Tens of thousands protest vs ‘pork barrel’

Posted on August 27, 2013

TENS OF THOUSANDS of Filipinos angry at officials’ corruption marched through the center of Manila and other cities to demand the abolition of a misused fund for legislators’ pet projects, the biggest protest aimed at President Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s government.

Protesters, responding to a call to wear white, ignored intermittent rain to converge on Manila’s largest park to express indignation at the misuse of “pork barrel” funds or the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

The money was frequently channelled to projects to impress voters, though many have turned out to be nonexistent.

Despite the economy’s strong fundamentals -- growth in the first quarter was the fastest in the region -- corruption remains a chronic problem hindering sustained economic development.

Police said around 60,000 protesters thronged Luneta Park, some wearing pig masks and headgear.

Others carried banners saying “Scrap pork barrel!” or “No to pork!”

Protesters -- church and civic groups, health workers, students, and entire families -- ignored Mr. Aquino’s bid last week to head off the protests by announcing that PDAF would be replaced by another scheme with tougher rules.

Marchers called for complete abolition of the system.

“Just transfer the funds to department agencies delivering service,” said Jun Bernandino, a quadraplegic who joined the march.

“They are lawmakers, not service providers, give the agencies enough budget to deliver the service the people need.”

Organizers hoping for a million-strong turnout nationwide set up boards to try to collect signatures to press the government to scrap the scheme. About 1,500 police were deployed, but no incidents were reported.

Mr. Aquino, who won the presidency in 2010 on a good governance and anti-corruption platform, consistently enjoys popularity ratings of more than 70%, a feat not seen by previous presidents, including his mother Corazon, who toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 “people power” revolt.

Mr. Aquino has served half of his single six-year term.

Civic groups issued the call for a protest after a state audit showed some lawmakers had funnelled 10 billion in total to nonexistent projects and groups under the previous president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now charged with plunder and electoral fraud.

Mr. Aquino’s proposal would require projects under the fund to be set down in the budget, unlike in previous years where the money was placed under a single budget entry consisting of about 1.1% of available funds.

The President also promised to prosecute those found to have misused the funds.

But while few called for the ouster of Aquino, whose personal ratings remain high, there was widespread fury with politicians.

Retired university professor Teodoro Jurado, 80, said: “We are all angry at all the stealing of the politicians. We are telling them that time is up.”

Calls for protest began circulating on Facebook and Twitter about two weeks ago after a series of newspaper articles, about a mammoth scam involving legislators’ PDAF.

At the center of the controversy is businesswoman Janet LimNapoles the newspapers reported to have allegedly connived with legislators to syphon off some 10 billion from the fund.

She has since gone into hiding after being charged with the illegal detention of a whistle-blower.

Middle-aged physician Paz del Rosario, one of the protesters, said she attended “to be part of a historic event”.

“Hopefully this will be the start of a bigger thing. All walks of life are here. This is from social media, the Internet, tweets and texts. There is no leader here,” she said.

The influential Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Luis Tagle, called on the crowd to be “honorable” and to work together for the less fortunate.

“Let us look upon the oppressed and the poor as our true brothers. Let us listen to the heartbeat of our nation and the voice of God,” he said.

Church leaders have previously played crucial roles in calling up support for protests in the largely Catholic Philippines such as the 1986 revolt that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the 2001 uprising that overthrew the graft-tainted president Joseph Estrada.

In the 1986 revolt, radio stations had helped summon the populace while in the 2001 uprising, it was cellphone SMS or “text” messages that brought many protesters out.

The resulting massive rallies eventually forced out Messrs. Marcos and Estrada, respectively.

Officials’ misuse of funds has been long embedded and practically accepted in the Philippine political system.

Mr. Aquino had previously expanded the PDAF under his 2014 budget so that each senator will receive 200 million, while each member of the House of Representatives gets 70 million for their “pork barrel.”

Organizers said that the rally drew as many as 400,000 people. Police were more conservative.

“It was most probably 60,000 to 70,000 during the rally. At most, I would say about 100,000,” said national police spokesman Reuben Sindac.

In the Visayas, over 6,000 netizens, members of religious and militant groups, and even local government officials marched on the streets of key cities yesterday to demand the scrapping of the PDAF of legislators.

The biggest turnout was in Cebu, where a crowd of over 3,000 in white T-shirts peacefully marched from Fuente Osmeña to Plaza Independencia. It was not the usual protest rally since party affiliations and banners, burning of effigies and rabble-rousing speeches by personalities were not allowed.

One of the organizers through social networking site Facebook, Rowena A. Burden, asked those who wished to go up the stage and make a speech to stick to the pork barrel issue.

Alvin Santillana, Cebu City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (CCDRRM) officer, said around 200 police officers were deployed in the plaza to provide security.

Cebu City Mayor Michael L. Rama, Vice-Mayor Edgardo Labella and Councilor Nendell Hanz Abella joined the protest march, but remained on the sidelines instead of appearing on stage.

Mr. Rama said he was there as a taxpayer and wished to respect the wishes of the organizers.

“I spoke with the organizers last week and told them that I will not appear on stage. This is not a time for politicking and grandstanding. I am here as a taxpayer,” Mr. Rama told BusinessWorld.

“It has always been my position that congressmen and senators should always focus on legislation, not picking and implementing projects without coordinating and concurring with local government units (LGU),” he added.

Mr. Labella said the abolition of the pork barrel funds could also lead to electoral reforms.

“Scrapping the PDAF can lead to better electoral reforms. That way, money can no longer be used to buy votes through anomalous projects,” he said.

Mr. Abella, for his part, said the Cebu City Council is scrutinizing NGOs.

“We will look into anomalous NGOs with no beneficiaries. It is about time that the city and the people stood together against corruption,” he said.

Militant groups such as Bayan Muna and Anakbayan also joined the protest march. Holding a cardboard cutout of a pig’s face with the words “Abolish” printed on its forehead, protesters threw paper mache birds in the style of popular game Angry Birds.

Joeddin Olayvar, Anakbayan vice-president for Central Visayas, told BusinessWorld that they are united with other groups against the PDAF, but that people need to be more critical in holding responsible parties accountable.

“The PDAF is just a symptom. We call on society to be more critical and hold their leaders accountable. We cannot solve the problem by just focusing on the PDAF issue,” he said in a separate interview.

Fr. Ernesto O. Javier, SJ, former president of SHS-Ateneo de Cebu, shared the same sentiments, stating that the rally is just the first step of a greater movement.

“Only the powerful are heard and big business interests are attended to. It is not enough that we end the pork barrel but to also be critical of the way government is being run,” he told BusinessWorld.

“We have to introduce a new culture for our leaders. They are our public servants. They must represent the interests of the people. The only way we can put an end to this is to change the way government operates. But above all, people must also change themselves,” he added.

In Bacolod City in Negros Occidental, about 2,000 people gathered in front of the Negros Occidental Provincial Capitol building yesterday for the “Tipon Tipon sa Lagoon” to join the nationwide protest against the misuse of pork barrel funds.

Negrense artists expressed their dismay over the misuse of PDAF by painting a mosaic showing a piggy bank and the Philippine flag surrounded with men wearing Barong Tagalog to symbolize the corrupt practices of the legislators.

In a statement, the Peace Advocates of Negros also condemned the Aquino administration for its failure to safeguard the interests of the people against corruption.

The activity was also capped with the signing of a manifesto calling for the immediate investigation, prosecution, conviction and punishment of all those who misused and abused the pork barrel funds fiasco. The Negrosanons Kontra Korapsyon, which spearheaded the manifesto signing, hoped to gather at least 5,000 signatures from around the province. As of yesterday, they had 2,000 signatures.

In San Carlos City, also in Negros Occidental, around 30 young men and women calling themselves Loacbianz held a silent protest in front of Center Mall.

In Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental, about 500 people gathered along Rizal Boulevard to make the same demand. The protesters included members of the Kapisanan ng mga Broadkaster ng Pilipinas-Negros Oriental chapter, students, members of the academe, local government officials, civil servants, nongovernment and people’s organizations, church-based groups, and civic clubs.

In Iloilo City, organizers said an estimated 700 people joined the rally at the provincial capitol grounds while the Iloilo City police estimated the crowd at 500.

The rally was organized by a group of professionals who expressed support for the million people march against pork barrel in Manila.

In Tacloban City, about 300 people gathered at the RTR Plaza to support the nationwide call for scrapping of pork barrel funds.

There was no program but participants repeatedly shouted “Abolish PDAF!” before they dispersed.

In Catbalogan City, the Samar Runners Club led a fun run starting 5 a.m. around the city to express their support for calls to scrap pork barrel funds.

Nearly 100 professionals gathered in a gymnasium in Naval, Biliran yesterday morning calling for PDAF abolition.

Thousands from various sectors of society mobilized in cities all over Mindanao in solidarity with Metro Manila’s “Million People March” on Monday.

This city’s police office estimated the crowd that gathered at this city’s Rizal Park at “over a thousand” but event leaders said the crowd was more like “over 2,000 people” in size.

The presidential discretionary funds should also be scrapped, Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J., President of the Ateneo de Davao University, told the crowd. “The (President) himself is not exempt from our demands,” he said.

This was echoed by Elenito R. Escalante, a teacher at the Daniel R. Aguinaldo National High School and a member of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers.

Davao media reported that civil society groups in other cities, such as Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, General Santos, and Butuan also mobilized for activities on Monday asking for the abolition of the pork barrel system.

In Cagayan de Oro City, about a hundred runners launched an anti-pork barrel run at 5 a.m. Sources noted a march would be mounted around 2 p.m. in solidarity with other groups in various parts of the country.

A candle-lighting program was also organized in Iligan City late Monday afternoon for the same cause. The activity is spearheaded by the local chapters of the League of Filipino Students and College Editors’ Guild.

Meanwhile, Zamboanga business chamber president Pedro Rufo N. Soliven, issued a statement asking members of the group to speak out against the pork barrel scam. “We want the guilty to be prosecuted and convicted with the full force of the law,” he said.

Mr. Soliven said support to the Million People March is a solid stand for the present and future generations. On Monday, a crowd estimated by organizers and the police as reaching 2,000 joined the local version of the anti-pork barrel march. -- Reuters, AFP and the BusinessWorld Staff