Manila to spend US$30 mil. on troops

MANILA, Reuters

The Philippines has started a US$30-million re-training program for soldiers fighting communist and Muslim rebels as part of its plan to bring one of Southeast Asia’s most ill-equipped militaries up to scratch.

Ernesto Carolina, undersecretary of national defense, told Reuters on Tuesday that around US$13 million had been allocated in this year’s budget to purchase essential equipment for re-training an average of 10 infantry battalions in 2007.

Another US$17 million was set aside to hold drills with U.S. special forces units on counter-terrorism and to produce hundreds of training manuals for squad leaders.

“We’ve started investing in the training of our soldiers,” Carolina, a retired general and former commander in the troubled Muslim south of the mainly Roman Catholic state, told Reuters in an interview.

“We’re training not only to sharpen our cutting edge in the fight to defeat the country’s internal security threat, but we’re also trying to prepare our troops to deter potential external aggressors.”

Carolina said the re-training activities were part of a 10-point defense reform program drafted in 2005 with the help of the United States.

The Philippines, a close ally of the U.S., has about 120,000 soldiers but its military operations have been hampered by underfunding, corruption, low morale and a penchant for meddling in politics.

Since 1969, the Philippines has been battling the communist New People’s Army, which has about 7,000 fighters and is active in 69 of 81 provinces in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people.

It was also fighting four Muslim separatist guerrilla forces, including the Abu Sayyaf which has suspected ties to al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiah.

Philippine troops on an offensive against Abu Sayyaf in the south rely on U.S. training, equipment and ammunition to flush out the militants from treacherous terrain.

The Philippines’ reform plan includes a three-phase, 18-year, US$5-billion modernization program to improve soldiers’ capability to move, communicate and shoot, Carolina said.

“We’ve totally neglected our training programs because of too much focus on our internal security problems. It’s about time we should prepare our troops on how to fight battles in the 21st century,” he added.