Stealing people’s money

Leandro DD Coronel
By Leandro DD Coronel

The recent exposes of corruption in the Philippine military have given the Filipino people a solid idea of how much of their money was being stolen by previous government officials.

Corruption in government has been an open secret in Philippine society practically since Independence. Filipino officials have turned corruption into an art form. They’re good, very good, at it.

The revelations of the amounts of money stolen by military top brass indicate that the thievery runs in the billions of pesos. Even so, I think the amounts exposed so far are only the tip of a huge iceberg.

And not only is the stealing limited to the military. Large bureaucracies that carry out vast amounts of procurement must be dens of massive corruption also — huge bureaucracies like the education department and the department of public works. These Cabinet-level departments have budgets in the billions of pesos. Massive theft of public money is easily hidden and camouflaged in huge, complicated budgets and labyrinthian bureaucracies.

No wonder government services geared toward helping the public are way below par — their budgets are plundered by their own officials. Money that should go toward public services is instead siphoned off to line officials’ pockets. It’s not unusual for public officials — including, and especially, elected ones from top to bottom — to own mansions and expensive cars.

A sensational massacre of 57 people in 2009 in Maguindanao province in southern Philippines allegedly involved a clan of political warlords who live in grand mansions and owned fleets of very expensive vehicles and a veritable arsenal of war materiel that would make a legitimate army green with envy. All this power and luxury in the midst of extreme poverty among the people in their province. Political families like this one had existed before but thrived even more during the previous administration.

Slowly, the graft and corruption that had been taking place over the years is being exposed today. Eight months in office, the administration of President Benigno Aquino has been plodding along in its avowed mission of ferreting out the rotten deals and plunder committed under the previous government.

These revelations of massive theft of public money wouldn’t have surfaced during the administration of the hated Gloria Arroyo. So it’s only now that exposes of plunder are coming out.

Scandal after scandal rocked Gloria Arroyo’s government, involving alleged rigging of electoral votes, money kickbacks and bribes from potential investors, corruption in the various bureaucracies and other shenanigans. When newsmedia exposed such rotten deals, Arroyo increasingly felt besieged. Many sectors of society became disenchanted with her and a clamor for her resignation became louder and louder.

Arroyo’s presidency soon became unsteady and precarious. She needed allies to prop her up.

Assailed from all directions, Arroyo couldn’t control her political destiny on her own anymore. She bribed her allies with money and other perks just so they wouldn’t abandon her. She closed her eyes to the excesses of her local political allies. She cultivated the military and police generals and gave them opportunites to amass unprecedented wealth and power. They gorged it up like starved pigs.

And so, the stealing and abuse of power went on unabated. The pampered officials went to town and helped themselves to the public coffers. Their personal shame or self-control, if they had any, didn’t get in their way, the sky’s the limit.

Today, all this shameless plunder and abuse is slowly surfacing. The whistleblowers who have come forward to expose the abuse have said they’ve come out only now because coming out during the Arroyo administration would have been futile. Indeed, the whistleblowers themselves risked being thrown in jail instead during that time.

How much more wrongdoing and abuse will the public know in the coming weeks and months? How many more billions will be involved?

The key question is: how many people who stole the people’s money will be thrown in jail?

The Philippines is notorious for letting criminals go scot-free even when the evidence against them is solid and cut-and-dried. Indeed, a military comptroller accused of plunder was recently able to con government prosecutors into allowing him to plea-bargain his way out of jail.

President Aquino’s main campaign slogan was to get rid of corruption and throw the book at the crooks in government. He has time and again repeated that this is still the chief mission of his government.

So, Will theAquino administration be able to send all the crooks to jail? Will the President have the resources to sustain a campaign of bringing to court past abusers of power? Will his people have the stamina and dedication to finish their mission? Will he have the budgetary resources to finance the crusade to rid government of crooks? Will he have the staying power and moral suasion to persuade the general populace to back him up and engage in personal moral transformation too? Indeed, will the people continue to let the President do his work?

These are the big questions that need answers. Meantime, it’s every citizen’s duty and responsibility to pull his and her own weight in this renewed task of nation-building.


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