Malacañang on Thursday rejected a demand by six senators to defund the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) for red-baiting some organizers of the community pantries that emerged to help the hungry poor sectors amid the pandemic.
The Palace, through presidential spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque, branded the call as “unjustified” as the public would benefit from NTF-ELCAC projects.
“The funds of NTF-ELCAC are being used for projects to improve areas with rebels. So, for me, the calls are not justified,” Roque said in a televised briefing.
“Let us allow (it) to do (its) roles if (it is) doing something official there,” he added.
AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana reiterated the military’s support to the community pantries as he cautioned officials against issuing controversial statements against those behind the said citizens-led initiative, chastising NTF-ELCAC spokesperson Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade.
Sobejana and Parlade, also the Southern Luzon Command chief, were classmates in the Philippine Military Academy Class of 1987.
“I called the attention of Parlade and invited him. I reiterated to him my guidance, that is to exercise due diligence. General Parlade is the spokesperson of the NTF-ELCAC, but as far as the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is concerned, that is our stand. That’s what I told him,” stated the military chief.
“We are in a turmoil, with Covid-19 and security problems, we have many problems. That’s why this gesture, where the less fortunate are being fed, is seen as humanitarian action and the Armed Forces are in full support,” he added.
Sobejana is even considering having troops donate part of their allowance to help sustain the activities, particularly pinning the task to the AFP’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil-Military Operations, or J7, as well as its sub-units, to extend support.
“The existing community pantries, we will support them. Areas still without them, we will set up similar activities,” he told reporters.
“We are now looking for funds for this purpose. I am contemplating (on) asking (soldiers) to donate one day of their allowance to support these community pantries or other similar activities.”
Not even a change in tact and view of the AFP on these community pantries could appease livid lawmakers who demanded to defund the agency.
Days after red-baiting organizers of the community pantries that have now sprouted in nearly 500 localities nationwide, defense and military establishments on Thursday expressed support to the mostly private endeavor with units even donating vegetables to the different community pantries in Quezon City.
Among the recipients of these donated vegetables was the community pantry organized by Ana Patricia Non, a constant figure in help drives who was recently red-baited by Parlade, who also on Thursday called the senators “stupid” for demanding the NTF-ELCAC’s defunding during a CNN interview also on Thursday.
Senator Richard Gordon got back at Parlade, calling the profiling and red-tagging activities of the NTF-ELCAC as “imbecilic, stupid, and shameful”.
Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon dared President Rodrigo Duterte to realign the NTF-ELCAC budget as the agency is only being used to conduct McCarthyism activities.
It was named after the late US Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin who led a series of hearings during the red scare period in the 1950s that were actually defamation of character or reputation by indiscriminate allegations against persons on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.
Drilon, along with senators Risa Hontiveros, Joel Villanueva, Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian Gordon, have pushed to withdraw the NTF-ELCAC P19-billion funding for 2021.
“I am glad that my colleagues joined me in that call. We do not have to wait for 2022 budget debates to defund NTF-ELCAC. The President should realign the NTF-ELCAC under the 2021 GAA now,” Drilon said.
The agency’s primary aim is to stop the more than 50 years of Maoist-inspired insurgency launched by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) in 1969.
The CPP-NPA grew the largest in the 1980s when the government assessed its armed fighters to numbers from 10,000 to 25,000 at the most.
In January this year, Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo — the AFP spokesperson told Daily Tribune that the NPA has “armed (units of) between 3,500-4,000. And continuously and irreversibly declining”.
It is against this small army of fighters that the NTF-ELCAC’s P19-billion fund is being spent.
The fund is bigger than this year’s budget for the Human Resources for Health Program that is allotted P16.6 billion for the deployment of doctors, nurses, and other health workers to disadvantaged communities and national hospitals.
It’s even more than the P4.7 billion allocated for the procurement of more than two million sets of personal protective equipment for hospitals, laboratories and regional swab centers to ensure the safety of health workers as the country fights the Covid-19 pandemic.
Only around P7.8 billion is allocated for the repair, upgrading, completion, and new construction of Barangay Health Stations, Rural Health Units, and Polyclinics; upgrading of hospital equipment, laboratories, and quarantine facilities in different regions; provision of medical transport in different regions; and monitoring of Health Facilities Enhancement Program (HFEP) projects.
The NTF-ELCAC’s 2021 budget just fell short of several billions against the national infrastructure’s Bridge Program (P25.4 billion), but still more than the Land Public Transportation Program (P12.64 billion), and way, way over the Maritime Infrastructure Program (P562.41 million).
The National Rice Program only has P15.5 billion budget this year.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, meanwhile, said: “Kindness is everyone’s color, whatever he believes in. The Department of National Defense appreciates and supports the initiatives of these community pantries.”
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi also said that “any initiative to provide food aid to our countrymen in need should be welcomed”. He likened the initiative to his own feeding program called “Duterte’s Kitchen” which is now running for five years.
National Privacy Commissioner Raymund Liboro, meanwhile, openly “denounce(d) in the strongest terms any act of unjust profiling of community pantry organizers whom we consider heroes of this pandemic as this may violate their right to privacy”. (With Sundy Locus, Tina Maralit and Raffy Ayeng)