P9.7B for ‘NPA-free’ villages pouring in regions with most EJKs
By Kurt Dela Peña / Philippine Daily Inquirer
MANILA — The Duterte administration has opened the valve to a gush of taxpayer money to fund villages supposedly successful in keeping communist rebels out but in regions where a human rights group said cases of extrajudicial killings and other rights violations were highest.
In a recent announcement, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), the agency in charge of implementing so-called barangay development projects designed to beat the insurgency, said at least 99 percent, or P16.24 billion, of P16.44 billion had already been released.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, a former military general, said 822 villages, or barangays, received the funds for at least 2,276 projects.
The villages, he said, had already been “cleared of communist terrorist groups,” the government’s term of endearment for New People’s Army (NPA) and its political arm Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
But a closer look by the human rights group Karapatan showed that the bigger allocations went to areas in regions where cases of rights violations were highest.
Data shared by Karapatan, which had been red-tagged by officials led by President Rodrigo Duterte himself, five regions with the biggest funding from the so-called barangay development program were those with the highest number of killings and legally infirm arrests.
According to Ano, the top five regions in terms of amounts of taxpayer money received were Western Visayas, Northern Mindanao, Davao Region, Soccskargen and Caraga.
The regions with the biggest funds were:
Davao—P4.3 billion or 26 percent of total
Northern Mindanao—P2.3 billion or 14 percent of total
Western Visayas—P1.4 billion or 9 percent of total
Caraga—P1 billion or 6 percent of total
Soccskargen—P720 million or 4 percent of total
These regions also happen to have the highest cases of EJKs and legally infirm arrests of activists from July 2016 to March 2021:
Davao—56 EJKs, 84 legally infirm arrests
Northern Mindanao—24 EJKs, 58 legally infirm arrests
Western Visayas—51 EJKs, 56 legally infirm arrests
Soccskargen—38 EJKs, 34 legally infirm arrests
Caraga—30 EJKs, 30 legally infirm arrests
According to Ano, the release of P16.24 billion to the villages already cleared of insurgents was by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).
In 2020, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, the top military general of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, said the National Security Council had asked for P16.44 billion for development projects in villages.
“This is the cure for insurgency in barangays,” Esperon had said.
According to Esperon, the initial target was pour money into projects for 1,400 barangays but only 822 can be funded because those were the only ones that had been cleared of NPA and CPP influence from 2016 to 2019.
According to Año the projects “are tangible proof of the government’s desire to bring development to far flung areas that have not seen government projects in a very long time.”
Among the projects to get their share of P16.24 billion were 926 farm-to-market roads, 516 water and sanitation projects, 156 health stations and 135 school buildings.
According to Año, the projects and their costs are:
Farm-to-market roads—P11.6 billion
Water and sanitation—P2.4 billion
School buildings—P569 million
Health stations—P491 million
Rural electrification—P482 million
Agriculture, livelihood, tech voc projects—P328 million
Funds, Año said, are also being poured into:
Assistant for indigents—P110 million
Reconstruction, rehabilitation, repair—P49 million
It’s not clear if some of the projects are duplications of those already being implemented by other government agencies.
The DILG chief said the money was released directly to local government units and did not pass through the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac).
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, also red-tagged by Duterte, said the use of the funds should be examined closely because these may be actually election funds to help candidates of the Duterte administration secure electoral wins.
“We know that it is already election time and these funds are prone to be used to campaign for the candidates of the NTF-Elcac,” said Zarate.
“We will go through this budget with a fine tooth comb especially during the next budget deliberations,” he said.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas told INQUIRER.net that the DILG and NTF-Elcac should be transparent and accountable for the billions of pesos in taxpayer money.
Brosas had proposed the use of the funds as source for a program to distribute P10,000 in aid to poor and low-income families which suffered loss of income during the pandemic.
In April, Brosas had asked the House committee on economic affairs to allot the P19 billion NTF-Elcac budget to programs to help the poor during the pandemic instead.
Brosas said congressional districts nationwide had already been allocated billions of pesos in funds for projects and the budget for counterinsurgency-related barangay development “should have been included if development is the thing they really want.”
“Why separate it for this year? We really think that this is used or will be used for next year’s elections,” Brosas said.
In 2020, when the P19.1 billion proposed funding for the NTF-Elcac was widely criticized, groups said the P16.44 billion for barangay development program was actually a “general’s pork.”
Esperon reacted vehemently to the criticism.
A circular from the DBM said in case the provincial government was “technically incapable” of implementing the counterinsurgency projects listed by barangays considered cleared of rebels, the projects are to be implemented instead by a national government agency, including the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Engineering Brigade.
The P16.44 billion already gushing out of the counterinsurgency fund pipe is part of the Local Government Support Fund-Support to Barangay Development Program which seeks to pour P20 million each to barangays “cleared from communist terrorist groups.”
While Año said that the fund did not pass through the NTF-Elcac, the task force has offices in several regions and provinces.
Brosas said while the program is “good,” it is prone to corruption: “We really need to be vigilant. We believe that this should have been a great help if it was allocated for subsidy.”
Rights violations rise
Karapatan said of 394 cases of extrajudicial killings that it had documented, 199 were in the five regions where the biggest funds for counterinsurgency went to.
In the same regions, at least 703 individuals are detained as political prisoners and 319 arrests were made with legal questions.
Brosas said as attacks on human rights escalate, the Duterte administration is contradicting its statement of aiming to “bring development and peace.”
“These incidents would push Filipinos to dissent as they are not seeing the programs as something that would help them,” Brosas said.
“What is happening is that they are being threatened, killed and this would result in more human rights violations,” she said.
View from the underground
Doubts have been cast, however, by the underground communist movement on the figures released by the government.
According to Marco Valbuena, information officer of Communist Party of the Philippines, out of the 822 villages, or barangays, that have been declared by the government as cleared of insurgents, 50 were sites of clashes between guerrillas and government forces from January 2020 to middle of June 2021.
In the Ilocos region, two villages that had been declared as clear of insurgents were places where communist rebels never operated, Valbuena said.
At least 52 villages out of the 822 might have been wrongly reported as insurgency-free just to access at least P1 billion in funds from the counterinsurgency program being supervised by the NTF-Elcac, he said.
“The AFP’s cleared category is problematic,” Valbuena said. “The people’s war is a fluid war,” he said.
“The NPA is a guerrilla army which can move in and out of areas,” the rebel spokesperson said.
Village, or barangay officials, are under intense pressure by the military to let soldiers encamp in their communities in exchange for funds for so-called barangay development projects.