It was an interesting scene that unfolded at the initial hearing on red-tagging at the Senate last Tuesday, Nov. 3.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) was given a full day to be heard by the chamber’s committee on national defense and security, peace, unification and reconciliation, headed by Sen. Panfilo Lacson. In a resolution quickly approved by the Senate president, Lacson sought a clear mandate for his committee to exercise its oversight authority over the defense sector on the matter of red-tagging. From the outcome of the hearings, he aims to draft proper guidelines for the security forces to “prevent misunderstanding between the public and the military and ensuring the protection of the constitutional rights of the people…”
The targets of red-tagging invited by the committee, the Makabayan bloc of progressive party-lists in the House of Representatives and Bayan Muna chairman Neri Javier Colmenares, a former congressman, wrote to Lacson explaining why they didn’t appear at the hearing. Probably with the disconcerting encounters with the red-taggers at the back of his mind, Colmenares requested for another hearing he could attend sans the NTF-ELCAC officials’ presence. Lacson later said he would call another hearing.
Setting the premises of the hearing, Lacson said:
“When no distinction has been made between an activist and a terrorist, an idealist and an extremist, a reformist and a subversive, we risk putting everyone under a cloud of suspicion and our society in a constant state of insecurity.” To say the least, he added, “the alleged red-tagging is a crisis in itself. It stirs public outcry and imperils our conscientious efforts to uphold and protect human rights in the country while strengthening our law enforcement measures.”
Based on what has been reported in the press, one can get two conflicting stands from the NTF-ELCAC: on the one hand, its key implementor officially disowned red-tagging; on the other hand, its spokesperson and agents carried on their red-tagging spree.
The NTF-ELCAC vice chairman, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., sought to dissociate the task force from red-tagging, saying it has no factual basis and cannot be attributed to any past or current government policy, program or activity. “Unequivocally,” he claimed, red-tagging “is not a matter of policy within the ELCAC program… (it is) fully inconsistent with what ELCAC is all about.” No benefit can be derived from it, he added, “that is why it is inconceivable to even consider engaging in such activity.”
Seemingly evoking a moral high ground, Esperon said NTF-ELCAC is a “development-centered undertaking; if anything we always supported the dissemination of truth.”
Yet the task force’s brash spokesman, Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., let loose his equally brash and reckless main informant, Jeffrey Celiz, a former Iloilo activist, to repeat practically his handler’s red-tagging of progressive legislators, their organizations and women celebrities. Celiz made a lot more accusations and vilification of his own.
Two task force members, Interior secretary Eduardo Año and National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) Director General Alex Paul Monteagudo, weighed in by running a 1988 video, re-recorded in 2004, of a speech made by Jose Ma. Sison in Belgium. The duo claimed that in that speech, Sison himself “red-tagged” certain progressive organizations in the open, legal mass movement. Sison quickly retorted: the video was spliced to distort what he actually said.
What can Esperon now say to all that, spoken in his presence at the hearing? And about Parlade’s crude and irresponsible threatening statements to both the Makabayan legislators and the women celebrities, about which Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Año separately cautioned him – and which impelled Lacson to call the Senate hearing?
Two weeks ago, Lorenzana called out Parlade in a speech at Philippine Army headquarters: “Kung wala kang ebidensya, do not talk about it. Huwag kang magpunta sa media, sa Facebook. Huwag mong sabihin na leftist ‘yan, NPA ‘yan. Dapat may ebidensya tayo, otherwise just keep quiet.”
On his part, Año cautioned Parlade on ABS-CBN News Channel: “Kailangan talaga may pinanghahawakan kang ebidensya, and we have former rebels who can speak up to support Gen. Parlade.”
Moreover, what can Esperon say on Parlade’s assertion in an Oct. 25 interview on ABS-CBN? The latter bragged then: “This is not my opinion. This is the NTF-ELCAC position on these issues. It just so happens I’m the one speaking right now. I’m just one of the spokespersons. This is beyond me. Our chairman is the President. Will I stop what I’m doing? Of course not.”
As regards Parlade’s main informant, the Inquirer’s Western Visayas reporter, Nestor Burgos Jr., reported Thursday many of the claims made by Celiz at the Senate inquiry “raised questions as these contradicted information of public knowledge, especially among Ilonggos, and even his own statements.” Burgos wrote that Celiz was publicly known in Panay as regional head of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) in 2000-2004, after which he disappeared from public view.
However, Celiz had claimed he was with the communist underground for 27 years, from 1988 to 2015, even claiming he was a member of the NPA “national operations command” until 2015 – yet in March 2009, he said he started working at Iloilo city hall until February 2016. But in other interviews he said he was with the underground for 18 years, from 1990 to 2008.
Back to Esperon, speaking to CNN Philippines last Thursday, he conceded that the Makabayan bloc legislators “are not doing anything illegal in Congress.” But he backed the NTF-ELCAC allegation that they are controlled by the underground communist movement. There are underground organizations which he claimed to be connected with the CPP/NPA/NDFP that, he said, the Makabayan lawmakers support “whether wittingly or unwittingly.”
He also seconded Parlade’s disclosure, invoking the new Anti-Terrorism Act, that the Makabayan bloc and Neri Colmenares are under surveillance, for which Lacson reminded him that, under the ATA, only the courts can authorize surveillance. But Esperon asserted that the NTF-ELCAC can conduct “manual surveillance” by deploying personnel to tail their targets, even without court permission.
Apparently, Esperon was speaking also as the vice chairman of the Anti-Terrorism Council, an executive body which the ATA and its implementing rules and regulations (drawn up and approved by the Council) empower to designate who are “terrorists” and to publish their names without their being informed ahead.
President Duterte’s people need to get their act together and stop this game of putting innocent people’s lives and security at stake.
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Published in Philippine Star
November 7, 2020