Aquino lifts his 'heavy cross' of cleaning up corruption

BENIGNO Aquino III, sworn in yesterday as the Philippines' 15th president, promised to prosecute the corrupt and banish poverty as he urged Filipinos to help him in a job he likened to a biblical burden.

The son of two Philippine democracy icons, Mr Aquino, 50, succeeds Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose stormy nine-rule was rocked by four failed coup attempts and allegations of corruption, vote-rigging and human rights abuses, which she denied.

Some 500,000 attended Mr Aquino's swearing-in at a seaside park in the capital, Manila, police said. Mr Aquino aimed his speech at the many Filipinos exasperated at the country's enduring problems, that also include a long-running Muslim separatist insurgency on southern Mindanao island and Maoist-led guerrillas.

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"This day marks the end of a leadership that has long been insensitive to the suffering of the people … and this is the beginning of my own Calvary," he said, referring to Christ's crucifixion. "But if many of us bear the cross, we will lift it, no matter how heavy."

Mr Aquino, called "Noynoy" by his supporters, was a low-key legislator until he swept to a landslide win in 10 May elections, buoyed by his illustrious family name, his anti-corruption platform and Filipinos' longing for moral and political renewal.

"He signifies change and hope," said businesswoman Marivic Roy, who joined the crowds at the inauguration, accompanied by her husband and two sons. "That's why people gravitate towards him. We feel there is hope for this country."

Mr Aquino's parents were revered for their opposition to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was removed by a 1986 "people power" revolt — a defining moment in the Philippines' political history. Marcos, who had ruled for two decades, was succeeded by Mr Aquino's popular mother, Corazon Aquino. She died last year, prompting a mass outpouring of sympathy that turned into a ground-swell of support for her son.

Diplomats from more than 80 countries and two former Philippine presidents — Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada — attended yesterday's ceremonies.

The nationally televised event resembled a grand concert, with celebrity singers and an orchestra belting out patriotic music and folk songs. Yellow confetti — the signature colour of Mrs Aquino in the people power uprising — rained from two helicopters.

In his speech, Mrs Aquino pledged to provide jobs, health care, schools and more infrastructure to help farmers and businessmen. He also touched on common problems that highlight the divide between elite families and the third of the 90 million population who live on 80p a day.

Mr Aquino drew wide applause when he said he had also suffered like ordinary Filipinos stuck in heavy traffic as siren-blaring convoys carrying powerful people breezed by.

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"No more wang-wang," he said, using the local term for blaring sirens.

He promised to fight corruption, particularly in the bureaus of customs and internal revenue, and pledged a new era of good governance, reforms and a bureaucracy sensitive to the needs of ordinary citizens.

Mr Aquino said he would immediately form an independent "Truth Commission" to investigate corruption allegations against Ms Arroyo and other scandals during her presidency.

"I can forgive those who did me wrong, but I have no right to forgive those who abused our people," said Mr Aquino, who with his mother had previously joined street protests calling on Ms Arroyo to resign.

In his first order as president, Mr Aquino dismissed about 4,000 officials who are non- career officers to stop the practice of using presidential appointments as rewards.

In a brief but awkward moment, Mr Aquino and Ms Arroyo shared a traditional limousine ride from the presidential palace to his oath-taking.

Ms Arroyo was given military honours then left to take her oath as a congresswoman representing her northern Pampanga home province, a seat she won in the May general elections.

Many in the crowd loudly booed Ms Arroyo as she was driven away, some chanting "Go home!"