FEBRUARY 2, 2007 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - Military personnel will continue to perform poll duties on May 14, and if you have a problem with that, you can face the new secretary of national defense.

On his first day on the job, Defense Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane yesterday pledged that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) would not help candidates cheat in the May 14 elections, but insisted the military can still perform poll duties to help election officials.

In his first press conference as defense secretary at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Ebdane got irked when a foreign correspondent asked how his plans to conduct seminars on poll duties would affect the AFP’s goal of insulating the military from partisan politics.

"What’s your problem?" Ebdane snapped at the reporter.

"I suggest that you look at the mandate of the Comelec (Commission on Elections), the mandate of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the memorandum of agreement (MOA) that was signed and you will understand," he added.

But the MOA that was forged between defense and Comelec officials during the term of Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr. contradicts Ebdane’s statement.

That agreement says that a Comelec-deputized military unit shall not, in any instance, include the performance of election duties such as transport of ballots, other election paraphernalia and election results.

The MOA allows military units to use air, land, and naval vessels, upon the approval of the Armed Forces chief of staff, to provide security escorts to Comelec officials who are transporting election paraphernalia only if the security provided by the police is not enough to address the threat, as determined by the AFP chief and the Comelec chairman.

The agreement also said the deputization shall not include making available certain military facilities such as land, sea and air transportation, communication systems and other equipment in connection with the elections, except to provide security.

"That memo of agreement is flexible and if the chief of staff and any other saw it fit that it must be further defined, the better so than to negate and to isolate the individual personnel from unnecessarily being used in partisan activities," Ebdane insisted.

"What’s wrong if the Comelec will request the Air Force to transport the ballots from Luzon to Mindanao?" he added.

Cruz, during his two years as defense chief, had made it a priority to insulate the AFP from partisan politics. One of his last official acts was to relieve the AFP of poll duties through the MOA with the Comelec, except in instances where the police needs military support.

The de-politicization of the AFP is among the recommendations of both the Feliciano and Davide commissions, which drew up reforms to create a professional military and eradicate the so-called coup culture. Another recommendation of both commissions was to stop appointing retired military and police officers as defense chief.

Ebdane’s appointment has raised concerns that he would reverse all the reforms implemented during Cruz’s tenure.

Ebdane’s endorsers had argued that he had been "civilianized" enough since his retirement from the police. Ebdane had not yet been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments as secretary of public works and highways when he was moved to the defense post.

Short fuse

A few years ago, Ebdane, then the chief of the Philippine National Police, also lost his cool when another reporter asked him how sure the police were that detained terrorists would not escape from the detention center at PNP headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City.

Ebdane suggested that the reporter have himself detained in the PNP jail to find out for himself if he could escape.

Convicted Jemaah Islamiyah bomb-maker Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, two Abu Sayyaf militants and Pentagon kidnap gang leader Faisal Marohombsar had escaped from supposedly maximum security detention at Camp Crame during Ebdane’s watch.

The new defense chief was apparently irritated by allegations that generals close to President Arroyo helped her cheat in the 2004 polls, leading to deep divisions within the Armed Forces which culminated in a failed coup attempt last year.

Ebdane, during his stint as police chief, was controversial for having been mentioned in the "Hello Garci" tapes that allegedly contained the wiretapped conversations between President Arroyo and former Comelec commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.

Mrs. Arroyo repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but later admitted that she called a Comelec officials whom she did not identify, to check on her lead in the canvassing for the 2004 polls. Her admission led to a public outcry and two impeachment bids against her in Congress in the past years.

"We have to insulate the Armed Forces of the Philippines from partisan activities," Ebdane said in a speech as he formally took over as new defense secretary.

Ebdane also clarified that military vehicles could still be used to transport election paraphernalia if the Comelec requests the Armed Forces to do so.

He maintained that the Comelec still has the final decision on whether the military would be tapped for election duties, with the existence of the MOA that prohibits soldiers from performing poll duties.

"Remember it is always the Comelec that has the final say. Like for example the transfer of the ballots from one province to another, they need the planes, so it is not included in the prohibition, the specific prohibitions are the provision of security to candidates and second, the counting of ballots inside the camps and third is the involvement of personnel in the transport of the ballots. So if you look at the memorandum of agreement, it is specifically defined," he said.

AFP chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr., in defense of Ebdane, said that AFP vehicles could be used to transport election paraphernalia if there are no other available means of transportation.

"We will be allowed to transport as escorts but the vehicles will be first primarily not from the AFP, but if there are no other transport equipment that can be used then it would be up to Comelec to make the order. It is not being changed, we will work within the spirit of the MOA," Esperon explained.

The MOA also prohibits soldiers from providing security escorts to political candidates.

It also says that military personnel would only be deployed in areas where there are "strong armed threats" and to conduct checkpoints to fully enforce the gun ban. Counting and canvassing of votes inside military camps are also not allowed under the agreement.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Ebdane is a "quiet achiever" as he appealed to critics to give the new defense chief a chance to do his job well.

"We should allow Secretary Ebdane to prove his worth. We have a hard worker and a quiet achiever in the defense post who will push the AFP modernization agenda to the limit and match defense policy and capability with the complex security challenges facing our country," Bunye said.

Civilian in nature

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita also defended Ebdane’s appointment, saying that despite recommendations from the Feliciano and Davide commissions that investigated the failed July 27, 2003 Oakwood mutiny that a civilian occupy the top defense post, it is still up to President Arroyo to decide on matters regarding the designation of Cabinet officials.

Ermita said Ebdane, although a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, was a civilian during his stint in the Philippine Constabulary and Philippine National Police, which is civilian in nature.

"No one can question Secretary Ebdane’s competence and track record in public service. He has what it takes to run the department," he said.

He said Ebdane would continue the reforms in the AFP that were already started.

In his speech, Ebdane said he would continue the reforms in the military and would see to it that it is being fully implemented under his watch.

Ebdane said investigators should dig deeper to get more evidence to identify the suspects in the extra-judicial killings of leftist activists and journalists.

"We will have to revisit the cases to identify the perpetrators. The President has so ordered including the possible assistance from other interested parties. Of the 115 cases under investigation, there are six cases involving suspected military elements and 23 cases perpetrated by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army as reported by Task Force Usig (of the police). This must be reviewed so as to get the proper picture and get the facts right," he said.

The Melo Commission headed by former Supreme Court Justice Jose Melo submitted its findings to President Arroyo last week after a four-month investigation of the killings of activists and journalists nationwide.

Butuan Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, a Melo panel member, said there are some military men that are responsible for the killings and that their commanders should be held liable for the actions of their men. — AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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