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Cautious hope for the Philippines
Publication Date : 18-09-2013
Freudian slip? Asked for his reaction to the National Bureau of Investigation’s filing of charges against him and 37 other people last Monday in connection with the pork barrel scam, Philippine Sen. Jinggoy Estrada defended himself thus: “They are conditioning the mind of the public that we are the worst thieves, and that I cannot accept.”
Note the wording. Estrada didn’t deny that he and his co-accused are thieves, only that they are the worst ones – which may be technically true. Guinness lists Ferdinand Marcos as having made off with the largest loot in the country’s history. Ex-presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have both been accused of the heinous crime of plunder, with the former convicted of it and the latter’s nine-year stay in Malacanang pockmarked by one corruption scandal after another.
So Estrada may not be the worst—but if the NBI charge sheet is true, he is guilty of plunder to the tune of 183.79 million pesos (US$4.21 million). That makes him only the second worst, with the top honours going to Sen. Bong Revilla, who is said to have pocketed 224.5 million pesos ($5.14 million) in kickbacks from businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles. Former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, meanwhile, stands accused of stealing 172.8 million pesos ($3.96 million).
The three senators are at the top of the sordid food chain of government officials and enterprising outside operators like Napoles who, according to the NBI and the Department of Justice, conspired to profit from the misappropriation, conversion, misuse, and malversation of their Priority Development Assistance Fund, or PDAF. Three other congressmen are accused of the lesser crimes of malversation, direct bribery and other graft and corrupt practices, since the amounts they received were allegedly less than the 50-million-peso ($1.14 million) threshold for plunder. Joining them in the dock are a slew of lawmakers’ chiefs of staff and representatives, heads and officials of implementing agencies, and presidents of NGOs allegedly set up by Napoles.
Step back a bit and appreciate the historic import of this moment. At no other time in the Philippines’ largely inutile history of fighting against official corruption has so large a net been cast, with so many top-tier government officials being charged with irregularities in their official functions, and during their incumbency yet.
If credit must be given, some of it should go to President Aquino’s administration, for making good on its promise to file charges against those implicated in the PDAF scam. But the much bigger credit should go to the citizenry, whose collective outrage at the scandal was what forced the hand of Malacanang not only to announce the abolition of the PDAF in subsequent budgets, but also to get Napoles into custody and work on building a case against those implicated by the disclosures of Benhur Luy and other whistle-blowers, and the confirmatory report by the Commission on Audit on the lawmakers’ pork-barrel misuse.
This is only the beginning, of course. The hard part is making the charges stick and bringing the prosecution home, something for which the government has no estimable track record to speak of. It’s worthwhile to remember that the PDAF scam did not happen in a vacuum; its enormousness and brazenness are merely the natural spawn of the culture of impunity that has long ruled this country.
To date, the Marcoses have not only eluded the long arm of the law, they have even made the smoothest of political comebacks. Former President Estrada may have been convicted of plunder after a drawn-out four-year trial, but he was promptly pardoned by Arroyo. And he is now the mayor of Manila.
Decades of unpunished depredation by sundry politicians and officials have made the people contemptuous and cynical of the government—and who can blame them? But the staggering dimensions of the pork barrel scam have energised them in ways that have shaken the ruling class like never before.
The cases against Senators Revilla, Estrada et al. is a test case: whether the ruling dispensation can convict its erring members, and send the message that the days of rapaciousness and greed are over. Not because these erring members have gone straight, but because the public has wised up to their ways, and will be watching more carefully from now on.
So, 38 people charged in the 10-billion-peso ($229 million) pork barrel scam for a start, and, according to the NBI, one million sheets of bond paper to reproduce the evidence against them. Dare we add the nation’s cautious hope to that mix?