MANILA, Philippines — Tens of thousands of Filipinos protested in a Manila park Monday, demanding the scrapping of a corruption-tainted development fund that allows lawmakers to allocate government money for projects in their districts.
A government audit released Aug. 16 found that $141 million of the fund allocated over three years under the previous administration was released to questionable aid groups and ghost projects.
The scandal centered on a powerful businesswoman who allegedly collaborated with lawmakers in channeling some of the funds. She has gone into hiding after she was charged with illegal detention of a whistle-blower. Local media reports of her lavish lifestyle have angered many ordinary taxpayers in the Southeast Asian country where nearly 28 percent of the 97 million people live on a little over a dollar a day.
That prompted calls on social media for Monday's protest in Rizal Park, where more than 100,000 turned out including students, workers, priests and nuns. Police said about 70,000 protesters were at the peak of the rally, which also featured group singing, family picnics and a religious mass before a peaceful dispersal.
Similar protests were held in a dozen other cities across the country, and in New York and other cities where there are concentrations of Filipinos.
Some Manila protesters carried placards saying "Senators, you should be ashamed of yourselves." Others wore pig face masks or shirts calling for the abolition of the fund.
Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle told the cheering crowd that all Filipinos should act in an honorable way. The rally coincides with National Heroes Day.
"Let us also listen to the voice of God, especially in our conscience," Tagle said.
Actress Mae Paner who wore a pig's snout, a wig and a barrel around her body, said she was joining millions of Filipinos who "want to abolish the pork barrel system in our country."
"We need real change, especially the people who are suffering," said Erika Estacio, a University of the Philippines student. She said if the government's budget was spent properly, her brother who left recently for a better-paying job in Qatar need not have been separated from his 5-year-old daughter.
Impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona, convicted last year by senators for failing to declare $2.4 million in bank accounts, joined the rally but left after being heckled by protesters.
Critics said President Benigno Aquino III's promise Friday to reform the system was not enough, and that all pork barrel funds must be abolished.
Aquino, who has made fighting corruption a centerpiece of his administration, said he has abolished the Priority Development Assistance Fund and will replace it with a system that plugs loopholes that allow for misuse. He said there was nothing "intrinsically wrong" with the system but it has been abused by "a few greedy individuals." He vowed to prosecute those who misuse the fund.
Aquino reiterated his promise during a National Heroes' Day speech.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said money for the abolished fund will now go to specific projects of government agencies.
Under the PDAF system, lump sums were earmarked in the government budget for projects proposed by each lawmaker a year – 200 million pesos ($4.6 million) for each senator and 70 million pesos ($1.6 million) for each House of Representatives member. The projects and beneficiaries were identified by the lawmakers after the budget was passed by Congress.
Lacierda said under the new system, no lump sum will be earmarked for legislators, no funds will be channeled to non-government organizations, and the public can monitor the release of the funds through the government's website.