Government defends surge in budget of red-tagging task force
In this photo taken August 18, 2020, Anakpawis holds 'Candle Lighting for Justice' for slain activists Randall Echanis and Zara Alvarez.

Government defends surge in budget of red-tagging task force

Ramon Royandoyan (Philstar.com) - September 9, 2020 - 3:57pm

MANILA, Philippines — Large sums of money to be allocated to a controversial task force that has “red-tagged” individuals will fund local economic projects and not buy arms and escalate the government’s fight against communist rebels. 

In an online Senate hearing on Wednesday, Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado said the proposed P16.4-billion budget lodged under President Rodrigo Duterte’s National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) will, in fact, be released to barangays and not to the agency.

“The projects are identified by barangays themselves. It’s just NTF-ELCAC, being the national secretariat, is the repository of all these projects from the barangays,” Avisado told lawmakers.

“The funds are not released to NTF-ELCAC but released to the local government units for them to implement,” he added.

Projects such as farm-to-market roads, school buildings and vocational trainings are eyed for the funding, which represented a whopping 2,969% year-on-year increase from this year’s P622.3 million budget, the budget chief explained.

NTF-ELCAC’s proposed outlay became the subject of questions from Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who highlighted how a task force, created by President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order 70 in 2018, would get bigger funding than line agencies mandated by law.

Among others, Drilon said NTF-ELCAC’s budget, if approved as is, will be larger than that of the labor department’s P15.9 billion, as well as separate outlays of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (P7.5 billion), tourism department (P3.5 billion) and the trade agency (P5.5 billion), all of which are currently in the front-lines of the push for economic recovery from the pandemic.

“Are we saying that the communist insurgency will be a bigger threat than our unemployment than our poverty situation?” Drilon asked to which Avisado pointed out that NTF-ELCAC’s budget will be funneled to barangay programs.

But Drilon was unconvinced, saying that if indeed barangays stand to benefit from NTF-ELCAC’s budget, why is there a need for more red tape. “You know, our problem is we keep creating  bureaucracies. We keep on creating layers,” he said.

From peace to war

NTF-ELCAC was formed months after Duterte abandoned high-level peace talks with rebel groups, supposedly with an end in view of “attaining inclusive and sustainable peace” through a more localized negotiations. 

But since then, not only did Duterte, who hails from Mindanao, has repeatedly threatened to wage war against the rebels, NTF-ELCAC had also engaged on red-tagging people in social media to insinuate that they are communist insurgents out to overthrow the government. 

Among others, the task force attacked ABS-CBN Corp. for “having issues with the law.” The broadcast giant, whose new license air was dropped by Duterte’s allies in the Lower House, was cleared of any violations by state agencies themselves. In its most recent blunder last month, NTF-ELCAC also accused Atom Araullo, journalist, of being “biased” for airing a documentary about the struggles of tribespeople.

Drilon, for his part, has a different concern, with the 2022 presidential elections fast approaching. “Here is a secretariat who would be playing god to the request of barangays,” he said. 

“I’ll call a spade a spade, you have an agency, not a regular line agency, just somebody who will be approving or disapproving barangay requests for funding so you can imagine the political favors that can be done out this system,” he said. Avisado, for his part, did not mention how barangays can get hold of funds from NTF-ELCAC.

Toward this end, Senator Ronald de la Rosa, Duterte’s former police chief, asked Avisado to assure the Senate that NTF-ELCAC’s funds will “ not be used to buy guns and bullets to end the communist problem.”

“These are economic programs that barangays have long been waiting for so they don’t return to problems where no one is focused on these kinds of problems,” he said.

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