Leftist lawmakers grill DND, AFP officials in budget hearing

MANILA, Philippines – It's always the case every year when the House deliberates on the budget of the defense department and Philippine military – leftist partylist lawmakers of the Makabayan bloc confront security officials about alleged human rights violations and US military "intervention,” among other issues.

This year is no different, as the leftist lawmakers on Tuesday, September 9, pressed defense and military officials on various issues.

Aside from questions on what the partylist lawmakers believed to be the “pork barrel” of the Armed Forces Chief in the proposed 2015 budget – which they want deleted – here are the other primary points raised during the House hearing on the Department of National Defense and AFP proposed budget for 2015:

PH-US EDCA

Gabriela Partylist Representative Emmi De Jesus and Anakpawis Partylist Representative Ka Pando Hicap took turns expressing concern about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) entered into by the Philippines and the United States.

De Jesus expressed concerns that that EDCA –  which seeks to allow US troops to use Philippine military bases as part of its strategy of containing China's aggressiveness – will "renew basing right in our sovereign country." 

Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino told De Jesus that the defense department is now focusing on responding to the issues raised against EDCA before the Supreme Court.

No formal negotiations have been conducted to discuss Philippine bases that will be offered to US troops, Batino said. 

"As of now, [there are] no formal negotiations on agreed locations. We are concentrating our meager time in preparing answers to the Supreme Court petition," hw said. 

The Mutual Defense Board (MDB), co-chaired by the AFP chief and the chief of the US Pacific Command, will finalize the agreement on the agreed locations. 

When De Jesus asked if the proposed 2015 budget allocates funding for the EDCA,  Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said there is none. 

The Philippines is actually hoping that the US will develop the bases that they will be offered.

De Jesus went on to ask how many bilateral exercises have been conducted by the US and Philippine militaries. 

Army chief vs Tinio

ACT Teachers partylist Representative Antonio Tinio presented to the members of the House committee on appropriations a video of armed men in military uniform, allegedly soldiers, kicking a man and stepping on his head before they fired their M16s at him. 

Army chief Lieutenant General Hernando Iriberri told the congressmen that a Board of Inquiry has been formed to investigate the video. If the armed men are soldiers, Iriberri said they will be punished. 

"Footage shows they are wearing different kind of uniforms, patches that are being worn that we are not wearing. They are placed on the wrong side of the shoulder," he added. But Iriberri said it's hard to identify those involved and where it happened because the video is pixelated.

Iriberri said the soldiers also wear armored vests and helmets. The armed in the video are not wearing vests and helmets.

"There are signs that would project that this could be done by another group. We are working on the identification," he said.

The Board of Inquiry was formed in early September, Iriberri told Rappler during a break in the budget hearing.

‘CAFGUs protecting mining companies’

Gabriela Representative Luz Ilagan protested why CAFGUs in Mindanao are protecting mining companies, particularly Sagittarius Mines, supposedly at the expense of indigenous people. Ilagan said human rights violations are also committed when the IP's rights to their land are violated.

Hicap said farmers are also victims.

Batino cited Republic Act 7077 as the legal basis in tapping CAFGUs in protecting "installations of national interest."

Iriberri said the military has a plan to demobilize the CAFGUs but there is no timeline. "The Philippine Army has a plan on how to demobilize the CAFGU depending on the strategic assessment in the evolving security assessment of the entire country....We are ready once situation calls for it," Iriberri said. 

In the end, Ilagan asked for an accounting and list of the support that CAFGUs are receiving from different entities. There are over 60,000 CAFGUs who have a P2.4 billion budget for subsistence allowance.

AFP modernization

Zarate also questioned the purchase of FA50 fighter jets from South Korea, suggesting that there are better models. He is echoing concerns previously raised by some personalities including retired Air Force officers.

Defense Undersecretary for Finance Fernando Manalo argued that a Technical Working Group (TWG) made a study and chose the FA50. Manalo reiterated that FA50 is not just a lead in fighter trainer. It also has the capability to deliver a missile system, he said.  

Soldiers-turned-congressmen went to the rescue of their military colleagues, while  Manila Representative Maria Zenaida Angping, House committee on appropriations vice chairman, tried to act as referee. 

Magdalo Representative Francisco Ashley Acedillo lamented the supposedly unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations against the military. Former AFP chief now Muntinlupa Representative Rodolfo Biazon and Magdalo partylist Representative Gary Alejano expressed concerned over the shortfall in the AFP modernization fund.

The exchange is part of the ongoing clash between the security officials and the lawmakers, who have been accused to be sympathizers – others say fronts – of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed-wing, the New People's Army (NPA), currently locked in a 4-decade war with the government.

During the hearing, AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr vowed to do his best to end the communist insurgency during his term so the military can shift its focus to external defense. Congress support to augment their budget is crucial, he said. – Rappler.com