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Senators eye defunding NTF-ELCAC amid 'red-tagging' of community pantry organizers

At least three senators have called for the defunding of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) amid the alleged red-tagging of community pantry organizers.

In a tweet, Senator Joel Villanueva expressed dismay over NTF-ELCAC spokesperson Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr.’s statement comparing community pantries to Satan’s apple.

“Oh my! We should move to defund NTF-ELCAC in the next budget. Sayang lang pera ng taong bayan [It's a waste of public funds],” Villanueva said.

“Reallocate the current P19 [billion] budget for ayuda. Mas kailangan ito ng taumbayan kaysa sa mga ganitong kalokohan! [The public need it more than this foolishness!]” he added.

He was referring to the P19 billion fund for the task force under the 2021 national budget. Of the amount, P16.4 billion was allotted to support barangay development programs.

In an interview on One News on Tuesday night, Parlade said a community pantry is like an apple that Satan had offered to Eve.

"Si Satan, binigyan ng apple si Eve, dun lang nagsimula yun, dun lang nagsimula yun [Satan gave eve an apple, That's how it started]."

Villanueva’s tweet was supported by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian.

“I agree bro. If these are the kind of people who will spend hard earned taxpayer's money, then it's not worth it,” Gatchalian replied to Villanueva’s tweet.

On Wednesday night, Senator Nancy Binay likewise proposed the review of the task force’s budget.

“Right now for me, budget season is coming. I will really make sure that we'll be addressing the budget for the NTF-ELCAC. Maybe, it's high-time that we really review their budget," Binay said on CNN Philippines.

In an online press conference, Hontiveros also shared the sentiments of her colleagues.

“Agree, a hundred percent. Maalala ninyo nung nakaraang taon, hinadlangan at tinutulan na namin ‘yan [budget] sa Senate minority, noong budget debates pa lamang,” she said.

(I agree, a hundred percent. If you recall, we, in the Senate minority, have opposed their budget during the debates.)

Senator Francis Pangilinan likewise agreed that the P19-billion NTF-ELCAC budget for 2021 should be realigned for additional financial aid.

“Dapat sa kanya tumahimik na lang dahil nakakasira sa imahen ng AFP bilang isang disiplinado at propesyunal na institusyon ang kanyang mga bitiw na salita na walang basehan at wala sa lugar,” Pangilinan said of Parlade in a statement.

(He should shut his mouth because his words and baseless allegations are destroying the image of the AFP as a disciplined and professional institution.)

“Kung sa ganyang baluktot na pag-iisip at palakad napupunta ang 19 bilyong pisong budget ng NTF-ELCAC ay dapat bawiin na ito at ibigay sa ayuda ng mahihirap,” he added.

(If the P19 billion budget of the NTF-ELCAC goes to that twisted mind and leadership, might as well realign the funds for government’s additional financial aid.)

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon also said President Rodrigo Duterte should realign the P19 billion NTF-ELCAC budget for 2021 immediately.

Meanwhile, Senator Panfilo Lacson, who has been sponsoring the proposed budget of the Department of National Defense and its attached agencies since 2016, said he cannot defend the budget of the NTF-ELCAC in the coming year the same way he “stubbornly fought” for the P16.5-billion barangay development program of the task force in 2021.

“This year, I am not sure if I will defend their budget with the same tenacity as I did the previous years. Working together, I believe, should be a two-way street, if we want to make it work,” Lacson said in a text message to reporters.

His statement came after he recalled the Senate Defense committee report on the issue of red-tagging, which recommended the immediate relief of Parlade as spokesperson of the NTF-ELCAC.

“Not only because his civilian position is violative of the Constitution; he has in fact, on many occasions, become a “liability” to the overall efforts of the  government, as well as the government’s position on the pending 37 petitions against the [Anti-Terrorism Act] of 2020 before the [Supreme Court] mainly due to his careless remarks and flawed interpretation of certain provisions of the law,” Lacson, author of the Anti-Terrorism Law, said.

“Unfortunately, the defense department has openly ignored the Senate in that regard,” he added.

Earlier, Senate President Vicente Sotto III opposed the proposals of his colleagues, but suggested replacing the officials who released “irresponsible statements.”

Replacing Parlade was also backed by Senator Grace Poe as she emphasized that the Senate has already reminded the task force not to use their budget to red-tag or release malicious statements.

“Ang spokesperson ng isang national task force ay hindi dapat nag-aakusa nang wala namang solidong basehan. Mismong [Armed Forces of the Philippines] leadership ay hindi rin sigurado kung ang lahat ba ng sinasabi ni Lt. Gen. Parlade ay suportado nga ng buong NTF-ELCAC,” she said in a statement.

(A spokesperson of a national task force should not accuse without solid basis. Even the AFP leadership is not sure if Parlade's statements are supported by the entire NTF-ELCAC.)

“Isa nga sa mga naging rekomendasyon ay palitan ang spokesperson na tila ba naguguluhan sa kanyang mandato bilang aktibong opisyal rin ng militar. His sensitivities naturally lean towards the military and this presents an irreconcilable conflict,” she added.

(One of the recommendations is to replace the spokesperson who was apparently confused with his mandate as an active official of the military.)

Should there be no changes on the part of the NTF-ELCAC even with the Senate defense panel’s recommendations, Poe said they will be prompted to defund the task force.

NTF-ELCAC spokesperson force Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr. questioned the awareness of the senators seeking to defund the task force as regards the projects that would be affected by the proposed move.

“Alam ba nila ‘yung sinasabi nila? (Do they know what they are talking about?),” Parlade told GMA News Online.

“Alam ba nila kung ano ‘yung tatangalin nila kasi P16 billion yung binabanggit  ng isang senador. Gusto nila i-realign ‘yun, that P16 billion intended for communities previously affected by insurgency,” he added.

(Do they know what budget they will scrap because a senator has been mentioning P16 billion. They want to realign that fund intended for communities previously affected by insurgency.)

On Tuesday, Ana Patricia Non announced the temporary closure of her community pantry on Maginhawa, Quezon City, after the alleged profiling and red-tagging by the government.

This was after NTF-ELCAC and the Quezon City Police District (QCPD) posted graphics on Facebook apparently linking community pantry initiatives to the communist movement.

Parlade denied the red-tagging accusation but admitted they are checking the background of the organizers of community pantries.

Meanwhile, the QCPD has apologized to the community pantry organizers over its social media post.

The Philippine National Police earlier said it will investigate the alleged red-tagging and unauthorized police profiling of pantry organizers. —KBK/BM/NB, GMA News