Philippine lawmakers’ budget funds controversial anti-communist task force

Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem
2022.12.05
Manila
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Philippine lawmakers’ budget funds controversial anti-communist task force Filipinos hold banners, including one calling for the abolition of a government anti-communist task force, as they stage a protest outside the Philippine Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, July 25, 2022. The protest took place as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. delivered his first State of the Nation speech to Filipino lawmakers.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

The Philippine Congress allocated 10 billion pesos to the anti-communist task force’s operating budget Monday although the agency spent few of its funds for the previous fiscal year, leading an activist to say the money should go toward social services.

Congress’ Bicameral Conference Committee allotted the funds – the equivalent of about U.S. $178.5 million – under the fiscal 2023 budget.

The figure is down from the 17.1 billion pesos ($305 million) allotted in the 2022 spending plan to the so-called National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

The 4-year-old agency oversees government efforts to take on the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA). 

“We restored the budget. Almost P10 billion,” said Rep. Zaldy Co, chairman of the House Appropriations Panel, after the committee met to discuss the task force’s operating budget.

The CPP has been waging one of Asia’s longest-running rebellions, dating to 1969. The fighting has killed thousands of Filipinos, and efforts at peace talks have failed repeatedly. 

Co said Congress recognized the need for the task force to continue with its work and “help end the country’s decades-long insurgency.”

“That’s the decision of the House, to restore the funds, because it’s difficult if the youth are recruited to take the wrong path. We want them to secure the future of our children,” he said. 

The House panel, he said, worked to convince its counterpart in the Senate to set the budgetary figure for the task force. Last year, the upper chamber called for slashing it to just 4 billion pesos ($71 million) before agreeing to 17.1 billion. 

“After all, this is one of the key priorities of President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., which was clearly outlined in the National Expenditure Program the administration sent to Congress,” Co said.

Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of Karapatan, a local human rights group, said it strongly objected to allowing the task force, as she described it, to use state funds to go after activists and defenders of human rights.  

“Instead of restoring this agency’s budget, the public will be better served with the abolition of the NTF-ELCAC with its funding rechanneled to social service programs,” Palabay said. 

In the 2022 fiscal year, agency funding was allotted to other state projects after the NTF-ELCAC used just 2 percent of its funds, according to documents presented in Congress.

In addition, the government’s Commission on Audit reported red flags against the task force including unauthorized fund transfers and incomplete documentation. 

Officials did not comment on the spending figures.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who left office in late June, established the task force in December 2018 after peace negotiations with the communists failed.

The body is mandated to implement the government’s two-pronged strategy to stamp out the insurgency – sustained military operations against guerrilla units coupled with local government programs to entice rebels to defect. Those programs include amnesty and economic aid packages.  

Palabay accused lawmakers of backpedaling after pressure from House Speaker Martin Romualdez and Senior Deputy Majority Leader Sandro Marcos, the president’s cousin and son, respectively. 

“We believe the NTF-ELCAC’s budget was restored as part of the horse trading and dirty dealing that goes on away from public scrutiny in the bicameral conference committee,” she said. 

House and Senate representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Palabay’s accusation.

‘Chief red-tagger’

Instead of working toward solving the root causes of the insurgency, the government is using the task force to go after its critics by accusing the political opposition of being communists or communist sympathizers. 

The practice, known as “red-tagging” here, has not spared independent journalists. The task force was widely panned for accusing a local journalist of being a sympathizer when she wrote about indigenous tribesmen petitioning against a controversial anti-terrorism law. 

Tetch Torres-Tupas, a Philippine Daily News reporter, wrote about tribe members asking for the Supreme Court’s permission to join 37 petitions that seek to declare the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 unconstitutional.

Carlos Conde, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the budgetary move showed that the Marcos administration was no different than Duterte’s in terms of “assaulting the rights of Filipinos.”

“The task force is the chief red-tagger of the government and various groups as well as the U.N. itself have denounced red-tagging because it endangers the lives of people and constricts democratic space,” he told BenarNews.

“If anyone needs proof that Marcos’ avowals to the international community of respect for human rights is just mere rhetoric and lip service, this is it,” he said.

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