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Philippines to raise anti-insurgent budget elevenfold

'Red-tagging' task force draws fire from critics at home and abroad

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict in 2018 to supposedly counter communist propaganda, but it has been criticized as a tool for cracking down on political opponents. (Photo courtesy of Government of the Philippines)

NEW YORK -- The Philippine government is beefing up the budget of an anti-communist task force that has made headlines by accusing celebrities of ties to alleged radical groups, part of a counterinsurgency campaign that overseas critics say has become a tool in President Rodrigo Duterte's crackdown on political opponents.

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), created by Duterte in 2018 to counter communist propaganda, will see its budget raised more than elevenfold next year to 19.13 billion Philippine pesos ($396.7 million) from 1.7 billion pesos in 2020. But opponents say the government has not told the public what the money will be spent on.

Opposition lawmakers have repeatedly slammed the NTF-ELCAC budget as an unnecessary drain on resources needed to counter the COVID-19 pandemic and to rebuild parts of the country hit by a string of typhoons.

The task force has become best known for "red-tagging," labeling public figures as communist sympathizers without evidence.

In October, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade, the de facto head of the NTF-ELCAC, accused actresses Angel Locsin and Liza Soberano, and Catriona Gray, who won the Miss Universe title in 2018, of ties to the communist New People's Army. Parlade sought to justify his allegation by claiming the three were affiliated with Gabriela, a progressive women's political coalition that Parlade calls a terrorist front.

Miss Philippines Catriona Gray competes during the final round of the Miss Universe pageant in Bangkok in December 2018. She is one of three celebrities accused by the de facto head of President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-communist task force of allegedly having ties with radical groups.   © Reuters

A Senate committee opened an investigation into red-tagging by the military in November. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who launched the inquiry, called red-tagging "a crisis in itself" that "imperils our conscientious effort to uphold and protect human rights."

The tag has already proven to be a death sentence for some. In August, activists Zara Alvarez and Randall Echanis, both of whom had been on government "hit lists" of alleged terrorists, were killed by unidentified assailants.

Most of the money allocated to the NTF-ELCAC in the 2021 budget is to go to village development programs, meaning funds earmarked for livelihood programs will now be overseen by the task force. To receive the funds, villages may have to prove that they have "cleared" their areas of communist rebels.

Village leaders are crucial in mobilizing voters during elections, which potentially gives the task force a way to siphon political support away from progressive candidates.

"This can help achieve not just the anti-communist objectives of this administration but also secure supporters for favored candidates in the 2022 elections," said Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

The military regularly launches community programs in rural areas to dissuade people from joining the New People's Army. Environmental, land rights and indigenous activists in these areas have accused the armed forces of using the programs for red-tagging -- falsely branding progressive figures as terrorists, or staging fake mass-surrenders of rebels, for example.

The Philippine counterinsurgency campaign, which also encompasses operations against Islamic State-affiliated groups in Mindanao, has received U.S. financial and logistical support for decades. The U.S. on Monday finalized a donation of arms worth $18 million to be used in counterterrorism operations in the Philippines.

Duterte's counterinsurgency tactics may come under closer scrutiny by the incoming Biden administration, especially after the Philippines passed a counterterrorism law in July that drew stinging criticism from Democratic members of the U.S. Congress.

Democratic Rep. Susan Wild in September introduced a bill that would suspend aid to the Philippine military and police until they meet stringent human rights bench marks. The Philippine ambassador to Washington said last week that bill "could come into play" once Biden takes office.

Sonny Africa, executive director of the IBON Foundation, a think tank, said that if the Biden administration were to "put some teeth" into its human rights concerns, the U.S. "could be in a position to ask how [the NTF-ELCAC] funds are being used," due to its financial support for Philippine counterterrorism efforts.

The IBON Foundation and some lawmakers have called on the Philippine Commission on Audit to vet the task force's 2021 budget, a step it has taken with other government agencies. Africa is not satisfied with the commission's response.

"They were very clear," he said. "No one audits the president."

The Commission on Audit did not respond to a request for comment from Nikkei Asia.

Despite the murkiness of its new war chest, the NTF-ELCAC will receive more funding in 2021 than the Philippine Labor and Employment Department, the Transportation Department, or the agency responsible for the welfare of approximately 2.3 million overseas Filipino workers.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros earlier this month called for part of the NTF-ELCAC budget to be reallocated to the pandemic response and to typhoon relief in hard-hit areas, some of which remain without power after typhoons Goni and Vamco struck.

The counterinsurgency "should not be a priority with the pandemic, the economic crisis, and the typhoons," Atienza said. "[Duterte] has made clear that he wants the communist insurgency and terrorism in general to end despite more pressing concerns."

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