Senators question P19B budget vs. communist conflict: 'Is this a bigger threat than unemployment?'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 9) — Lawmakers questioned Wednesday the ₱19.13 billion funding for a task force dedicated to combatting communist rebels, saying the money may be better spent to support struggling industries.

The proposed budget for 2021 boosts funding for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF ELCAC), a body created by President Rodrigo Duterte through Executive Order 70 issued in 2018. The task force provides a "whole-of-nation" approach in curbing armed rebel groups and is assigned to create a National Peace Framework. NTF ELCAC received ₱1.7 billion this year.

READ: Gov't shifts to 'civilian-led approach' in fight vs. communists – Duterte

Next year, the bulk of the task force's funds -- ₱16.44 billion -- will be released as support to barangays ravaged by armed attacks. However, Senator Franklin Drilon said it appears inappropriate to allot this much to the body while the country grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.

"Against that kind of program, DOLE is only getting ₱15.9 billion, OWWA is only getting ₱7.5 billion, DOT is only getting ₱3.5 billion... Are we saying that the communist insurgency will be a bigger threat than our unemployment and poverty situation?," Drilon said as the chamber started discussions for the ₱4.506-trillion national budget.

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Some 4.6 million Filipino adults were unemployed in July, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado explained that there's a need to provide support to these communities as well, which traces back to 2016 onwards.

"The projects are identified by the barangays themselves. It's just that the NTF ELCAC as national secretariat is the repository of the funds," he told lawmakers.

"Nawasak na po 'yung buhay nila eh, nawalan na sila ng hanapbuhay. Ano ngayon ang kapalit? Ito 'yung ina-address natin dito [Their lives have been ruined, they already lost their jobs. What's in store for them? That's what we're addressing here]," Avisado added.

The Interior Department will receive ₱1.19 billion, while the Department of Agriculture will take ₱480 million from the NTF ELCAC, along with the Department of Agrarian Reform (₱400 million) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (₱340 million) for various livelihood assistance projects.

Avisado went on to explain that neither the 2021 spending plan nor the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act carried provisions for additional cash aid for the Social Amelioration Program, saying relaxed quarantine rules have allowed workers to make money again.

Senators Risa Hontiveros also expressed concern, saying that a lump-sum approach for anti-terrorism initiatives could leave the funds open to misuse. However, the Budget chief explained that the funds are meant to support grassroots projects for barangays which have been cleared of rebel troops, with the task force in charge of downloading funds to the communities.

The task force has also been accused of red-tagging critics of the Duterte administration.

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Drilon is not convinced, adding that the release of barangay funds through the NTF ELCAC could be used for political purposes. He pointed out that late 2021 already marks the start of the election season.