SOME 35 protesters heckled President Benigno Aquino III during a speaking engagement at Columbia University in New York.
The President seemed surprised when Filipino-Americans with Anakbayan New Jersey, the New York Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines (NYCHRP), and Gabriela New York challenged him from the audience during a forum with questions on the pork barrel scandal, the government’s response to typhoon Yolanda and human rights abuses.
Outside in the main courtyard of the university, Bayan USA, a Filipino-American group, protested the dominance of American interests over Philippine affairs, “stunting economic growth and deepening poverty in the country.”
At the forum, questions and comments were raised regarding the lack of adequate relief for Yolanda victims, some of whom have not received any relief from the government after 10 months.
“Public funds for disaster relief and preparedness were slashed but the pork barrel system still continues, especially with the President’s defense of the Disbursement Acceleration Program,” said Jenab-i Pareja of NYCHRP.
A banner reading “Oust Aquino, Pork Barrel King” was unfurled by the stage in front of the audience.
The activists inside the library also raised the issue of human rights abuses with a banner reading “End Impunity. Stop the Killings.”
“I have been to Hacienda Luisita. I have seen first hand the continuing plight of the farmworkers, the families of the laborers of those who were massacred for wanting to earn more than P9 s a day.
It’s unbelievable to me that this can happen on the piece of property owned by the President’s family,” said Joelle Lingat of Anakbayan New Jersey, who was escorted out by New York City police after she got up and challenged Aquino on his human rights track record.
“What’s even more unbelievable was Aquino’s facial reaction to my question on Hacienda Luisita,” Lingat said after being escorted off campus by police. “Not only did he not answer, he closed his eyes and shook his head. One audience member even told me I should be ashamed of myself. But it is Aquino who should be ashamed for dodging accountability over the massive loss of human life in his own family’s estate.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda shrugged off the heckling, saying the President was used to it and viewed it as a form of freedom of expression.
He said Aquino was beginning to take questions when the activists took turn shouting at him.
One woman stood up and shouted that she looked up to the President’s late mother, President Corazon Aquino.
“I am a Filipino woman and I saw her as a modern-day hero... and what do you do? You want charter change to extend your presidency? I looked up to her as a hero and now I see the realities of what your family has done. I have been to Hacienda Luisita,” she said before being interrupted by the forum host.
When asked to stop, the woman wailed: “This is the only opportunity I have to talk to the person (President) and screamed” “Shame on you!”
She was whisked away by guards, but another activist interrupted Aquino again.
Lacierda said the President tried to explain, but apparently, the person did not want to hear the explanations.
“So what’s the point of explaining? If all that person wanted was to voice out... to listen to her voice, to listen to her argument and not wanting a dialogue,” said Lacierda.
During his speech, Aquino said his administration was serious about addressing summary executions in the Philippines.
The government is not after merely identifying the assailants but focuses on convicting the murderers, President Aquino told students and faculty at the Columbia forum.
“There has to be certainty of punishment for all of these things that happened. And they (Department of Justice) have, in turn, secured quite a number of convictions for those involved in extra-legal killings,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, victims of typhoon Yolanda went to the United Nations in New York to air their plight and demand justice.
Efleda Kempis-Bautista, convener of an alliance of Yolanda survivors People Surge, stood with other international rights groups for a “People’s General Assembly” in New York as an alternative gathering to the UN General Assembly on Climate Change outside the building where world leaders convened for the summit.
“We are here to claim justice. The devastation caused by typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines is a wake-up call to leaders about the fatal consequences of global warming and climate change to people, especially from developing countries,” Bautista said.
Supporting the group are Campaign for People’s Goals for Sustainable Development, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, and IBON International.
In a statement, the group said their gathering provided a more accurate picture of the state of the world.
While world leaders are debating on how to deal with climate change, they “rarely present accurate pictures of ‘development.”
“When governments come together they generally create rules to increase consumption at all costs and guarantee profit to corporations and the rich. These rules have required the loss of lands and
livelihoods, slavery like employment, militarization and a climate that threatens the very survival of human beings” said the People’s General Secretary Vernie Yocogan-Diano, an indigenous woman from Kalinga.
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