Sara’s new ‘anti-Red’ role draws cheers, jeers, fears
Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte has been given a third hat to wear, this time as a vice chair of the anti-insurgency task force, cementing her stature as the most powerful woman in government while stirring disquiet among her critics.
Duterte, in a speech on Wednesday, described her new role in the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-Elcac) as a “show of force” and a “powerful statement against enemies of the state,” referring to combatants and sympathizers of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
“The so-called protracted war must end, and it must end now,” Duterte said, addressing the NTF-Elcac’s executive committee. “We cannot let these things continue,” she added.
The NTF-Elcac is an agency created by Duterte’s father, former President Rodrigo Duterte, in December 2018, through Executive Order No. 70, which sought what it called a “whole-of-nation” approach to ending the decades-old communist insurgency. But the body has courted controversy over its members’ practice of “Red-tagging,” or branding critics, especially activists and journalists, as communists, often without basis.
National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, also a concurrent NTF-Elcac vice chair, said Duterte’s “unstinting commitment” to the fight against the communist insurgency “will undoubtedly be very valuable to the task force and we thank her for accepting the challenge.” President Marcos serves as the chair of the NTF-Elcac.
The announcement of Duterte’s new designation was made at a press conference on Wednesday night after an executive committee meeting presided over by Executive Secretary Lucas Bersamin.
Año said the appointment was approved in compliance with Marcos’ directives.
“The President’s marching orders to the NTF-Elcac is clear: sustain the whole-of-nation approach to peace and development to prevent communist terrorists, their front organizations, and other lawless elements from recruiting, regrouping and regaining power,” he said. But human rights and activist groups expressed worry that Duterte’s appointment would only heighten attacks and threats faced by dissenters, noting her own track record of Red-tagging groups and individuals critical of her policies in the Department of Education (DepEd).
Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said Duterte’s appointment “reinforces the fascist character of the task force.”
“It only shows the greater need for the abolition of this task force,” she added.
Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr. wondered why Duterte would even want to head the task force at a time when DepEd was suffering major setbacks in addressing the education crisis. “Schools have reduced face-to-face classes to twice a week. School hours have been shortened. Classes are now just 40 minutes each. Students and teachers are struggling … This should be the DepEd secretary’s priority instead of counterinsurgency,” he said.
Confidential, intel funds
On Thursday, two lawmakers from the opposition Makabayan bloc pointed out that Duterte might have access to more confidential and intelligence funds, or lump-sum funds earmarked for surveillance and intelligence-gathering activities, which are not subject to the same level of auditing scrutiny as other types of public money.
Under the 2023 General Appropriations Act, the Office of the Vice President was allocated P500 million in confidential funds while DepEd was given P30 million.
The NTF-Elcac, on the other hand, was allocated P6.3 billion in 2023 to support its Barangay Development Program, which targets 959 villages declared by the authorities as having been “cleared” of communist influence. But in a statement, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro suggested that Duterte would enjoy “discretion” over confidential and intelligence funds lodged in other Cabinet departments comprising the task force.
The NTF-Elcac members include the heads of some agencies with sizable secret funds, such as the Department of the Interior and Local Government, Department of National Defense, and Department of Justice, as well as the chiefs of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.
Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel said Duterte’s appointment to the NTF-Elcac “did not bode well for academic freedom and the protection from militarization of civilian agencies.”
“Education should be liberating and not oppressive,” he said in Filipino.
Progressive teachers also expressed alarm over Duterte’s new assignment.
Raymond Basilio, Alliance of Concerned Teachers secretary general, said he worried that Duterte’s “Red-tagging activities will just get worse and will continue to undermine teachers’ freedom of association and human rights.”
“Instead of listening to us, she might use the NTF-Elcac to silence us, just like how she did when we called for the hiring of additional teachers and construction of more classrooms,” he said in a Viber message to the Inquirer.
In a statement on Thursday, the Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy also assailed the appointment, saying: “How can an education secretary promote critical and historical thinking when they are also heading an institution that, for the longest time, has espoused lies and demonized dissent?”
Attacks on groups
In recent months, Duterte has become increasingly vocal in attacking groups and individuals she believes to be sympathetic to the communist cause.
For instance, a series of public statements posted on DepEd’s official Facebook page sought to associate ACT with the insurgency, after the group called for the hiring of 30,000 public teachers and the allocation of a P100-billion budget for the annual construction of classrooms.
Duterte accused ACT of diverting the public’s attention away from NPA attacks in Masbate province that had affected some schools.
In March, Duterte described a weeklong transport strike as “communist-inspired,” “pointless” and a “painful interference” in DepEd’s efforts to fix the problems in the system.
She also commented that peace negotiation efforts were meaningless with “terrorist groups” that “thirst” for the blood of their fellow Filipinos.
Duterte’s new stint in the NTF-Elcac puts her somewhat closer to the post she had originally wanted before accepting the education portfolio.
Shortly after she and her then running mate, Marcos, won the elections last year, Duterte had publicly expressed her desire to be the defense secretary. She also pushed for the revival of compulsory military training in college.