NEW YORK CITY, USA – It was warm and sunny in the teeming streets of 5th Avenue in New York City Sunday, August 25 (New York time) as the last of the summer tourists marched up and down its wide sidewalks.
Under the scaffolding shrouding the Philippine consulate, Filipino-American activists trickled into the area carrying the mask of pigs.
They formed a disparate lot. Filipino-American tycoon Loida Nicolas Lewis wore yellow and carried a placard declaring that “rascals” involved in the pork barrel scandal in the Philippines be voted out of office in 2016.
There were left-wing Bayan activists shouting “Huwag matakot!” (Don’t be afraid). Déjà vu. It was like an echo of the 1970s.
Merit Salud stood nearby. A graduate of Ateneo de Manila in 1969 and its law school four years later, he was holding an unlit cigarette in his hand while chatting with Rappler.
“The President and the government must recognize that the people are really mad at the systemic corruption in public office,” Salud, wearing a red T-shirt and white short pants, said.
The shameful scandal had seemingly unified Filipinos of all political stripes and inclinations, something I had not seen since the first EDSA revolt in 1986 when ordinary Filipinos of a generation ago stood ready to literally die for their country.
About 100 or so Filipino-American activists marched in a tight sliver of the sidewalk in front of the consulate, which was of course shut because it was Sunday here.
The 100 formed the vanguard of the hundreds of thousands or maybe a million people expected to converge on Luneta later that day.
The group was distinctly unimpressed by the action of President Benigno Aquino III to scrap the pork money flowing from what is known as the Priority Development Assistance Fund and replace it with a new mechanism which would still allow legislators to propose projects for funding.
“We Filipinos abroad say the President has not gone far enough. He should, once and for all, get rid of the system that has allowed politicians to dip their hands into the country’s coffers practically at will, while a majority of Filipinos suffer from grinding poverty,” a statement which originally began in Hong Kong and was being signed by participants of the rally in New York said.
Passersby would take one quick look at the rally and move quickly on.
“What’s this about,” a Latino cradling his infant daughter asked me.
“It’s about politicians in the Philippines stealing public money,” I say. He nodded, stared at the placards a few more seconds and walked on.
One activist said they should have emulated the plans in Manila for a rally with no speakers. But some people wanted to say something so they agreed for the sake of unity.
One writer listened to a speaker denounce the injustices in the Philippines with a familiar cadence of left-wing politics. “I’m too old and cynical to listen to that and take it seriously,” the writer, a veteran of the politics of the first quarter storm, quipped.
Back then, one participant in the rally said in trying to put the pork barrel scandal in perspective, they were only stealing small stuff. Even the so-called golden arinola (chamber pot) of then President Elpidio Quirino probably only cost P100,000.
I told her that back then, the exchange rate was 2 pesos to 1 US$1. Today, it is 43 to $1 and the going rate in ghost NGO projects would run into the billions of pesos. I am not really certain which era stinks more.
Pork and corruption is not new. It has been around since a certain member of the Philippine Congress said in the late 1940s: “What are we in power for?”
I asked one activist where do we go from here.
She said maybe it is time for a civil disobedience movement to take off in the Philippines to radically change the way things are run in the country.
We were interrupted while the demonstrators sang the Philippine national anthem.
I turned back to the activist and asked: “Do you think it is time for people in the Philippines to shut down the country if nothing is done?”
She nodded her head.
Thinking for a few minutes, I think she is probably right.
“We have to stand up for our country,” Loida Lewis, wearing the trade mark yellow which became the symbol of Cory Aquino, said while marching on 5th Avenue. – Rappler.com