Lacson: Several Cabinet officials against junking VFA

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 27) — President Rodrigo Duterte's move to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States does not have the full support of his Cabinet, according to a lawmaker.

Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson in a media briefing on Thursday said he's heard of reservations from several Cabinet officials about the abrogation of the two-decade-old military agreement with US – which has brought billions of pesos in aid for the Philippines since 1999.

"We talked to several Cabinet members... they are actually against the abrogation," Lacson said, without naming names. He also refused to say how many these Cabinet secretaries are, but said they are less than 10.

"Openly, at least 'pag kami-kami lang hindi naman sila naghehesitate na magsabi na mali talaga ang decision to abrogate because we have not prepared for it," Lacson added.

[Translation: Openly, when it's just us talking, they do not hesitate to say that it's really wrong to abrogate because we have not prepared for it.]

The VFA, a 1998 agreement between Manila and Washington, legally allows the entry of a large number of American troops, exempting them from passport and visa regulations so they can participate in joint military drills in the Philippines.

EXPLAINER: The Visiting Forces Agreement

Duterte first threatened to junk the VFA on January 23 to condemn the US government's revocation of Senator Ronald "Bato" dela Rosa's tourist visa. Dela Rosa acknowledged the travel restriction may have something to do with alleged extrajudicial killings under his watch as chief of the Philippine National Police from 2016 to 2018.

On February 11, Duterte pushed through with sending the US a notice to terminate the VFA despite some senators' appeal that they be consulted. The Senate also passed a resolution calling for a thorough review of the VFA before deciding on its fate.

Even Foreign Affairs Secretary Tedoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said in a Senate hearing that the continuance of the VFA "is deemed to be more beneficial" for the Philippines. He highlighted benefits the Philippines has been getting from the VFA, including military assistance, financial grants, and deterrence against possible attacks from other countries, among others.

READ: PH could lose up to ₱10 billion in aid if VFA ends, Locsin says

Locsin, the country's senior diplomat, later heeded Duterte's order to send the termination notice to the US.

Lacson said some of the Cabinet members he has talked had to tried to discourage the President from abrogating the VFA.

"Maraming takot kay Presidente... Nag-eexpress sila but you know, lagi silang nananantya ba. How to bring it to his attention, how to persuade him or dissuade him from proceeding doon sa abrogation. And sa tingin lang mukhang made up ang mind ni PRRD," Lacson said.

[Translation: Many fear the President. They expressed (their reservations) but you know, they always seem to weight things. How to bring it to his attention, how to persuade him or dissuade him from proceeding with the abrogation. And they think PRRD has made up his mind.]

Meanwhile, the Senate is not giving up on trying to save the VFA. Lacson said they are planning to question the President's unilateral termination with the Supreme Court. This will be similar to the senators' pending petition regarding Duterte's pullout from the International Criminal Court, which they said needed Senate's concurrence.

The Constitution is silent on this matter, since it only requires Senate concurrence in the ratification of an agreement.

The VFA will be effectively scrapped on August 9 – 180 days from the US' receipt of the termination notice. Panelo earlier said there's nothing the US government could do to "salvage" the VFA, while American President Donald Trump made it clear he does not have plans of doing so.

"I view it as, 'Thank you very much. We save a lot of money,'" Trump said in an interview, in response to Duterte's move to junk the VFA.

CNN Philippines' Joyce Ilas contributed to this report.