Although Philippines President Benigno Aquino has drawn public support for his “agenda for change,” a Protestant churches’ leader says reform will be hard to achieve if the leader of this southeast Asian nation of almost 100 million is to misread “the fundamental roots” of its “misery.”

“To identify corruption as the root of our misery is to misread the more fundamental issues of land, social justice, and sovereignty,” said the Rev. Rex Reyes, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, a Protestant church grouping whose international partners include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..

Reyes, who spoke during a meeting of church leaders on Aug. 5, was referring to President Aquino’s anti-corruption-centered reform agenda after the new Philippines president assumed office on June 30. Reyes said the country’s churches were calling for “systemic change to overhaul systemic and decadent structures in government.”

Reyes said if this did not happen, history would repeat itself: “With previous governments, which failed to dig into the fundamental issues, it did not take long before the people lost their hope.”

Reyes repeated the NCCP’s call for “genuine agrarian reform” in a country where those in power still hold vast agricultural lands. The Cojuangco clan, through which President Aquino traces his maternal lineage, for example, has not settled a more-than-30-year demand by landless tenants to distribute lands the clan owns.

Reyes said once landless tenants are given land and supported by the government, so they can engage in small businesses, they can be freed from hunger and poverty.

Such actions, he said drawing on family income and expenditure figures from a National Statistics Office survey in 2006, may yet help 27.6 million poor and 12.2 million hungry Filipinos.

Reyes also noted that agrarian reform is part of the “comprehensive agreement on socio-economic rights” agreement to “address the roots of conflict” between the government and the leftist National Democratic Front movement. The agreement stalled under former President Gloria Arroyo, and the Front’s armed group, the New Peoples Army, has continued to wage a guerrilla war against the government.

Reyes urged Aquino to revive the peace process by taking stock of the basic issues.

To show that the justice system works under Aquino, Reyes also called on the new government to prosecute Arroyo for alleged multi-million-peso irregularities and other scandals under her administration, and to bring to justice perpetrators of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations.

He likewise urged Aquino to review the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, which, Reyes says, continues to threaten the Philippines’ sovereignty.