Filipinos say no to pork (barrel politics)

(WNV/Apa Agbayani)

Filipino actress and political activist Mae Paner dresses up as popular character Juana Change at Luneta Park in support of the Million People March. (WNV/Apa Agbayani)

In the Philippines, the fourth Monday of August is National Heroes’ Day, to celebrate the contributions of prominent Filipinos throughout the nation’s history. This year, August 26 doubled as the day for the Million People March, a large public demonstration against corruption. Organized and publicized over social media, the movement drew tens of thousands of Filipinos to protests across the country. The largest gathering in Manila’s Luneta Park and drew between 80,000 to 100,000 participants.

The Philippines is no stranger to corruption. In fact, Filipinos have literally written a dictionary on the subject. In 2005 then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo admitted to a phone call with the election commissioner during the 2004 elections, which led to widespread belief that the vote had been rigged. Last year, the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Renato Corona was found guilty of failing to declare his assets and later sacked.

Such high-profile episodes of corruption trigger strong responses from Filipinos, and they’ve sustained the country’s reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. But thanks to new media, the recent exposure of large-scale misuse of public funds has now pushed Filipinos to take a stand.

“It’s a more dynamic time now. People are more informed, with more concrete details of what wrongs are done to them,” 26-year-old Maita Barredo Gaerlan explained. “This is largely because of how people are so connected these days through social media. Social media made it easier to get more people collectively informed, connected and more fired up this time around.”

On July 12, the Philippine Daily Enquirer broke a story alleging that five senators and 23 congressmen were receiving public funds for ghost projects. A month later, the report of a two-year special audit by the Commission on Audit revealed massive cases of so-called pork-barrel politics, with schemes like the Priority Development Assistance Fund — meant for the development of under-privileged areas — dispensing huge amounts of money to lawmakers and organizations that turned out to have used the funds for the profit of either themselves or their cronies. For example, a “Luis Abalos” had received 20 million pesos (approx. $452,490) from the fund; he wasn’t a lawmaker, and no one could explain who he was or why the money had been given to him. In another case, businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles had allegedly worked with certain government officials to receive large amounts of money from the fund by having the funds transferred to fake NGOs. The total amount of money that has allegedly been misused is estimated at a staggering 10 billion pesos.

President Benigno Aquino III has said that he will abolish the Priority Development Assistance Fund, but this hasn’t placated Filipinos, who are upset with the stream of abuse and corruption coming from all levels of government.

“It’s just too much. They are making us look like fools,” said 22-year-old network administrator Paolo Valencia. “Something has got to change.”

It was this frustration that led to the Million People March. After seeing calls for a protest on social media, Arnold Pedrigal, Peachy Bretana and Zena Bernardo-Bernardo decided to start a Facebook events page urging Filipinos to gather in Luneta Park on National Heroes’ Day.

Arnold Pedrigal, a Filipino-American based in San Francisco and executive producer of the TV show Power ng Pinoy, or Filipino Power, explained, “We wanted the pork barrel to be abolished, and for all congressmen and senators to be investigated and prosecuted accordingly.”

Taking inspiration from the Occupy movement, the march was described as “leaderless.” But organizers were still needed to plan the day; apart from the creators of the Facebook page (of whom two are Filipinos based in the United States), organizations such as the Filipino Free Thinkers, the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance and Blog-Watch Philippines joined individual citizens in coming forward to make sure events would run as smoothly as possible. Other institutions, such as the De La Salle University and the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines, threw their support behind the effort.

“After the Facebook group planning team was formed, a steering committee was created in Manila to take care of planning for logistics, security, first aid and the program,” Pedrigal explained. “They were meeting face-to-face everyday to map out the plan. Since I am based in the United States, my role was really more on mobilizing the Filipinos outside the Philippines.”

A broad spectrum of Filipino society was represented at the protest: nuns, priests, businessmen, students, senior citizens and celebrities alike participated. Even the disgraced former Chief Justice Corona put in an appearance to angry heckling from the crowd.

“I participated in today’s march because it was a rare opportunity to get together with so many other people, from different walks of life, for the single cause of saving the Philippines from all the corruption,” Gaerlan wrote in a Facebook message.

For those unable to attend the main protest in Manila, demonstrations were organized in other parts of the country. Overseas Filipino Workers also organized gatherings in cities abroad, including London, Hong Kong and Dubai; Pedrigal said that protests had been organized in 12 locations outside of the Philippines. An online petition has been signed by nearly 10,000 supporters.

The march may not have gathered a million people, but is seen as a success in Filipino civil society. It was one of the largest public demonstrations since President Aquino came to power after running his presidential campaign on promises of clamping down on corruption. The organizers were described as “not the usual suspects,” suggesting that new people are coming forward and getting involved in community organizing.

“I’m meeting for the first time some people who are totally unaffiliated, which is a nice and refreshing thing,” activist Irene Aguila told the Filipino online news portal Rappler.

“We pledge to refuse — to refuse to inherit this rotten system,” 20-year-old youth activist Cleve Arguelles wrote on his blog. “The youth of today, from the Occupy movement to Monday’s August 26 protest, continues to lead the world to a change of thinking — radical, revolutionary and confrontational — to make this world better for all of us.”

Filipinos also hope that this increased mobilization, supported by widespread use of social media, will send a message to the country’s elite. “I want this to cause fear among the powerful — for them to act more cautiously, and to think twice in case they have in their agenda something selfish,” Gaerlan said.

“The next plan is being currently being mapped out by the steering committee team in Manila,” said Pedrigal, adding that there are discussions about organizing another protest later in the year.

“I would like to see this protest continue moving forward in a strategic manner until the demands are met. We need to put extra pressure on the government in order for them to take heed,” he added.

Valencia agreed: “I want this [protest] to be a regular one until we get the justice we deserve. Hopefully the next time we have a public movement, we are celebrating because we have defeated the evil ones who are sitting in the Congress and Senate.”

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