POSTSCRIPT / September 14, 2008 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Gov't shifting to peace talks with community

KEY SHIFT: Malacañang does not say so explicitly, but it appears to have recast radically its Muslim Mindanao policy both on the ground and at the negotiating table.

Only time will tell if this shift would result in an escalation of violence or the dawning of relative peace and development for the troubled island where Muslims, despite their centuries-old presence, are a minority.

The government’s declaration that it would not sign its Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, followed by the disbanding of its negotiating panel, signaled the policy change.

President Gloria Arroyo’s demand that the MILF first lay down its arms before the peace talks could be resumed — an impossible demand — made it clearer that her administration was not about to resume the peace talks.

At the same time, the Commander-in-Chief sent more troops to Mindanao, finding in the barbaric rampage of hotheads in the MILF a justification for dropping negotiations and escalating search and destroy operations.

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MULTI-SECTORAL: Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro told Postscript days ago that the administration is now looking for a community-based multi-sectoral response to its entreaties that the fired-up situation be allowed to simmer down.

The government’s turning its attention away from the MILF to a wider community that includes religious and civic groups means, at least to this observer, that its talking days with the violence-prone MILF are over.

As for the disbanding of the government panel, Teodoro said that its work — which is basically to negotiate with the MILF — is over. He did not say it, but it appears that if any more talking is to be done, it will be by another government panel with another group across the table.

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HUNT PRESSED: Teodoro confirmed that the government is pouring more troops and resources to troubled areas in Mindanao. The operations to capture rebel commanders — ALIVE, he said — go on. He said with a smile that the military knows where the targets are.

Can the government do what previous administrations had tried but failed to do, which is to subdue the Moro or at least assimilate them into the mainstream?

Meantime, is the government ready and able to pour in more resources that could have been used for pacific pursuits in Mindanao and other areas?

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FIRST HORIZON: In the so-called First Horizon in the upgrading of the armed forces’ capabilities, P5 billion is being spent for a six-year period ending in 2010.

Emphasis is in the procurement of basic equipment for land forces, such infantry automatic weapons, more sophisticated radio equipment, and vehicles for improved mobility.

Among these are six helicopters. They are to be paid from the P5 billion given by President Arroyo from savings earned last year as a result of the appreciation of the peso versus the US dollar. The money is in addition to the regular defense budget.

In addition, the defense department plans to buy refurbished helicopters costing some P400 million each.

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AIRCRAFT: As for fixed-wing aircraft, the air force wants to buy more Fokker-type two-engine, possibly 44-seater, airlift planes.

The air force is also eyeing several T-41 training planes from South Korea. Why Korea? Maybe because Seoul has donated some of those trainer planes and Filipino flyers are apparently happy with them.

Replacing the C-130 Hercules transport plane that crashed last month into the Davao Gulf, killing its two pilots and seven crewmen, seems out of the question at the moment. An old refurbished Hercules costs about P800 million while a brand-new one is at least P2 billion. Obviously that does not fit into a P5-billion shopping list.

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DEPLOYMENT: To get additional funds for upgrading AFP capability, the defense department is looking for a way to share in the continuing income of military reservations that have been converted to private commercial and industrial use.

There has been a shift in priorities from external defense to beefing up logistical support for ground troops involved in anti-insurgency operations. This includes air and naval support for land forces.

Because of the heightened rebel action in Mindanao, a security threat that is more immediate, about 60 percent of some 85,000 ground troops (including Marines) have been deployed there.

While MILF fighters — its claim is 15,000, which is obviously padded — are substantially fewer than the government troops ranged against them, guerilla tactics multiply their effective force by about 10.

The MILF has been using such weapons as rifle-propelled grenades that are portable and effective against armored vehicles and even tanks. In contrast, the AFP is not yet using RPGs.

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NEXT HORIZONS: The second horizon is the next program aimed at upgrading the capability of the AFP to secure the national territory and protect the country’s marine resources. This includes acquiring better radar systems and patrol boats.

The program requires P10 billion every year for six years ending in 2016.

The third horizon entails P20 billion every year for another six years ending in 2022.

The P5.4 billion earlier reported as missing has been located. In fact, part of the money has been used already for several AFP projects.

Aside from four patrol craft acquired (actually donated) from South Korea, the Navy wants six more of them, even at the modest rate of two a year. These sea craft have been useful in the southern borders, especially in curbing human trafficking.

Some P1 billion will be spent for additional attack helicopters, Cobra-types (lower version of the Apache choppers).

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 14, 2008)

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