MANILA, SEPTEMBER 20, 2008 (STAR) Malacañang has assembled 71 people – most of them ostensibly security personnel – to accompany President Arroyo in her trip to New York tomorrow for the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said the President’s retinue is composed mostly of security men and administrative staff for her four to five-day working visit.

Ermita said that five members of the official party and three senior government officials are among the 71-member delegation.

The number does not include members of Congress who will be joining the trip. Ermita said many lawmakers are expected to join the trip to establish contacts with other officials attending the General Assembly meeting.

It was only last Wednesday that the Palace announced the decision of Mrs. Arroyo to push through with her visit to New York after initially canceling it supposedly to allow her to personally attend to pressing matters in the country.

Ermita said that the change in plans happened in the wake of improving security situation in Central Mindanao.

He explained that when the President made her decision to cancel her trip, the crisis in Mindanao was at its height.

The hostilities began when Muslim separatist rebels attacked Christian-dominated communities in Mindanao, after the botched signing in Malaysia of a territorial pact between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“All these necessitated her attention. But as days go by, the President, I suppose, sees that things are stabilizing and that maybe she will get much more positive gains when she undergoes her trip since everything after all back home will be stabilized,” Ermita said.

The United Opposition has called on the President to cancel her US trip as it would cost a lot of taxpayers’ money.

UNO spokesperson Adel Tamano said that the President should just focus her attention on the country’s economic problems instead of going on an expensive trip.

Ermita emphasized that the president’s US visit would be beneficial to the nation as she would be meeting with several world leaders including UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon and the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference Edmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno said Mrs. Arroyo’s trip will give her an opportunity to explain to the world the ongoing police and military operations against renegade MILF commanders in Central Mindanao as well as the status of the peace process.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza stated that Mrs. Arroyo will also campaign for Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s bid for a seat in the International Court of Justice.

The President is expected to return to Manila on Sept. 27. Bad news awaits GMA WASHINGTON, DC - In her US visit, Mrs. Arroyo will likely be greeted with news that the Filipino veterans equity bill in the 110th US Congress is all but dead.

It will be an unfortunate piece of news for a president who went out of her way when she visited Washington in June to lobby House leaders for passage of the bill which seeks to provide a monthly pension of $300 for veterans living in the Philippines for their service to Uncle Sam in World War II.

During her June visit she received assurances from key congressional members that the bill, already approved by the Senate, would also pass the House before the presidential elections in November.

But that was then and this is now. The financial meltdown which bled the government of hundreds of billions of dollars, strong opposition by the American Legion against funding for the Filipinos, estimated to cost $200 million over a 10- year period, and the focus by legislators on their reelection bids have conspired to ensure the all but certain demise of the equity bill as approved by the Senate.

“Unless a miracle happens we will have to give her the bad news when she arrives in New York to attend the United Nations general assembly,” said a Filipino veteran who asked not to be identified.

Democratic House leaders are reluctant to introduce their version of the Senate bill to the floor for debate because of the threat of retaliation at the polls by the powerful American Legion veterans group and other voters who might not look too kindly at unnecessary expenses at a time of financial turmoil.

Also Republicans are geared to mount stiff opposition to the bill.

The Senate proposal to provide Filipino veterans monthly pensions effectively reverses the infamous Rescission Act of 1946, which stripped them of their GI benefits.

The Filipino bill is one of five separate measures under S-1315 entitled the “Veterans Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007.” US veterans believe funding for the Filipinos will be at their expense, hence their opposition.

Instead of monthly pensions the House Veterans Affairs Committee has proposed a one-time, lump-sum payment to Filipino veterans — $15,000 for those living in the United States and $9,000 for those living in the Philippines – in recognition of their wartime services.

House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Bob Filner plans to present the bill, HR 6897, to the floor before Congress goes on recess Sept. 26 to prepare for the Nov. 4 elections.

An amendment to the House bill stipulates that veterans who receive the lump sum payment release the US government from further claims.

“In an environment where the opposition has invoked divisive rhetoric to pit veterans against each other instead of having a real dialogue about the merits of this issue, HR 6897 is a reaction to the muddied political waters operating right now,” said Ben de Guzman, National Coordinator of the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE).

“We have registered the serious concerns we have about a lump sum proposal with chairman Filner,” said NAFVE co-chair Jon Melegrito.

In an attempt to put a positive spin to the whole situation Ambassador Willy Gaa said: “While we continue to hope and work for the eventual passage of S1315, we view the move to pass HR 6897 as part of overall efforts to obtain for our veterans what they truly deserve.”

Gaa said HR 6897 has become an important rallying point for bipartisan support for Filipino veterans.

“Certain differences and concerns have stalled any forward movement” but with bipartisan momentum, and with certain concerns being addressed, “we can give a far more vigorous push for legislative measures that will truly benefit our veterans,” he said.

“We are not abandoning any legislative measure at this point. We see recent developments are strengthening efforts to win for our veterans the justice and the victory that they so justly deserve,” Gaa added.

It appears Gaa is already looking forward to 2009 when the new US Congress convenes and S1315 is hopefully brought back to life, sources said.

Filipino veterans in the US and Philippines are unanimous in dismissing the lump sum payment as unacceptable, the sources said. “We are not mercenaries,” is their common refrain.

“It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of honor,” Sen. Daniel Inouye, one of the sponsors of the Senate bill said earlier as if anticipating the reaction of the Filipino veterans to the lump sum payment.

Veteran leader Sonny Sampayam said it was better to put S-1315 to a vote and “let the chips fall where they may.”

“If a vote is not taken when Congress goes into recess, the bill is dead and if a vote is taken, we will know who voted and we can ask our constituents to vote accordingly on November 4,” he said.

“The time must come for Filipino voters to deliver ‘bloc votes’ on election day,” he said. There are more than three million Filipino Americans in the United States.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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