints of the people,” he said in his 21-minute speech. “There can be no reconciliation without justice.”
He then issued orders to Leila de Lima, the new justice secretary who is widely known in the Philippines for her independence in investigating human rights abuses.
“Secretary de Lima, you have your marching orders. Begin the process of providing true and complete justice for all,” Mr. Aquino said.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Aquino swore into office 26 cabinet secretaries, a mix of new faces and old hands, some of whom had served under Mrs. Arroyo but later quit over corruption allegations against her. Mrs. Arroyo also took an oath on Wednesday, as a congresswoman representing her home province of Pampanga, north of Manila.
Mr. Aquino, who rose to the presidency on an outpouring of good will after the death last August of his mother, former President Corazon C. Aquino, promised to live up to her legacy as well as that of his father, Benigno S. Aquino Jr. His father, a fierce opponent of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was assassinated in 1983, unleashing what became known as the People Power revolution.
Mr. Aquino said his first step as president would be to ensure honest leadership.
“I will do my best to become a good example,” he said.
He indicated that he would begin with small things, including banning his cars from using sirens or running red lights, a promise that brought loud applause. Filipino politicians are known for using sirens, offending ordinary citizens who view this as an abuse of power.
On its way from Malacanang, the presidential palace, to the Quirino Grandstand by Manila Bay, where the inauguration took place, Mr. Aquino’s convoy stopped at red lights.
Mr. Aquino also promised that the Philippines would be a “predictable and consistent place for investment.”
He inherits an economy whose annual growth rate over the past two decades has averaged 3.7 percent, lower than most economies in Southeast Asia. Poverty is widespread, with one in every four Filipinos living on less than the equivalent of a dollar a day, according to the World Bank.
“I hope our life will improve under Noynoy,” said Roselyn Romana, a 32-year-old mother of four, using the president’s nickname.
“I wish we could find better jobs,” she said as she sold fried bananas at the inaugural venue. She also said she hoped the new government would provide free education, pointing out that her eldest child would be in high school soon.
Mr. Aquino said generating more jobs would be a priority “so that Filipinos will not have to go abroad to find work.”
He ordered labor agencies to work more to protect the welfare of overseas Filipino workers. A 10th of the population works abroad, sending $15 billion back to the Philippines annually. Although these remittances help keep the economy afloat, labor migration has created social costs, among them the disintegration of many Filipino families.
The new president is also faced with the task of improving the country’s human rights record. One rights group, Karapatan, said it had documented more than 1,200 cases of extrajudicial killings of activists as well as the torture and abduction of hundreds more.
“He may not be able to solve all the cases, but he can put closure to some of the pending ones,” said Edita Burgos, the mother of an activist whose abduction and disappearance in 2007, believed to have been carried out by military agents, became one of the country’s most widely known rights cases.
“I hope he does it expeditiously so that we may be able to recover some of the victims,” Mrs. Burgos said.
In his inaugural speech, Mr. Aquino did not mention the issue of land distribution, a subject he is expected to tackle seriously even though his family has declined to distribute land from its vast sugar plantation, as required by the government’s agrarian-overhaul program.
Federico Laza, a farmer from that plantation, was among several dozen protesters near the gates of the presidential palace moments after Mr. Aquino entered it.
“I am here because I want to demand justice from him. Justice for the farmers and justice for my son who was killed in the massacre,” he said, referring to the 2004 shooting of striking workers at the plantation.
Mr. Laza called this, and other cases of rural unrest, “a test of Noynoy’s sincerity and political will.”
Soon after the protest started, a palace official arrived and told the protest leaders, including Mr. Laza, that they could go inside and possibly meet the new president.
Such gestures could go a long way to help Mr. Aquino govern more effectively, said Antonio La Viña, dean of government at Ateneo de Manila University.
“The challenge is how to use the enormous good will that Noynoy has to get the country behind him,” he said.