Looking for the enemy

Published November 3, 2020, 3:51 PM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

The National Security Adviser, who is also the head of the government task force against communism, attempted last week to contain the self-inflicted damage wrought by his overzealous spokesperson’s red-tagging of several celebrities by insisting that their program is intended to improve the lives of people in the rural areas, particularly areas under supposed communist influence or control.

But the more he expounded on the framework of their task force, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), the deeper the hole the National Security Adviser seems to have dug not only for himself, but for their undertaking.

One lawmaker called attention to the fact that the 2021  proposed budget for the task force represents a 3,000 percent increase from the previous year. The program is weighed heavily in favor of infrastructure projects to be implemented a year before the 2022 election, and a year before the term of the current administration expires. Some observers have labelled the task force budget, rather naughtily, as pork barrel for some generals. Others have called it a “pabaon” budget.

Government officials have trumpeted the 2021 budget as one that is intended to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and restart the economy. Yet, the so-called Barangay Development Program (BDP) of the task force hardly achieves these objectives. What is unusual is that their budget is higher than the executive’s proposed budget for several line departments and agencies directly assisting sectors severely affected by the pandemic.

Media has reported that of the P19.1-billion task force budget, P16.4 billion will go to infrastructure and other development programs for barangays. The barangays will be identified by the task force secretariat and the eligible ones will get a maximum of P20 million for projects.

The budget is also lump sum, meaning that it does not identify specific projects and beneficiaries as mandated by law. To reiterate, lump-sum appropriations have been declared  unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and it remains a puzzle why the executive would insist on violating the high tribunal’s injunction.  The discretion to select the beneficiaries given to the task force secretariat is also problematic. Discretion is a fertile breeding ground for abuse, and the members of the secretariat are only human.

The National Security Adviser, in his statement, maintains that their “strategic framework” is anchored on “holistic programs and activities” with the objective of “improving the lives of Filipinos.”

No one will surely contradict this motherhood statement. It is a sentiment that is shared even by critics of the red-tagging activities of the task force spokesperson. As an anti-insurgency strategy, it is part of the universal playbook, adopted by almost all countries that had faced home-grown rebellion at one time or another. But with the exception of the Philippines, most, if not all these countries have successfully ended their insurgencies.

It is simplistic to conclude that the solution to the longest-running insurgency in Asia lies in pumping barangays said to be influenced or controlled by communists with billions in projects. Surely, the National Security Adviser does not believe that infrastructure projects alone will improve the lives of people. As long as there is social and economic injustice, as long as a segment of the population lives in abject poverty and is forgotten by an uncaring government, there will always be fertile ground for unrest. One cannot realistically win the peace with farm-to-market roads. Yet the lopsided allocation in favor of infrastructure projects is far from being the holistic approach the senior official claims.

For an insurgency that has been described with certainty since the 1980s as a spent force, it is puzzling why it consumes the time and energy of the administration. The obsession with communists and their supposed sympathizers is misplaced, considering that for the past few years, the bigger threat has been Islamic fundamentalists operating in Mindanao. The five-month siege of Marawi City, won by government forces at great cost to lives and property, offers a grim preview of the havoc they can wreak. They should be the priority.

The government has been fighting the same insurgency with a framework that is over 60 years old. Perhaps, rather than pre-occupy themselves with scaring the people with the specter of communists taking over the entertainment world, or throwing billions of pesos in the direction of a few barangays, the task force should start looking inward. It should ask why succeeding governments have failed to eradicate the insurgency despite enjoying superiority in resources and personnel, and the world-wide collapse of communism.

Perhaps it is time to look for the enemy within.

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