Manila, Philippines – In a country where millions of people survive on just a dollar a day, Janet Lim Napoles’ claims that she comes from a humble family are hard for many Filipinos to accept. Her 23-year-old daughter Jeane, fresh out of college in the US, owns a $1.89m condo at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Los Angeles. That’s apart from the $9.5m worth of properties the family has across California. The Napoles matriarch is known for her generosity, subsidising Catholic priests and giving out a $1,500 engraved Montblanc pen to a Philippine senator.
But in mid-August, Napoles went into hiding. The businesswoman, who reportedly owns at least 28 luxury houses in the Philippines, was accused of funneling $232m in government funds intended for farmers through ghost projects linked to senators and more than a dozen congressmen. The scandal has ignited a wave of public anger that led to mass anti-corruption protests on Monday, attracting an estimated 100,000 people in the capital Manila and other major cities.
The protesters were demanding the abolition of the “pork barrel”, the practice of appropriating public money for local projects through Congress. A legacy of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the practice has remained untouched and has become a source of massive corruption. While the Philippine economy has posted solid gains over the last decade, protesters say the country will continue to be stuck in poverty if institutionalised corruption persists – a problem that now bedevils the popular President Benigno Aquino III.
The pork barrel, historically, has always been abused regardless of the administration, regardless of party affiliation, and all of us know that.
From college students to members of the clergy to regular citizens, the rain-soaked protesters marched, chanting in Filipino, “No more pork”.
“This scandal is so gut-wrenching,” Peachy Rallonza-Bretana, the public face of the social media-driven demonstration, said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “That’s 32 percent of income tax and 12 percent sales tax that I pay to the government. It’s so personal it makes you angry.”
Bretana, an advertising executive who has never led a protest before, said the recent corruption case drove her to post a comment on Facebook that snowballed into a call for “a million people march”. Last week’s massive flooding and the much-criticised government response only drew more attention to the scandal.
“We have been duped for far too long,” she said. “We want the pork barrel abolished, and we want a transparent investigation and prosecution of those who are guilty.”
President under pressure
On Friday, seeking to defuse the growing public pressure while navigating the political realities in Congress, President Aquino – a former senator and congressman – changed course and announced plans to implement reforms.
“The shocking revelations of this misuse are truly scandalous,” he said in a national address. “Now, we will create a new mechanism to address the needs [of constituents], in a manner that is transparent, methodical and rational, and not susceptible to abuse or corruption.”
After hearing the details of the multi-million dollar scam, however, many were in no mood to accept Aquino’s proposal. Former national treasurer Leonor Briones told Al Jazeera that Aquino did “not address the very source of corruption itself, which is congressional and senatorial interference in the budget process”.
“The pork barrel, historically, has always been abused regardless of the administration, regardless of party affiliation, and all of us know that,” Briones said, adding that no president has dared to confront Congress on the issue.
Briones, now head of the watchdog group Social Watch Philippines, also said that the pork barrel is only the “tip of the iceberg”, pointing to the president’s own annual discretionary fund, which this year is at least $7.2bn.
For now, though, much of the ire is being directed at Napoles, who before going into hiding declared that “not a single peso” of their wealth came from the government. One of Napoles’ lawyers added that her client’s family started out trading meat products including chicken and pork, and later expanded into the export business.
I see some of my neighbors who are unable to eat three times a day. They could have benefited from that stolen money.
What enraged the public were the details of Napoles’ alleged dealings with top government officials, in which 60 percent of the pork-barrel funds reportedly went to legislators.
One of the witnesses in the scandal told the local broadsheet Philippine Daily Inquirer that bags of money were stashed in the bathtub of Napoles’ master bedroom in a posh condo in a Manila suburb. The money was reportedly distributed as bribes to lawmakers.
While this was going on, Napoles still managed to get involved with Catholic charities, providing shelter for prominent priests and foreign clerics inside the Philippines’ most exclusive subdivision.
Napoles and her family also reportedly maintained at least 415 bank accounts that are now subject to a government freeze order.
‘This is just the beginning’
Edly Aparejado, 55, comes from a squatter community in the Manila suburb of Caloocan. She said she was saddened after hearing about the scandal.
“They could have used that money to build houses for the poor,” Aparejado, who joined the protest, told Al Jazeera. “I see some of my neighbors who are unable to eat three times a day. They could have benefited from that stolen money.”
For Homer Castillo, 38, the father of two grade-school students, the protest “has been a long time coming”. He added that many poor families share the same sentiments, but were unable to join the protest because they couldn’t afford to do so.
Law student Eric Joven, another protester who voted for Aquino for president, said he hopes the demonstration will have substantial results, such as the imprisonment of those involved in the scam and the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, which seeks to open government records to public scrutiny. “This is just the beginning, and I hope that the people will remain vigilant,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bretana, the march’s spokesperson, said social media will be critical in sustaining public engagement on the issue after the protests have died down. “We cannot let this chance go, and we have to hold onto this to effect change,” she said.