Pork Barrel Protest Grips the Philippines

In the biggest outpouring of public anger since People Power II drove former Philippine President Joseph Estrada from power in 2001, tens of thousands of Filipinos filled Manila's Rizal Park Monday to protest what has become known as the "Pork Barrel" scandal.

The product of an Internet campaign that sought to draw a "million man march" to central Manila, it was a remarkable demonstration of public outrage on the country's National Heroes' Day. There were smaller protests in cities across the Philippines as well as in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, where a large number of Filipino expatriates live. Rally organizers said Filipino seamen working aboard freighters at sea even backed the protest. Police estimated the Manila crowd at 80,000 to 100,000.

The scandal has ensnared vast numbers of congressmen and senators including members of President Benigno S. Aquino's Liberal Party. But what is interesting is that, in a country that has endured a long series of messy scandals, this one has captured the public imagination in a way that few others have. Freewheeling newspapers and television have had a field day with the story.

It is an easily understandable classic, a story of venal lawmakers funneling money into their own bank accounts from government funds meant to improve the lives of their constituents in a desperately poor country. But it also revolves around what can only be determined as wretched excess in a country that has even forgiven the Marcos family for stealing untold billions of dollars.

The scandal had been percolating for more than half a year because the family at the center of it had kidnapped a key whistle-blowing witness in a vain attempt to keep him out of the hands of the country's National Bureau of Investigation. The ultimate outrage appears to have been the posting of Instagram pictures on the Web by Jeane Napoles, the 17-year-old daughter of Janet Lim Napoles, the woman at the center of the scandal.

The pictures displayed the girl's Porsche Boxster sports car, expensive watches, jewelry, clothing and shoes as well as one of her texting from the rear seat of what appeared to be a chauffeur-driven limousine. She enthused about shopping and hobnobbing with celebrities like Justin Bieber.

The girl lived in a flashy apartment in Los Angeles while attending design school and seems from her social media presence to be the very essence of what many Filipinos find distasteful about the elite -- especially the suddenly and mysteriously wealthy. Napoles, who has since disappeared despite a warrant for her arrest, is said to own 28 homes. She has said she came by her riches through the family's coal import-export business, a claim met with ridicule in Manila.

The pictures appear to have struck a chord, generating a huge outcry that has resulted in the first big scandal President Aquino has faced, although he doesn't appear to have personally benefited.

It revolves around the Priority Development Assistance Fund, established under another name in 1990 during the term of President Corazon Aquino, the current president's mother. Its ostensible purpose was to allow allow lawmakers to fund small-scale infrastructure or community projects outside the scope of national projects. It has since become universally known as the Pork Barrel.

One longtime western political observer, who was in Manila at the time the fund was established, said, "The whole idea of the pork barrel, as I recall, was to sort of make corruption okay by creating a kind of centralized payoff. I am pretty sure when it was set up there was talk of it being a safety valve to stop larger theft. It was to be monitored and put in the budget."

Each senator was to receive P200 million (US$4.52 million at current exchange rates), and each congressman P70 million.

Monitoring apparently escaped the government's attention, as often happens in the Philippines. But Napoles, the wife of a former Filipino Marine major who was part of a group of anti-government rebel soldiers during Cory Aquino's term, appears to have established a syndicate of non-government organizations through which lawmakers could channel their pork barrel funds.The money could then find its way back into their personal accounts - with a certain amount ending up in Napoles' own accounts.

Napoles is said to have established as many as 20 such NGOs under her JLN Group, funneling money from and to at least five senators and 23 congressmen. But Napoles wasn't alone. According to a devastating report by the government's Commission on Audit released last week, the equivalent of US$141 million was disbursed to questionable aid groups and ghost projects that were identified by lawmakers as beneficiaries between 2009 and 2012.

Napoles was hardly alone, according to the auditor's report. Between 2010 and 2012, according to The Philippine Daily Inquirer, some P500 million went to fake NGOs through the state-owned Philippine Forest Corp., the office of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and the National Agribusiness Corp, and ended up in the bank accounts of some of the country's most prominent lawmakers.

After waffling on the issue for several weeks, Aquino last Friday promised to reform the corruption-plagued system after the government audit was released. Aquino told reporters there was nothing "intrinsically wrong" with the system and said a few individuals had abused it.

Then, however, instead of blaming the lawmakers involved, he sought to cast the onus on his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, saying that "What is wrong--indeed, what has outraged our people--was the collusion among a former president ready to trade favors just to remain in power, legislators, and members of the bureaucracy who were willing to conspire, enabled by a passive and indifferent citizenry."

Finally, last Friday, Aquino yielded to public pressure and announced the government would scrap the fund.

"Despite the reforms we have implemented, we have seen, as the events of the past weeks have shown, that greater change is necessary to fight against those who are determined to abuse the system," Aquino told reporters. "It is time to abolish the PDAF."

The bigger question is what happens next. Aquino, who has built his reputation by taking on corruption, has vowed to prosecute those responsible. But this is a country where a culture of impunity has allowed members of the Marcos family not only to go free but to be elected to national office. Joseph Estrada, driven from office in 2001 for plundering the national treasury, has been elected Manila mayor. Sending major politicians to jail, even child rapists and murderers, has proven virtually impossible. It's a good bet that Napoles herself is being hidden by a power structure that would not want to see her testify.

If the public outrage manifested in Rizal Park on Monday results in cracking the culture of impunity, it will be a major step forward in a country that in other ways has started to make progress after decades of paralysis.