“Million People Rising” Across Our Country

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe’ Abueva
The Bohol Chronicle
October 13, 2013

Where it began. It began on August 26 when more than a hundred thousand people from all walks of life gathered at Rizal Park for the first “Million People March.” They were angered by legislators and administrators, and a private operator named Janet Lim Napoles and her phony NGOs. They had reportedly connived to pocket and waste some ten billion pesos of public funds sourced from the congressional pork barrel. The rallyists chanted: Makibaka, Wag magbaboy! In Bohol, my home province, they shouted: People Power vs. Pork Barrel! Abolish pork barrel, Jail all the scammers! Similar protest rallies were held in other cities.

In a futile effort to diffuse the people’s anger, President Aquino announced on August 23 that he would abolish the congressional pork, officially and innocently named the Priority Development Assistance Fund. With him were Senate President Drilon and Speaker Belmonte. But people remain betrayed and suspicious. Publicized investigations and Senate hearings have enabled the principal whistle blowers and other witnesses to divulge the details of the pork barrel scam and the main legislators allegedly involved.  The Department of Justice has lodged plunder charges before the Sandigan Bayan against Napoles, three senators and several former and current members of the House for the P3  billion pork barrel scam.

Fifth “Million People March.” On October 5, on Ayala Avenue in Makati, the fifth “Million People” marchers called on business leaders to join the fight for the abolition of the scandalous congressional pork barrel. With a huge golden pig made up of golden pig made of papier-mâché as their mascot, the protesters staged in front of the monument of martyred Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and urged his son, President P-Noy: “to listen to the call of the people to change a government system that allows rampant stealing of taxpayer money by corrupt public officials, leaving the country impoverished.” Our column draws heavily from the report of Nikko Dizon and co-authors who covered the Ayala protest march. (Nikko Dizon, PDI, Oct. 5, 2013).

“Taxpayers’ money is people’s money.” According to the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN), workers in the business process outsourcing industry supported the movement, “If the taxes we pay to the government are only being pocketed by big politicians, we might as well keep our money,” the group said in a statement issued during the rally. “Taxpayer money is people’s money,” said Ismael Cruz, a veteran stockbroker and president of IGC Securities who personally supports the movement. Although business groups are slow to respond, Cruz said many businessmen in Makati share the public’s sentiment about the pork barrel personally.

“Stealing the future.” The misuse of billions of pesos in public funds through the pork barrel “is literally taking food from our mouths, the seats from our classrooms, and the roofs over our hospitals,” said  Giovanni Tapang, national chair of the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham), in a brief speech on the stage. “They have stolen our future from us because of the pork barrel system,” he said.

“President Aquino can leave a “legacy” if he heeds the call of the people to scrap all forms of  pork barrel, including the Presidential Special Fund (PSF),” said Peachy Tan, spokesperson for the Scrap Pork Network, one of the organizers of the Million People March. Tan said “the network was calling on Mr. Aquino to direct government auditors to look into how the presidential fund has been spent in the first three years of his administration.”

Business is cautious but also concerned. In contrast to the public responses of people

and workers generally, businessmen are cautious because in their view the economy is doing very well and they see the President as honest and their principal ally. Investors watching the protests, were concerned that public anger at official corruption might be diminishing the popularity of President Aquino and his infrastructure program. However, businessmen are aware that the reported high growth rate of our economy is not inclusive of most of our workers and the many people who remain poor. Poverty, inequality, and injustice prevail as businesses prosper.

Although business groups are slow to respond, broker Izmael Cruz said, “many businessmen in Makati share the public’s sentiment about the pork barrel personally.” Richard Anthony Liboro, director and head of high net worth sales at BPI Securities, said “the mass protests had no impact on business sentiment over the short term. But if it drags on, there could potentially be a long-term impact on the economy and the market because this could constrain funding for (public-private partnership) projects and other projects.”

Appeal to President P-Noy. Outspoken leaders in the protest rally “expressed dismay at Mr. Aquino for turning a deaf ear to the call of his ‘bosses,’ the Filipino people.” Talking to the statue of Ninoy Aquino, political satirist Mae Paner, also known as “Juana Change,” said:  “Ninoy, bring Aunt Cory (Aquino) and tell your son to abolish the pork barrel.” The crowd responded in wild cheers.

National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera said: “Mr. President, it’s time for you to listen to the people’s voice. We have been repeatedly calling your attention to the corruption in your administration. How long will you keep your silence? Lumbera heads the Artista Kontra sa Corruption.

No ouster of P-Noy. The organizers of the protest made it clear that the Million People March was not for the ouster of the President. Instead, they said, “it was a call for change in the system and to make corrupt public officials accountable, whether they were from the opposition or allies of the administration.”

“Personally, I am not calling for the ouster or resignation of P-Noy (President Aquino’s nickname).  What I want is for P-Noy to listen. That’s all we want, for him to listen [and] scrap all pork and listen to the people so that genuine change can happen for the good of all,” Juana Change Paner told the Inquirer.

In general, the continuing protests by the Million People March and other organizations is “anti-system,” Peachy Tan said, acknowledging that there were groups in the rally with complaints against the administration.

She said that “what unifies the protesters is the sentiment against the pork barrel, as well as the little-known Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) from which Budget Secretary Butch Abad released millions of pesos to senators and congressmen after the ouster of former Chief Justice Renato Corona by impeachment last year.”

“We want to clarify that this is not directed toward one person. Personally, I believe that he wants a straight path. P-Noy is a good person. He is not a thief. But the point is, we have a rotten system that will still be there after he steps down,” she said. “Mr. Aquino would be leaving “a legacy” if she removed all forms of pork barrel. “Whoever comes after him, taxpayer money will not be vulnerable anymore,” Tan said.

Renato Reyes, Bayan secretary general, said the pork barrel issue is being “addressed to the President himself because who else would craft the policy? Who will set the direction of the country? It will all fall on the President,” Reyes said, “stressing that Mr. Aquino failed to hear the voice of the people despite four earlier protests against the pork barrel.”

Abolish all pork: congressional and presidential. Some 3,000 people had signed the “Million People March” petition on the online advocacy site, Change.org, “calling on the Aquino administration to scrap all forms of pork barrel, account for all pork spent and investigate and punish all those who abused the PDAF.” At the rally, the Scrap Pork Network urged both the government and the people to live up to their responsibilities as citizens. The group called on the citizens to monitor the budget process when Congress opens and on the Senate to remove the PDAF from the budget.

The Network also urged “the opening of the Senate-House conference on the budget to the public; called for the creation of an independent commission to include the private sector to look into what laws could be amended so that discretionary funds could be abolished; and for a better government audit system that would determine if certain government projects are necessary.”

The group also pressed for the passage of the freedom of information bill in the House of Representatives and urged Mr. Aquino to certify it as urgent, and the filing of cases against the abusers of the pork barrel in the Sandiganbayan within 100 days. “We want an investigation and prosecution of all. We want speedy justice so that they can return our money. We understand the need for emergency funds for calamities but we also need a clear mechanism for oversight,” Tan explained. She added that her her group wanted local governments and government agencies to involve people’s organizations and civil society organizations in the budget process.

“The people must also participate. Our call now is Tuwid na Paraan Tungo sa Tuwid na Daan (Right Way to the Straight Path),” Peachy Tan said.

The Church’s voice. An alliance of church leaders and businessmen joined the public in demanding the abolition of the pork barrel. The Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development (BBC) described the pork barrel as “institutionalized dissipation” of scarce government resources, and said the Filipinos could fight corruption only if given the full and correct information. “The call for the abolition of the pork barrel underlines the necessity of passing the (freedom of information) bill, because full and correct information is the lifeblood of citizen power to effect change,” the BBC statement said.

The BBC opposed the pork barrel “because it gave the President a means to control the legislature and bend it to his will by releasing or withholding funds. The pork barrel is an abuse of the congressional power of the purse. It is institutionalized corruption that uses the people’s money in order to serve not their interests but the personal interests of individuals,” the BBC said.

Overhaul our Political System!  We should realize that the misuse, abuse, and stealing of funds in the congressional and presidential pork barrel are inherent in our Presidential Government and highly centralized Unitary System. This political system must be overhauled by amending our 1987 Constitution!   pepevabueva@gmail.com

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