MANILA, Philippines — Tens of thousands of Filipinos protested in a Manila park on Monday to call for 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 are extremely poor.
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 there were around 60,000 protesters.
Similar protests were being held in a dozen other cities across the country, in New York and other cities where there are concentrations of Filipinos.
Some protesters carried placards saying "Senators, you should be ashamed of yourselves." Others wore masks with a picture of a pig's face, or shirts calling for the abolition of the fund.
Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, speaking to the cheering crowd, urged all to show that the Filipino is honorable, to support policies that offer a way to heroism and to feel the heartbeat of the nation and the sufferings of the poor. The rally coincides with National Heroes Day.
"Let us also listen to the voice of God, especially in our conscience," Tagle added.
Activist-actress Mae Paner wore a pig's snout, a wig and a barrel around her body.
"I am being one with the millions of Filipinos who are saying no to pork," she said. "We all want to abolish the pork barrel system in our country."
Critics said President Benigno Aquino III's promise Friday to reform the system was not enough and all pork barrel funds must be abolished because they are prone to corruption.
Aquino, who has made fighting against corruption a centerpiece of his administration, said there was nothing "intrinsically wrong" with the system but it has been abused by "a few greedy individuals."
He vowed to prosecute those responsible for misusing the fund.
He said under the new system, legislators could still identify projects but they would need approval and would be closely scrutinized.
Aquino also issued guidelines to safeguard public funds, including the publication of bids and awarding of projects.
In his speech marking National Heroes' Day, Aquino reiterated his promise.
"We will do everything in our power to find those who conspired to take advantage of the PDAF's good intentions, and to hold them accountable," he added, referring to the Priority Development Assistance Fund.