Thursday, January 26, 2006

VFA office abolished

By Philip C. Tubeza, Inquirer

THE EXECUTIVE director of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom) appears headed to losing his office a day after he warned against the proposed junking of the controversial agreement.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has decided to abolish the commission because it "duplicates" the functions of the bicameral Legislative Oversight Committee on the VFA (LOVFA), Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago said yesterday.

Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo also indicated that Zosimo Paredes -- the most often quoted official of the commission since the alleged rape of a Filipino woman by a group of US Marines last Nov. 1 -- could not speak in behalf of the administration on the VFA.

"[Ms Arroyo] is convinced that [the VFACom] is redundant because it duplicates the work of the LOVFA, and it requires an appropriation of P20 million a year," Santiago said, adding:

"And from what law school did he (Paredes) graduate? He does not know his law."

But the commission, which is under the Office of the President, runs on a budget of P2 million a year drawn from that office, Paredes said.

Santiago, who co-chairs the LOVFA along with Cebu Representative Antonio Cuenco and who has recommended the termination and renegotiation of the VFA, also said Paredes was "publicly reprimanded" by Romulo during the Senate hearing on the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

"He was told to stop making comments because he has no authority to speak," she said.

On Tuesday, Paredes warned that the Philippines could lose up to $8 million a year in military and humanitarian benefits if the 1998 agreement were abrogated.

Told yesterday of the developments at the Senate, Paredes expressed total surprise.

"I don't know of any reason why [this should happen]," he told the Inquirer when reached at his DFA office. Paredes said he saw Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita last Monday, "and there was no mention of this."

Face and voice

Paredes has practically been the face and voice of the VFACom since the alleged rape began making headlines, providing reporters updates on the rape case as well as airing his legal opinions on the RP-US accord.

He is the only Filipino government official of rank allowed by the US Embassy to see the accused Marines in two visits made to the mission -- one last November and the other early this month.

"I feel disappointed, and I believe we were doing our job," said Paredes, a 1971 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy who joined the right-wing Reform the Armed Forces Movement in the mid-1980s.

Asked if he thought his recent statements could have caught the ire of MalacaƱang, he said: "If some people somewhere are against me personally, they should just remove me, not the office."

And if the VFACom is being considered a "redundant" government office, "why say that only now?" he said.

Paredes pointed out that the VFACom was a creation of the Senate itself: "Didn't they see [the supposed redundancy] when they passed Senate Resolution No. 18 in 1999?"

He said that he had been "quite zealous" in performing his functions, and that he had just arrived early this week from Mindanao where he oversaw the latest RP-US Balikatan military exercises and community projects under the VFA.

According to Paredes, the VFACom is an organization of only seven persons, himself included, and a staff composed of personnel from the DFA and the Department of National Defense (DND).

Cut budget

Santiago said she was present when Ms Arroyo instructed Ermita to draft the executive order to abolish the VFACom.

"Madame Senator, I understand there is a plan to abolish that office principally by denying it a budget, and I understand also that the President has agreed to this," Romulo said at the hearing.

Asked later by reporters about the President's possible reasons, Romulo said: "Well, that is the decision of the Senate. Senator Defensor said she is recommending that [the VFACom] be abolished, and she said the President agrees. So I say amen.

"Obviously, if you don't have a budget, how can you continue [operating]?"

Without naming Paredes, Santiago assailed the official for making it appear that he was speaking for the administration.

"This executive director has deluded the media into the belief that he has authority to speak for a group of Cabinet members of which he is not a member. In other words, he is a minor functionary of the DFA but he struts around as if he heads the [VFACom]," she said.

Media mileage

Romulo said he had asked the media not to refer to Paredes as a foreign undersecretary "because he is not."

Santiago told Romulo: "In fact, according to Secretary Ermita, they do not meet. So, it is erroneous as well to refer to him as a ... Palace official because his office is in the DFA [but] he does not report to you."

She said Paredes also did not report to Ermita "in the same way that secretaries, clerks or stenographers do not report to a department secretary."

"And yet, it is astonishing how much media mileage he has been able to accrue for himself by identifying himself as executive director of [the VFACom], even receiving an invitation to visit the Marines ahead of the oversight committee of the Congress," Santiago said.

"So apparently, misimpressions must be corrected not only on the part of this official himself but also on the part of the US Embassy, who has begun to believe his own propaganda," she said.

Romulo assured Santiago that he had informed the US Embassy of Paredes' standing in the administration.

"We have advised them accordingly, Madame Senator, and I think that should not continue anymore," he said.

Back-channeling

Santiago said Romulo had assured her that the DFA would support "any action that the Congress might take" on the VFA.

She quoted Romulo as saying that he was ready to "carry out" any foreign policy Congress might pass, and that like Congress, he also favored a renegotiation of the agreement.

But Romulo told the Senate during the hearing that the government was still pursuing "back-channel" negotiations with the US government for the custody of the four US Marines charged with rape in Olongapo City.

He said US state department officials had also assured him that the issue would be discussed "at the highest echelons" of Washington.

Romulo also lauded the LOVFA decision on Jan. 19 calling on Congress to issue a notice of termination of the VFA and its renegotiation during the compulsory six-month waiting period.

"Madame Senator, I respect the decision of the (LOVFA) in its recommendation. I think certainly it has been helpful with our talks with our counterparts," Romulo said.

"I agree with the national consensus [for a renegotiation], Madame Senator. In fact, that is the position I adopted from the very beginning, after reading the provisions of the VFA as well as the notes on the proceedings ... And that is, that this is an extraordinary case and custody [of the accused Marines] should belong to us," he said.

Romulo made these statements after Senator Juan Ponce Enrile plied him with questions for not raising the issue with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when he visited Washington recently.

But Romulo told the senator: "As far as I'm concerned, we are handling that with the US Embassy here. So I did not think that there was any necessity to have a scheduled meeting [with Rice]." With a report from Volt Contreras

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