Report of US aid cut triggers uproar

By Tarra Quismundo, Michael Lim Ubac
Last updated 04:13am (Mla time) 07/26/2007

A NEWS report that the United States had sharply cut its aid to the Philippine military and police stirred an uproar yesterday in a country whose ties with America never fail to arouse strong, even divisive, passions.


To Malacañang’s relief, the report that Washington had cut by nearly two-thirds its assistance to the Philippine military and police–from $30 million to $11 million by fiscal 2008–turned out to be false.


“No cut on US military, police aid to the country,” Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita announced, reading a note sent by the Department of Foreign Affairs.


The US Embassy called the report–posted on the website of the ABS-CBN network–“premature” and “misleading,” clarifying that the US Congress has yet to pass the proposed 2008 federal budget, including foreign aid appropriations.


The ABS-CBN report from its North America News Bureau said the Bush administration had slashed the assistance intended for the Philippine military and police forces “following allegations they were involved in extrajudicial killings.”


The story was based on what it said was a US state department report.


The network carried the Ermita denial later.


The leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan jumped on the ABS-CBN report, saying it welcomed the US action.


“The US military aid is being used by the Philippine military and police forces in killing activists and committing other human rights abuses,” a Bayan statement said.


No budget yet
US Embassy spokesperson Matthew Lussenhop said the story got ahead of the US appropriations process.


“I think it’s misleading to say that assistance has been cut,” Lussenhop told the Inquirer by phone. “The US federal government’s budget for fiscal year 2008 hasn’t been passed yet…It would be premature to say that aid has been cut.”


In the proposed US budget for foreign operations, posted at the US state department website, the department requested a total 2008 funding of $84.7 million.


This is $28.5 million less than the actual total assistance given to the Philippines in 2006 at $113.2 million.


Among the big decreases sought are for foreign military financing and international military education.


There are, however, proposed increases, such as for Economic Support Fund (from $24.7 million to $26 million). Also sought to be increased are funding for infrastructure, private sector competitiveness and human rights.


Obstacles to progress
The state department report says the major obstacles to Philippine progress are weak institutions of governance, as well as corruption and security and terrorism threats. It stresses the need for the Philippines to address “the conditions that terrorists seek to exploit.”


There was no mention of political killings in the state department report.


Asked whether there was a proposal to cut aid, Lussenhop said he was not privy to the status of the US foreign aid appropriations as the government budget was still being deliberated by Congress.


He added there were many agencies involved in the “extremely complicated” budget process.


“The main thing for us is, it’s not about the numbers but the quality of the programs and how effective they are,” Lussenhop said. He said that figures should not be used “as a shorthand on the quality of relations” between the US and the Philippines.


Cuts all around
More specifically, the state department’s per-country proposal for foreign military aid, as posted on its website, showed a cut in figures for the Philippines, from actual appropriations in 2006 of around $30 million to $17.6 million in 2007 and $11.1 million in 2008.


The latter number carried the heading “proposed.”


Proposed 2008 appropriations for countries across Africa, Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East also showed a general downtrend.


The US Senate, in a report, recommended a $30-million appropriation for foreign military financing for the Philippines, or more than double the state department’s recommendation.


A US House committee report was silent on the amount of military aid for the Philippines but took note of extrajudicial killings in the country.


The House report read in part:


“The committee is highly concerned with reports of extrajudicial killings by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP), noting reports of more than 800 extrajudicial killings since 2001. The committee is deeply concerned with the effect these killings may be having on the work of civil society organizations.”


The House committee directed the state department to check on “the status of investigations into extrajudicial killings and gross violations of human rights by the AFP and PNP.”


Both postings were dated on July 23.


Earlier, in the Palace press briefing and before receiving the clarification from the DFA, Ermita was repeatedly asked to comment on the ABS-CBN report.


Propaganda war
Ermita had expressed surprise, saying he had no “specific knowledge” about it.


He said he recently spoke with US Ambassador Kristie Kenney but “this matter never figured in our conversations. We never mentioned anything about it.”


If the aid reduction were true, Ermita had warned, it would affect the antiterror efforts of the Arroyo administration and prove that the Left was winning the propaganda war.


“That is a big thing. That would have a big impact,” Ermita said, before the official denial came.


Ermita noted that the Left and other “front organizations” had been lobbying with the United States for aid cuts “because of the issue on extrajudicial killings and human rights violations.”


PNP surprised
The PNP also expressed surprise at the reported aid cut.


The PNP Directorate for Investigation and Detection Management chief, Director Geary Barias, said he had been in constant contact with his US counterparts and that there was no inkling of any reduction of aid to the PNP.


Recently, US Embassy officials met with top PNP officials to find ways to solve extrajudicial killings. PNP officials gave the US side a rundown of technical and material aid that the US government could contribute.


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