Philippine anti-corruption protests draw massive crowds

Nearly 100,000 Filipinos angry at official corruption marched through in the capital and other cities to demand the abolition of a misused fund for legislators' pet projects, in one of the biggest ever protests aimed at the current government.

$226M of taxpayer money funnelled to legislators' non-existent pet projects

Tens of thousands of protesters flash thumbs-down signs during a rally at Rizal Park in Manila to call for the scrapping of a corruption-tainted government fund. The money allows legislators to allocate government cash for projects in their districts, but at least $226 million may have been embezzled. (Bullit Marquez/Associated Press)

Nearly 100,000 Filipinos angry at official corruption marched through the centre of Manila and other cities to demand the abolition of a misused fund for legislators' pet projects, in one of the biggest ever protests aimed at President Benigno Aquino's government.

Protesters, responding to a call to wear white, converged Monday on Manila's largest park to express indignation at the misuse of more than $200 million in "pork barrel" money under a government program called the Priority Development Assistance Fund.

The money was frequently channelled to projects to impress voters, though many of the initiatives have turned out to be non-existent.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino took to TV last week to announce an overhaul of his country's 'pork barrel' program, but it didn't satisfy protesters. (Malacanang Photo Bureau/AP)

Police said around 60,000 protesters thronged Luneta Park, some wearing pig masks and headgear. Others carried banners saying "Scrap pork barrel!" or "No to pork!".

Protesters — church and civic groups, health workers, students and entire families — ignored Aquino's bid last week to head off the protests by announcing that the fund would be replaced by another scheme with tougher rules. Marchers called for complete abolition of the system.

"Just transfer the funds to department agencies delivering service," said Jun Bernandino, who joined the march. "They are lawmakers, not service providers. Give the agencies enough budget to deliver the service the people need."

Organizers hoping for a million-strong turnout country-wide set up boards to try to collect signatures to press the government to scrap the scheme. About 1,500 police were deployed, but no incidents were reported.

Aquino, who won the presidency in 2010 on a good governance and anti-corruption platform, consistently enjoys popularity ratings of more than 70 per cent, a feat not seen by previous presidents. He has served half of his single six-year term.

Civic groups issued the call for a protest after a state audit showed some legislators had funnelled a total of $226 million to non-existent projects and aid groups under the previous presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, now charged with plunder and electoral fraud.

The scandal centered on a powerful businesswoman, Janet Lim-Napoles, who allegedly collaborated with a number of senators and more than a dozen congressmen in channeling some of the funds. She has since gone into hiding after she was charged with illegal detention of a whistleblower. 

Local media reports of her lavish lifestyle have angered many ordinary taxpayers in the Southeast Asian country, where nearly 28 per cent of the 97 million people live in extreme poverty.

Aquino's proposal would require projects under the fund to be separately earmarked in the government's budget, unlike in previous years where the money was placed under a single line entry consisting of about 1.1 per cent of available funds.

The president also promised to prosecute those found to have misused the funds.