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‘Buck stops with PNoy’

Protesters vent anger on President’s funds Some 100,000 protesters who gathered in Luneta Monday said that when it comes to ending the shameless and embedded corruption in the government, the buck stops with President Benigno Aquino III. The white-clad protestors who gathered to protest the misuse of pork barrel in the “Million People March,” also demanded that the President give up hundreds of billions in his own discretionary funds. The gathering was one of the largest public demonstrations since President Aquino was elected in 2010 on an anti-corruption platform. The protesters ranged from nuns and priests and students to businessmen, middle-class families, lawyers and other professionals, showcasing the broad-based anger over graft. “Some P450 billion of the President’s P1.3-trillion in pork barrel falls under discretionary funds that are not being subjected to audit and is lodged in the President’s Social Fund, intelligence funds and discretionary funds,” said Cecille Reyes, a member of the Tanggulang Demokrasya. In a speech before the crowd at the Quirino Grandstand, Reyes, a businesswoman from Olongapo City, said she travelled all the way to Manila to join her colleagues in Tandem to denounce corruption. “The buck stops with the President. Why do we have to limit our call for the scrapping of pork barrel of senators and congressmen when the President’s discretionary funds are being kept from the public?” Reyes said to applause from the crowd. Elizabeth Angsioco, national president of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, agreed. “Yes, the buck stops with the President. He decides who gets how much [goes] for which projects. He controls the faucet. He has the last say. Now, his bosses want to have a say and we say, ‘The buck stops with you, Mr. President. Give up the entire pork barrel system now,’” Angsioco said. Vince Samonte, a student taking his masters degree in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, was so outraged that he decided to join the protest even if he was politically unaffiliated with any group. “To get a higher education, I borrowed money from my father and some friends to enable me to pay for my tuition. Worse, my 22-year-old sister Monique had to leave the country for Dubai to find work there because there is no available job here. And to think that she graduated from UP, the country’s premier university,” said Samonte, who graduated cum laude from UP. Arnold Abelardo, director of the Claretian Missionaries, said the Million People March should be a reminder to the President that three years ago, it was in the same place that he made a social pact with the public. “Three years ago, also here in Luneta, the President took his oath and made a vow that he would run after the corrupt, he would erase the ‘wang-wang mentality,’ [and] institute reforms to ensure transparency in governance,” the Catholic priest said. “We elected him into office, joined his campaign sorties to make sure that the people vote for him, and now we are here to remind him of his promise shortly after he took his oath as President,” Abelardo said. Commission on Audit Commissioner Heidi Mendoza, a former whistleblower against corrupt generals, said she joined the rally as a concerned taxpayer. She refused to comment, however, on the apparent errors in a recently released COA report on pork barrel anomalies, including the attribution of funds to lawmakers who did not receive them, or to people who had not yet been elected to Congress. Wearing a white shirt, ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona, who came with wife Cristina, was booed by the crowd while his supporters exchanged harsh words with those who backed his impeachment. He left the rally after he was heckled. In an interview at the Manila Hotel before he joined the event, Corona said he wanted to join clamor for the abolition of pork barrel. “I am one with our people in their anger over abuses in the use of pork barrel and in the call for accountability of public officers,” he said. Some senators who had voted for Corona’s conviction during his impeachment trial are now being implicated in the pork barrel scam. Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle gave a brief talk at the rally, exhorting the crowd to be vigilant in guarding against plunder of the coffers. Tagle described as “heartbreaking” the news that some elected officials were pocketing the funds intended to uplift the lives of the poor. Some 100 environmental and health advocates brandishing brooms to “sweep away the corruption” also joined the rally. “We have come here to add our voice to those seeking to end corruption in the government as exemplified by the nauseating and shameless looting of the pork barrel funds,” said Aileen Lucero, acting national coordinator for the EcoWaste Coalition said. “Today, we join the rest of the country in shouting ‘enough is enough,’ sweep out corruption that is blighting the quality of the people’s lives, the economy and environment,” she added. Also at the rally were members of the BPO Industry Employees’ Network, a broad network of employees in the country’s business process outsourcing industry, who expressed disappointment with President Aquino, who they said was defending the pork barrel system and was merely changing its name. The group said Mr. Aquino was trying to undermine the protests against pork barrel, and conspicuously silent on his own discretionary funds. Celebrities who attended included Juana Change, a comedienne, who wore a Miss Piggy costume; singer-songwriter Jim Paredes and TV host Arnel Ignacio. The calls for Monday’s protest began circulating on Facebook and Twitter about two weeks ago after newspapers reported on allegations that many lawmakers had channeled up to P10 billion in pork barrel to ghost projects in exchange for kickbacks from businesswoman Janet Lim Napoles. In the face of growing anger earlier this month, the President suspended the releases of money and vowed to reform the Priority Development Assistance Fund, as pork barrel is officially called. The protestors, carrying signs saying “Abolish pork barrel” and “Change the culture of political patronage,” were peaceful even if they appeared to have no leader, said national police spokesman Senior Supt. Reuben Sindac. “It’s a very respectable gathering. There are families here like a picnic. They are policing their own ranks. This is purely social-network propelled,” he said while monitoring the rally. Of the huge crowd at the Luneta Park, only a few hundred were from the leftist protest groups that usually lead such street protests, he said. Similar rallies were being held in public parks throughout the country, Sindac said, adding they were also peaceful. The director of the Metro Manila Police Office, Marcelo Garbo Jr., said 60,000 to 70,000 people joined the peaceful rally, though other estimates went as high as 100,000. Garbo added that some protesters proceeded to Mendiola and Liwasang Bonifacio to hold their own protest actions against the misuse of pork barrel. Garbo said about 2,000 policemen were deployed to secure Rizal Park while the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority fielded another 350 personnel, including traffic enforcers, emergency workers and street sweepers. At least three companies from the military’s civil disturbance management group, equipped with truncheons and shields, were rushed to Mendiola following information that the anti-pork barrel demonstrators at the Quirino Grandstand in Manila would march to Malacanang. No clashes were reported, however. None of the 24 senators showed up in Monday’s anti-pork rally, saying politicians should stay away from the event, which belonged to the people. “The people are angry and rightly so as they work hard and pay their taxes and then they see this great waste,” said Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara. “This can be a chance for our democracy to move forward and develop better institutional safeguards for public funds. It should give momentum to the few who have called for greater transparency and accountability in the budgeting and spending processes of the government” he said. “As the saying goes, the price of living in a democracy is eternal vigilance. Leaders and officials should take heed of the winds of change and realize that the old ways have not worked,” he added. Leftist lawmakers on Monday demanded that the President certify as urgent a bill that would abolish pork barrel, including Mr. Aquino’s own discretionary funds. Gabriela party-list Rep. Luz Ilagan and Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said President Aquino should prove his sincerity to reform the pork barrel system by taking the lead in giving up his own pork. The two lawmakers were among the authors of a bill abolishing the pork barrel system. Zarate said the President’s call to reform the pork barrel system would only “centralize corruption in the Executive branch.” He said that the abolition of pork barrel funds should not only apply to legislators but to the Cabinet officials as well. “What about President Aquino’s own portly chunk of pork”? Zarates said. “If he is really serious, he should move for the abolition of the whole pork barrel system, including his own,” he added. Zarate urged the public “to be vigilant and watchful as PDAF may metamorphose into another form.” Bayan Muna leader Teddy Casiño said on Monday that, the President’s announcement last week to abolish pork barrel and replace it with a new mechanism was met with cynicism by a public that knows better. At the Luneta rally, Casino, a former lawmaker, said the President has not abolished the P25.3 billion allocated to pork in the 2014 national budget. The President is just dishing it out with a new menu that requires an itemized list, he added. “Aquino is retaining the presidential pork of at least P200 billion, not including the various lump sum allocations tucked into the budgets of the various departments and line agencies, to be released upon the Executive’s discretion to favored legislators and local officials.” “Aquino’s itemized pork barrel system will not solve the plunder and abuse that has been going on for years, Casiño said. With Ferdinand Fabella, Florante S. Solmerin, Macon Ramos-Araneta, Maricel V. Cruz, Rey E. Requejo, Vito Barcelo, Fred Villareal and AFP  
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