MANILA — National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Monday balked at suggestions to realign the billions of funds allocated to an anti-insurgency task force, amid calls for the Philippine government to provide much-needed “ayuda” or aid to citizens affected by the reimposition of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ).
Speaking at an online forum organized by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), of which he is vice-chair, Esperon defended the P19.13 billion budget for 2021 for the agency, of which P16.44 billion went to the Barangay Development Program.
“P16 billion, pag-iinitan mo yan? Gumagastos na tayo sa P600 billion sa COVID ah. Private sector contribution pa. So nagpapabaya ba ang gobyerno? Balakid ba ang NTF-ELCAC sa pagsolbar natin sa problema sa COVID? Palagay ko hindi. In fact, mas marami akong meeting sa IATF kaysa dito sa NTF-ELCAC,” he said.
“It remains as a clear and present danger. But fighting COVID is not the only threat or concern,” he added.
Some senators and Vice President Leni Robredo have raised the suggestion of using NTF-ELCAC funds to augment subsidies to individuals who may have lost their livelihoods and sources of income as the country enters the hardest lockdown classification for the third time since the pandemic began.
Of NTF-ELCAC’s P19.13-billion budget for 2021, P16.44 billion went to the Barangay Development Program.
Meanwhile, P1.19 billion, P480 million and P340 million were coursed through the Interior, Agriculture and Social Welfare departments.
Under the Barangay Development Program, each of the 822 barangays who have supposedly been cleared of communist insurgency from 2016 to 2019, received P20 million each to be used in projects that they will identify such as for building of farm-to-market roads, classroooms and health stations, among others.
The funds were released July this year.
Critics pointed out that the most pressing need is to address the coronavirus pandemic.
NTF-ELCAC’s budget for 2021 is higher than the P2.5 billion allotted for COVID-19 vaccine procurement.
“I really feel strongly that the Barangay Development Program of P16.44 billion is not a waste of resources. These are capability-building projects in contrast to such programs as ‘ayuda’ because it takes care of immediate needs or the 4Ps because that takes care of the educational and nutritional needs in the countryside. But what are we giving them for capability and for resiliency?” Esperon said.
“Sige bawiin natin, if that is the direction of the Senate or the Vice President. Bawiin natin yung naka-release na sa mga governors at city mayors. Kung payag sila, kung pwede yun, e di sige. Pabayaan natin na umusbong at lumakas uli ang insurgency natin. Ano, COVID lang ba problema natin? Wala ba tayong ginagawang tulong sa COVID?” he added.
But why the need to channel the funds through NTF-ELCAC for projects such as roads and classrooms that are already being implemented by existing agencies?
“Because they never reached the conflicted areas,” Esperon said, citing the 2,000 farm-to-market roads that were supposedly built by the Department of Agriculture which, he claimed, none of which reached the more than 800 cleared barangays.
Critics have also questioned the timing of the release as it came less than a year from the national elections in May 2022, with Davao City and the Davao region receiving the highest amount of funds.
Around P4.3 billion was allotted to the Davao Region and P1.64 billion to Davao City, one of the most developed cities in the country.
“Do you know where insurgency was so strong? Nakita ko yan noong chief of staff pa ako. 2006 to 2008. 75% of the NPA warriors were then indigenous peoples. Lumakas nang lumakas ang mga NPA diyan,” he said, referring to the Davao region.
“Sa estimate ko lang, more than 50% of the BDP, the 822 barangays, ay Mindanao yan. So Region 9, 10, 11, 12. Ang estimate niyan, pinakamalaki nga region 11,” he said, adding that the next batches will focus on Bicol and Samar.
Esperon rejected allegations NTF-ELCAC might abuse the funds, saying these have already been released to provincial governors or city mayors. Barangays, he said, could only receive as much as P1 million at a time.
He added there are several layers of checking — from the release of the funds by the Department of Budget and Management to the audit by the Commission on Audit during implementation of the project and a report of completion.
The Commission on Audit (COA) has previously noted some red flags in its audit report of NTF-ELCAC funds course through the Philippine National Police.
It noted that the PNP only spent P86.67 million or 12 percent of the almost P723 million it received for 2020 while there were concerns about compliance with procurement requirements in some cases.
More recently, a COA audit report found that P5 million in NTF-ELCAC funds released through the DILG to Central Mindanao allegedly had deficient documentation.
Esperon said the and should not be taken to mean the funds were misspent.
“Eh kung meron silang di naki-clear na P5 million, is that to say na ang NTF-ELCAC ay winaldas na yung P19 billion at dapat kunin para ilagay sa ayuda?” he asked.
Esperon instead called on critics to stop politicizing the issue, accusing them of electioneering.
“Napakagandang pakinggan kung ikaw ay nangangailangan at ikaw ay isa sa mga prospective recipients ng ayuda. ‘O, meron na palang panggagalingan ng pondo. Yun na sa NTF-ELCAC.’ Ang sa amin naman ay bakit naman NTF-ELCAC ang panggagalingan? Kasi parang they make it appear that the NTF-ELCAC is so insensitive and irrelevant in addressing the effects of the pandemic, especially for those in need of the social amelioration program or the ayuda,” he said.
“We should not politicize barangay development program. Let us not equate BDP to abandoning the victims of COVID-19. Meron tayong Bayanihan 1, Bayanihan 2 at pinag-uusapan na yung Bayanihan 3,” he added.
Esperon accused politicians of hitting NTF-ELCAC’s budget to gain mileage and secure votes for next year’s polls.
“Alam kong malapit na ang eleksyon but let us not keep on issuing self-serving political statements that curry to, siguro, para mahikayat na mapunta sa kanila ang mga boto. I do not want to go into that but it looks like the statements are so irrational and not backed up by realities on the ground,” he said.
The anti-insurgency task force became controversial when several of its members were accused of red-tagging progressive groups, lawyers and even journalists, through public and private statements.
The group was heavily criticized for endangering the lives of those it linked, without citing bases, to the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New Peoples’ Army and the National Democratic Front, which have all been designated as terrorist organizations by the Anti-Terrorism Council.
But Esperon said that there’s a pressing need to address “communist terrorist groups,” a recurring messaging of equating communism with terrorism.
“We have to address the triad of this CPP-NPA-NDF because it is the number 1 political security threat and they are carrying out the longest-running insurgency worldwide. Biro mo, 53 years na. 53 years na and it seeks to overthrow our democratic government. We will not allow that of course,” he said.
“This insurgency is more than a black eye to the country and to the prestige of Filipinos. We have not yet fully addressed the issues of poverty, injustice, illiteracy and disease, for example. And these are issues that are being used by a determined force of the CPP-NPA whose ulterior motive or end goal anyway is, of course, to take over government through armed rebellion or through terrorism,” he added.
The DILG has proposed a P40-billion budget for NTF-ELCAC’s Barangay Development Program next year, a move met with resistance by various groups.
Some senators, no less, have sought to defund the NTF-ELCAC or at least account for millions in unspent funds.