MARCH 8, 2007 (STAR)  By Paolo Romero - Amid adverse public opinion, Malacañang ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines yesterday to end the deployment of troops in Metro Manila, which is ostensibly being done as part of the AFP’s civil-military operations training program.

President Arroyo also ordered the AFP to explain the necessity of deploying troops in the nation’s capital, which has raised concerns and howls of protest among militant groups and the urban poor.

Soldiers under the Philippine Army Community, Unity, Teamwork Enhancement (PACUTE) have been deployed in different slum areas in Metro Manila, including some areas surrounding Malacañang since November.

The military said the deployment formed part of the training program of troops for civil-military operations.

But leftist groups and the political opposition hit the move as part of the administration’s electioneering and militarization of the capital.

Religious and urban poor groups also slammed the troop deployment by claiming the move only raised concerns of another military rule in the works.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, however, stressed the deployment was part of AFP’s training program for military officers and personnel to make soldiers more effective in civil-military operations.

Ermita noted though the adverse public opinion arising over the move to deploy soldiers in the nation’s capital.

"We are not giving them direct order but I reminded them about the concerns of people through media," Ermita said.

Ermita said the training is being conducted at the Army headquarters in Fort Bonifacio and part of it includes the fielding of 27 teams of 10 men in rural areas as "immersion."

After the training, the graduates would be sent to actual civil-military operations missions in the provinces, he said.

Ermita recalled that he himself was part of such civil-military operations after he headed the AFP Civil Relations Service in the late 1980s when he was still in active service.

"We’re trying to be sure that our people are properly trained, they are immersed with the civilians so that by the time they are fielded (and) deployed outside they will know how to go about dealing with civilians," he said.

Ermita said the soldiers will not be wearing their battle-dress attire or camouflage combat suits but the more formal "general office attire."

He said the soldiers are not allowed to carry high-powered firearms and their movements will be closely monitored by the AFP.

Ermita added the troops were also warned not to campaign against leftist party-list organizations since it could be interpreted as electioneering.

Ermita also welcomed complaints of electioneering filed before the Commission on Elections (Comelec) saying the government has nothing to hide.

"Let’s see if the Comelec will allow it or say it disturbs the election atmosphere," Ermita said.

Wrong move

Senatorial candidates crossed party lines in condemning the move to field military men in Metro Manila, saying it was ill-timed and could send wrong message to the people.

Reelectionist Senators Joker Arroyo and Ralph Recto of the administration’s Team Unity said the deployment of troops in the metropolis would not be an effective way of winning public support for the military.

Senate President Manuel Villar and Tarlac Rep. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino of the Genuine Opposition (GO) said the move of the military to be seen roaming in the nation’s capital is not proper for a democracy.

Aquino warned the "militarization of barangays in Metro Manila" is another clear indication of the constant threat to democracy in the Philippines under the Arroyo administration.

Aquino said Mrs. Arroyo’s "crony generals are at it again, trying to influence the coming elections."

Recto, for his part, said the AFP should deploy military doctors in Metro Manila slums instead of ordering soldiers to patrol areas for activist groups.

Another way that the military can stop insurgents organizing in the capital region is to field engineering battalions to urban poor areas, Recto added.

Villar, for his part, said there is no logical reason to deploy troops in the nation’s capital during the election season.

He said policemen have the duty to maintain peace and order rather than the military.

Villar said troop deployment in the metropolis can be interpreted as a portent of things to come after the Anti-Terror bill has been signed into law by President Arroyo.

"We should not be instilling fear in our countrymen especially these elections," he said.

‘A different story’

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), however, said the AFP had coordinated the efforts to deploy soldiers in some areas in Metro Manila.

CHR Commissioner-in-charge of the National Capital Region Wilhelm Soriano said the AFP had notified them of the troop deployment since January.

"We were informed of this deployment of troops ahead of time," Soriano said. "And we were assured that those who shall be deployed to these slum communities are non-tactical, non-combatant soldiers."

Soriano said the troops will come from the First Regional Community Defense Group under Col. Dazy Marinas which would only involve "civic actions in 26 urban communities."

He said the CHR has already deployed field investigators to monitor the operations or activities in the areas.

"If we see that these soldiers are diverting from civic-related activities that they are supposed to render in these communities, then it will altogether be a different story," Soriano said.

Soriano said he was told by the AFP that the troop deployment is part of the "internal security plan" that included soldiers conducting civic actions in order "to feel the pulse of the people," particularly in slum areas.

The military said the troop deployment is aimed "at enhancing the security" of communities and "to assist the police in maintaining the peace and order" in the areas.

"The AFP said that they have intelligence reports that lawlessness and insurgency breeds in these slum communities," Soriano pointed out.

Militant groups have filed a complaint before Comelec accusing the AFP of engaging in partisan political activity.

Militant groups claimed the AFP is actively campaigning against leftist party-list groups in 27 barangays in Metro Manila.

The political opposition led by Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay claimed the military is precisely targeting leftist organizations and GO candidates.

"These developments further dampen our hope that the military will remain neutral in the coming (May 14) elections," Binay said. - With Aurea Calica, Katherine Adraneda, Jess Diaz, Jaime Laude, Jose Rodel Clapano

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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