MANILA (UPDATE) — Malacañang on Monday reminded government officials to be "more careful" with their public pronouncements, after some lawmakers eyed defunding an anti-communist task force over its supposed red-tagging of community pantries.
Some senators and House leaders threatened to defund the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) after its spokesperson Lt. General Antonio Parlade Jr. linked the community pantries to the communist movement, and likened one organizer to Satan.
"Ang ating pakiusap po ay alam naman po natin ang polisiya natin. Wini-welcomenatin itong bayanihan ng community pantries," said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
"Hinihingi natin sa lahat ng opisyales, maging mas maingat at maging mas, ang how should I put it, mas malalim sa kanilang mga sinasabi. Kailangan mas malalim ang kanilang pang-unawa," he said in a press briefing.
(Our request is know our policy. We welcome these community pantries. We are asking all officials, be more careful and–how should I put it–be deeper in what they say. They should deepen their understanding.)
NTF-ELCAC vice chair National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. has ordered Parlade and Communications Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy, another spokesperson of the task force, to refrain from commenting on the community pantries.
Malacañang earlier rejected what it said were "unjustified" calls to defund the task force.
"Tingin ko naman po alam ng ating mga mambabatas na ang programa, may ibang rationale kaysa doon sa tumatayong tagapagsalita," Roque said in Monday's briefing.
(I think our lawmakers know that the program has a different rationale compared to its spokesperson.)
Fear of being linked to the communist movement has forced some community pantries to suspend operations.
Malacañang has denied that the charity movement spread across the country due to government incompetence and lack of government aid.
Meanwhile, the Makabayan bloc led by Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas has asked the House Committee on Public Accounts to conduct an inquiry in aid of legislation on the P19-billion budget of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict in the 2021 National Budget, citing questionable Special Allotment Release Orders issued by the Department of Budget and Management for the NTF-ELCAC’s Support to Barangay Development Program.
The bloc is also asking for the immediate suspension of SARI Issuances for NTFELCAC’s programs, activities and projects.
In the resolution, the bloc noted that NTFELCAC’s P19-billion budget is higher than the P2.5 billion allotted for COVID-19 vaccine procurement and distribution in the 2021 budget.
“NTF-ELCAC’s P19 billion budget for 2021 is roughly four times of the P5.6 billion 2021 budget of the Department of Trade and Industry which is in-charge of providing various forms of assistance to troubled micro, small and medium scale enterprises and 21 times that of the Office of the Vice President FY 2021 budget worth P 900 million," they said in the resolution.
The bloc also pointed out that P2.6 billion in the NTF-ELCAC budget has been dispersed in several agencies without any definite project breakdown.
However, P16.44 billion are appropriated under the Local Government Support Fund Support to Barangay Development Program which is a discretionary special purpose fund.
The resolution flagged 14 SAROs worth a grand total of P9.6 billion that were released from March 24, 2021 to April 23, 2021.
“No single centavo must be spent on a task force that has openly maligned and red tagged members of the House of Representatives, celebrities, ordinary citizens and even organizers of community pantries," the group said.
In a press release, Brosas claimed that the NTF-ELCAC is reviving the controversial pork barrel system through the SBDP.
Citing the same data from the DBM website, Brosas said that SAROs worth P9.66 billion have been released to the program for unspecified projects, which would be implemented by the provincial government, or national government agencies including the AFP Engineer Brigade.
"Instead of asking community pantry organizers to provide an accounting of how donations were spent, the red-tagging task force must provide details on how the P9.66-billion in SAROs are intended to be used, especially as the amounts are highly questionable," Brosas said.
“We fear that funds for the SBDP will be prone to corruption, patronage, and abuse in relation to intensified red-tagging, especially as the 2022 elections are approaching. We reiterate our call to rechannel the P19-billion budget of the task force to sufficient emergency cash aid,” she added.
In a separate resolution filed Friday, Deputy Speaker Bienvenido "Benny" Abante Jr., urged the House of Representatives to act "to reallocate the 16 billion pesos allotted for the NTF-ELCAC’s barangay development projects to subsidy programs under the DSWD and the DOLE meant to provide financial support for unemployed Filipinos and underprivileged families."
"Given the gravity of the problems brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in light of the inability of NTF-ELCAC to properly perform its functions, the government should prioritize efforts to provide financial assistance and other forms of support to our countrymen who have no sources of income or have limited means as a result of the pandemic," the resolution said.
The NTF-ELCAC was established via Executive Order Number 80, s. 2018., which states that the NTF-ELCAC was created to implement a “Whole-of-Nation Approach” that "addresses the root causes of insurgencies, internal disturbances and tensions, and other conflicts and threats by prioritizing and harmonizing the delivery of basic services and social development packages by the government, facilitating societal inclusivity, and ensuring active participation of all sectors of the society in the pursuit of the country’s peace agenda.”
"Rather than promote inclusivity, the NTF-ELCAC continues to alienate potential allies; rather than encourage the public to support its objectives, it continues to draw its ire; rather than be a light for peace, it continues to be a lightning rod of conflict," said Abante.
- with a report from RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News