(UPDATE) Southern offensive splits House opposition

Admin ally seeks Philhealth for slain troops’ kin

By Maila Ager
INQUIRER.net
Last updated 06:34pm (Mla time) 08/21/2007

MANILA, Philippines — The government’s offensive against the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu has split opposition lawmakers in the House of Representatives, House Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora said Tuesday.

 

This developed as an administration ally in the lower chamber urged government to provide the families of troops killed in the course of the offensive with full Philhealth benefits to help ease their suffering.

 

Pampanga Representative Arthur Celeste, chairman of the House committee on national defense, said the widows and minor-aged children of the slain soldiers should receive full or lifetime Philhealth benefits, the latter at least until they reach 21.

 

Zamora said the House opposition has yet to sit down to discuss the southern offensive but acknowledged that, while many of them support the offensive against the extremist group, a number of others are against it.

 

“Many of us want [the offensive] continued so that the sacrifice of our soldiers who died will not be in vain. But many are also saying it is not really solving anything,” he told INQUIRER.net in a phone interview.

 

Zamora himself believes the government should push on with the offensive and put an end to the violence of the Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

“My view is there is a need to end that problem. It is difficult to declare a ceasefire and go back to the negotiating table without resolving the basic issue. This is supposed to be one country. There are not supposed to be any territories that are not [part of] the Philippines,” he said.

 

“This should be ended immediately. It does not mean kill all those people, but there must be some conclusion to this,” Zamora stressed.

 

After the fighting, he added, the government should return to the region to rehabilitate the place and solve the roots causes of the conflict such as poverty, lack of opportunity and discrimination, among others.

 

Zamora claimed this was how the Estrada administration, in which he served as executive secretary, “successfully” solved the problem in Mindanao.

 

In 2000, then president Joseph Estrada ordered an “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to the capture by government troops of major bases of the secessionist group.

 

“Basically, what we did was we made sure that we finished what had to be finished. And for that reason, we were pretty much successful. We got the camps. But after we won the war, we went back and fixed the region,” Zamora pointed out.

 

Like Zamora, Deputy Minority Leader Roilo Golez and neophyte Representative Dan Fernandez, also with the opposition, supported the government offensive.

 

Golez said he was in favor of the military offensives because an “appeasement policy won’t work in the case of the Abu Sayyaf.”

 

Such a policy, he said, would only give the extremists a “respite to regroup, rearm and recruit. But military operations should always be followed by civic action,” he said.

 

For his part, Fernandez said he would have preferred the conflict resolved on the negotiating table had the government not launched attacks.

 

“But since they have already started it, we might as well support the government on this. My only apprehension is the civilian casualties,” the neophyte solon said.

 

Bayan Muna (People First) Representative Teodoro Casiño was consistent in opposing the Mindanao offensive, calling it a “wrong strategy from the start.”

 

“It was a wrong strategy from the start. Erap [Estrada’s nickname] tried it but it didn’t work. The problem is the lives of our soldiers are being put in danger for the wrong strategy [and] for the wrong reasons,” Casiño said.

 

The leftist solon said he felt the military leadership wanted to turn Basilan and Sulu into a training ground, a “live laboratory.”

“I have this feeling that Southcom [Southern Command] wants perpetual war in Sulu and Basilan so they can have training grounds. They were there for training. It’s a live laboratory for Southcom, that’s why they don’t want to end the war there,” Casiño claimed.

 

Explaining his call, Celeste said full or lifetime Philhealth benefits only cover military personnel who have paid 120 monthly contributions or those who have reached the mandatory retirement age of 56.

 

“I urge the national government through an official communication to [Health] Secretary [Francisco] Duque of the DoH [Department of Health] to act promptly and with compassion to help alleviate the mental anguish and financial suffering of the bereaved widows and children of the slain children in Basilan and Sulu conflict,” the lawmaker said in a statement.

 

“This is only a small fitting tribute to honor the soldiers, who have given their lives in defending their country’s sovereignty, notwithstanding their final duties and responsibilities to their families. They are a new breed of heroes,” he said.

 

Celeste said he would also file a bill granting full Philhealth benefits not only to the widows and orphans of slain soldiers, but also to the families of policemen and civilians who die in combat or in acts of “extra-heroism” in defense of country and fellowmen.

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