MANILA — Across the Philippines on Monday, "National Heroes Day," tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against discretionary funds given to lawmakers that critics say are not being used as intended and instead are funneled to corrupt organizations.
On this national holiday, throngs of protestors turned out in the heart of the capital, screaming that stolen riches be returned to the people.
Dark clouds threatened rain, but thousands of college students and middle- and working- class citizens of all ages joined in the various chants and screams against what they call “pork barrel” spending. Its official name is the Priority Development Assistance Fund.
The funds, disbursed by the executive branch for legislators, are supposed to be earmarked for development projects across the country. But in the spring, investigators found a handful of senators had instead put the funds into bogus non-government agencies. The misappropriated funds totaling $226 million were used from 2007 through 2009. News of the investigation sparked public outcry, which culminated in Monday’s multiple protests.
Attorney Charlie Ho of Manila says he went to the rally at Manila’s Luneta Park because of his “outrage” over decades of corruption.
“We’re just fed up with the system. There’s so much money there, Ho said. "The Philippines is rich in natural resources so we’re not poor but because of the corruption- corruption of public officials- it’s the main reason for poverty.”
President Benigno Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign was a centerpiece of his run for office in 2010. Until recently, his administration had gotten generally positive marks on its anti-corruption stand. But the latest protests have been mostly targeted at Mr. Aquino and are proving to be the most significant opposition he has faced halfway through his six-year term.
On Friday, the president tried to pre-empt the anticipated rally by announcing stricter accountability and tougher guidelines for the special development fund.
That did little to appease protesters who want the "special funds" abolished.
But Pentecostal Bishop Art Abuan, who attended the Manila rally, says the funds should remain, as long as they are used for the important services they are intended for.
“We mean transparency," he said. "Because before they got the money and people don’t know where it goes. But transparency means they will [make it] black and white and people will know where it goes, to the single centavo.”
There were similar anti-corruption rallies in other cities across the central and southern Philippines on Monday.