What could the P10 billion government officials, in collusion with Janet-Lim Napoles, buy? It could finance free health care services for Filipinos for five years; it could finance the rice production of half a million peasants; and it could provide scholarships to a lot of deserving students so that no student would have to go through the desperation and helplessness felt by the late Kristel Tejada.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
RIZAL PARK, Manila – Malou Perubia, 61, is tired of ranting in front of the television every time there are news reports about the more recent pork barrel scam. Even if she is not a member of any progressive organization, she packed a few essentials – umbrella, face towel and food – and headed to Rizal Park, or Luneta, where tens of thousands joined the protest action on Aug. 26, calling for the abolition of the pork barrel system.
“I do not find this protest action enjoyable — not when you hear and see what many people are going through in the face of such blatant corruption practices,” Perubia said, adding “It makes me angry.” She happens to be a first timer in joining rallies.
The police estimated that about 80,000 to 100,000 people arrived in Luneta to attend the Million People March and express their outrage over recent reports on the scam involving the Congress’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). The PDAF is lump sum money allocated to lawmakers to finance projects in their districts. The scam also involved Janet Lim-Napoles, a businesswoman, who allegedly conspired with lawmakers and took P10 billion ($238.1 million) from public funds.
The Commission on Audit also released a report, involving more politicians and pseudo-non –government agencies in allegedly siphoning public funds.
Progressive groups, after its program in Luneta, marched to Mendiola near Malacañang, to demand Aquino’s action on the pork barrel scam.
President Aquino, in the face of growing outrage that is spreading virally in social networking sites, announced the suspension of releases of the PDAF last week. Then, on Aug. 23, he announced that it is now the time to abolish PDAF and that, instead, they would come up with a “new mechanism” that would be enough to safeguard public funds from abuse and corruption.
Progressive groups were quick to expose it as simply abolishing PDAF but not the system of pork barrel. According to Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, Aquino is “practically transforming PDAF into an itemized pork barrel system.”
Former Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said the itemized PDAF will not solve the “plunder and abuse that has been going on for years,” adding that, “as long as congressmen, senators and the President are given sole discretion over the use of public funds, nothing will change. There will always be a Napoles who will do the dirty work for the politicians and corrupt bureaucrats.”
An itemized pork barrel, Gerry Lanuza of Contend-UP said during the Bayan-led program in Luneta, would only provide more legal means to pocket public funds.
Re-channel to social services
Progressive groups demanded the abolition of the pork barrel system and to re-channel funds instead to social services much needed by Filipinos.
“(Pork barrel) is not their money, our taxes and treasure that each and every one of us contributed to,” Gabriela secretary general Joms Salvador said.
Dr. Genevieve Reyes of the Health Alliance for Democracy, during the march from the Philippine General Hospital to Luneta, said the P10 billion ($238.1 million) missing funds alone could be enough to provide free health care to Filipinos for five years.
Reyes, who was joined by doctors, nurses and health workers of the Philippine General Hospital, added that the government would always claim that it has no funds to provide services and that it now needs to resort to the privatization of public hospitals to improve much-needed facilities. Aside from health, she said schools and housing projects should also be prioritized.
Anakbayan chair Vencer Crisostomo said that come 2014, about 79 state universities and colleges would get budget cuts because the government claims that it has no sufficient funds to finance its operations. He said that “For those who are saying that the pork barrel is not evil: Kristel Tejada, a student of the University of the Philippines who committed suicide in 2012 for failing to pay tuition, did not need to die.”
Rafael Mariano of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said the P10 billion ($238.1 million) alone could be used to finance the production of nearly 500,000 peasants and they, he said, could have produced millions of metric tons of rice.
Government employees and teachers also said part of the pork barrel could provide them their just salaries. Overseas Filipino workers, meanwhile, said the Aquino administration has not been responding to their needs and is instead, treating them as mere commodities.
Mic Catuira of Migrante International said of the nearly 7,000 Filipinos who need to be repatriated, only 600 were sent home. Others remain stranded in Saudi Arabia amid crackdowns by Saudi government officials. In a statement, the OFW group urged the Aquino administration to re-channel pork barrel into providing services for Filipinos now stranded in strife-torn Egypt.
Crisostomo said government officials are prioritizing their “own purse” above the welfare of its people.
Sr. Norma Ramirez said she does not think the “righteous path” that Aquino had promised is still righteous. “This is a big problem. There are lots of impoverished Filipinos, homeless people sleeping on sidewalks, and the government is not doing anything for them.”
“Napoles should be sent to jail. We should get back the money they stole and the houses they bought with it. Then give it to the poor, those who need it most,” Ramirez said.
Include Aquino’s pork
Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said, during the protest action, that aside from the congressional pork barrel system, the Filipino people should also look into the abolition of President Aquino’s pork, which amounts to P1.3 trillion ($29.31 million). Kabataan Rep. Terry Ridon said Aquino, in fact, has the “greatest pork of all.”
“Whatever Napoles took is just loose change compared to the funds Aquino is holding,” Ilagan said.
Nat Santiago of Makabayan said the straight path that Aquino promised the Filipino people is filled with pork and that it is being held not just by Napoles and the congressmen but also the President himself. He added that Aquino does not want to do away with the pork barrel simply because that would mean he, too, would lose his discretionary fund allocations.
Santiago does not believe that Aquino’s pork barrel is spared from corruption.
Fr. Ben Alforque said the pork barrel is just the “tip of the iceberg of a network of corruption” and that it is a result of bureaucrat capitalism. This, he said, is when the government is acting for self-serving interests.
“If we will base this in the Bible’s Old Testament, this society will fall apart because of its low moral fiber,” Alforque said.
Nancy Gadian, in an interview with Bulatlat.com, said she would like to pose the pork barrel scam as a challenge to the Aquino administration in addressing corruption. She said “cleaning” the Armed Forces of the Philippines from corruption could make things “more stable.”
Gadian is a former Lt. Senior Grade of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. She is the whistle blower in the alleged skimming of P46 million ($1.1 million) intended for the use of the Balikatan military exercises and the extent by which the US intervenes in the country’s military operations. She told Bulatlat.com that she resigned from military service because she could no longer stomach the widespread corruption within the security forces.
During the interview, Gadian also revealed that Napoles was frequenting the office of the Philippine Navy. “She was very visible there.”
“How are we going to clean the system if the men in uniform are the first to be corrupt?” Gadian said.
Just the beginning
Progressive groups said the show of force of many Filipinos who joined the rally is just the beginning.
“The thousands who came to Luneta today prove that more and more ordinary Filipino workers and people now believe that Aquino’s ‘daang matuwid’ (righteous path) is a hoax, that corruption persists and has even become legitimate under his administration, and that the people are determined to take action against it,” Joselito Ustarez, KMU Vice-President, said.
Ilagan dared Aquino to certify the bill to abolish pork barrel as urgent as the “public continues to see through Aquino’s superficial responses” to the clamor against the pork barrel system.
She added that the Million People March will snow ball into more gatherings pushing for change. “Unless the pork barrel is eliminated, history will judge Aquino and his government harshly for turning his back on his campaign promises against plunder and corruption.”
Perubia, the first-timer rallyist, said that after witnessing and hearing these issues, she would think about joining a group so she could be more active in political activities. She sent her two sons a text message saying, “I am going to Malacañang.”