Philippines: Mass protest breaks out against 'pork barrelling'

September 1, 2013

The Philippines’ Million People March, against the so-called pork barrel system of corruption, is the latest in a series of huge protests worldwide, which exploded with the United States’ Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring of 2011.

The Luneta rally was attended by at least 200,000 people (according to government estimates). However, aerial footage of the event showed attendance was almost certainly higher.

The Luneta rally was part of nationwide and global protests, involving a further 500,000 people in major cities in the Philippines and by Filipino communities worldwide.

The Million People March was first raised on social media site Facebook as a proposal for an anti-pork barrel mobilisation. The idea came in light of the alleged corrupt theft of $250 million from the discretionary Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) by Philippine lawmakers over the past ten years.

The initial post with the proposal went viral and reached tens of thousands of Filipino “netizens” worldwide who affirmed their attendance and support. Public outrage against pork barrelling became so mainstream that three days before the march, President Benigno Aquino III, in a self-contradicting statement, announced the “abolition” of the pork barrel system, but later in the same speech, offered only vague reforms to it.

Aquino’s statements failed to appease the peoples rage. The police even threatened to frisk march participants, but they were unfazed.

Rain notwithstanding, the first huge protest under the Aquino administration went ahead.

The middle-class — professionals, small and medium-sized businesspeople, office workers, artists — made up the bulk of the march. They bought self-made protest banners with names of any group.

Music artists performed for free on the lawn and on the street, often without amplifiers or microphones. Visual artists presented their papier maches and murals of pigs, which represent government greed.

The progressive left also mobilised on the day. This included the socialist labor centre, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, and the independent progressive workers federations, Nagkaisa, the socialist party, Partido Lakas ng Masa, the democratic front Sanlakas and the pro-Maoist grouping Makabayan. Sanlakas treated participants from the urban poor to lunch, parading a skewered roast pig that was symbolically “abolished” in the hungry stomachs of the poor.

The Partido Lakas ng Masa, which initiated some of the first actions against the corruption scandal, had called for “the arrest of Janet Lim-Napoles [who allegedly facilitated the theft] and the filing of plunder charges against all senators and congressmen ... for the return of the stolen money to the people and used for social welfare and development projects for the poor and reiterated its call for the abolition of the pork barrel system.”

The Luneta march ended at 2pm, but the progressive blocs continued the anti-pork barrel protest on the Mendiola Bridge that connects Malacanang Palace to downtown Manila.

Most, if not all, participants attended out of their own initiative, with no bigwig backer to pay for their fare or attendance — unlike mobilisations staged by elite Filipino politicians during elections.

Euphoria grew two days later when one of the main suspects of the “pork barrel scam”, Janet Lim-Napoles, reportedly surrendered to authorities.

The much-hated Napoles, who allegedly facilitated the theft of more than $250 million over the past decade by setting up scores of bogus foundations, appeared to have finally faced justice.

However, confusion ensued as Aquino, in coordination with interior secretary and governing Liberal Party head Mar Roxas concealed information about Napoles’ arrest.

Only small-scale street protests have taken place after the huge march, but public outrage is still roaring, at least on social media. Calls for a next big rally are being issued, but march participants are yet to regroup.

Needless to say, after three years of what he bragged as “reformist” rule, Aquino is facing the biggest challenge of his regime. Such huge protests were last seen in 2001, when hundreds of thousands tried to oust the new government of then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

However, the protest movement under Arroyo did not muster such big crowds. This was despite many incidents of corruption, electoral fraud and human rights violations under her regime. It seemed the Filipino people had grown tired of replacing one corrupt leader with another.

This time, the Million People March, much like the Occupy movement, anti-austerity protests in Europe, and anti-fare hike protests in Brazil, went beyond any specific issue.

The new movement that showed itself in the Million People March bears watching, as government corruption has stirred huge public outrage.

[Merck Maguddayao is a member of the Partido Lakas ng Masa]

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