Philippine Senate Proposes Deep Cuts to Budget for Anti-Communist Task-Force

Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem
Manila
2021-11-11
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Philippine Senate Proposes Deep Cuts to Budget for Anti-Communist Task-Force Communist New People’s Army fighters stand in formation in Langonlong, a town in Misamis Oriental province, Philippines, May 2, 2016.
Froilan Gallardo/BenarNews

The Philippine Senate is proposing to slash billions of pesos from the budget of a government task-force fighting the country’s long-running communist insurgency, and target the funds for COVID-19-related projects instead, officials said. 

The Senate’s finance committee earlier this week said it would allocate only 4 billion pesos (U.S. $80 million) for the 2022 budget of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). This cuts about 24 billion pesos ($480 million) from the proposed budget, officials said, adding that deliberations over the agency’s funding took weeks.

Sen. Leila de Lima, a jailed leader of the opposition who sits on the committee, said the proposed budget cut came about largely because of questions about the task force’s use of funds. Some of the questions focused on proposed spending on projects in villages that were cleared of communist guerrillas.

“The government has been so obsessed with funding its so-called ‘anti-insurgency’ program at the expense of our survival amid the pandemic,” she said. 

As a result, the committee members “took away the bulk of the NTF-ELCAC’s 2022 budget and realigned the funds to crucial pandemic-response programs,” de Lima said. 

Part of the realigned funds target compensating health workers, including their long-delayed “special risk allowance,” she said.  

De Lima was among the senators who have been calling for a special audit or the total defunding of NTF-ELCAC, which implements the administration’s strategy to end the local communist insurgency that began in 1969 and is the longest in Asia.

The strategy focuses on sustained military operations against guerrilla units coupled with local government programs to entice rebels to defect, including amnesty and economic aid packages.  

‘Duplication’

Vice President Leni Robredo, another leading opponent of President Rodrigo Duterte who is running for president in the May 2022 election, called the task force redundant.

“There is a duplication in the mandate because there are already existing agencies doing its job. It looks like the agency was created just for the sake of giving it funds,” she told reporters on Thursday.

She compared the NTF-ELCAC using its funds to eliminate alleged communist fronts and leftist organizations to the government’s anti-drugs program. 

“What I am afraid of is that there’s this very powerful group that can abuse power and ‘tokhang’ could happen again,” Robredo said in Filipino, referring to the prototype for the nationwide anti-drug campaign that killed thousands. 

Tokhang is a combination of two Filipino words meaning to “knock and plead,” a strategy where police reach out to people harboring suspected drug addicts or dealers and ask them to surrender. The word has morphed to mean summary killings. 

Earlier, human rights activists voiced fears that the practice was being used by authorities to arrest perceived dissidents or members of left-leaning groups that criticize the Duterte administration. 

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the Senate’s decision to slash the budget showed its “lack of appreciation” for the plight of remote communities suffering under communist threat. 

“Their act was supposed to punish NTF-ELCAC, but in effect they are suffering the poor people who would have benefitted from the infrastructure and social services projects,” Lorenzana said in a statement. 

He said Robredo’s concern that the funds could be used to finance tokhang was misplaced.

“VP Robredo may consider inviting NTF-ELCAC for a dialogue so she can be enlightened on the inter-agency body’s mission,” he said. 

In recent years, activists and personalities associated with progressive groups were killed in assassinations or in police operations, often after they were accused of being members of communist front groups. 

The agency has caused a public furor over accusing lawmakers, journalists and celebrities of being supporters of the outlawed communist movement. 

In February, its spokesman accused Tetch Torres-Tupas, a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, of being a communist propagandist after she reported about indigenous tribesmen petitioning against a controversial anti-terrorism law government passed last year. The spokesman later apologized.

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