MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Congress to set aside money for a "standby fund" that could be quickly tapped should the government need to evacuate Filipinos in the Middle East.
This comes amid rising tensions caused by the killing of Iranian commander Major General Qasem Soleimani.
Duterte gave lawmakers the directive in a speech after the ceremonial signing of the P4.1-trillion 2020 budget on Monday, January 6, saying that he estimated the government would need "billions" to mobilize troops and officials if evacuation would be needed.
"We never had this kind of problem. I suggest Congress, even for about one or two days, discuss the problems and ramifications.... Let's start with a standby fund.... Calculate what would be the calibrated withdrawals," Duterte said.
In his first comments since the killing of Soleimani in Iraq, Duterte said he would not have worried about the possible fallout from the incident were it not for the large number of Filipinos working in the Middle East. He lamented the "evolving crisis" unfolding in the region, saying he feared for the safety of Filipinos living there.
"We do not know what would be the end result of that crisis. It could lead to a protracted war, it could be a wide-scale strike. Whatever it is, we Filipinos are really in grave peril. We have so many millions of Filipinos working mainly in the Middle East. Kinakabahan ako (I'm nervous)," Duterte said.
What we know so far about the fund: Duterte said the money must "cut across accounting rules" so that it could be "used immediately" in case mass evacuation was needed. He declined to have it placed under his office, saying that he did not want to deal with the money directly.
"I do not want to hold it. We might want to get someone with integrity and they can be the one to disburse it.... Congress can put the safeguards and roadblocks to avoid corruption," the President said.
As to where lawmakers would find the billions of pesos supposedly needed for evacuation operations, Duterte pointed to Finance Secretary Carlos "Sonny" Dominguez III, who assured him there were "unlimited funds" available for evacuation.
The President even joked that lawmakers could "steal" from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas to provide money for the "standby fund."
"If it spells the difference between the life and death of Filipinos, Sonny Dominguez says we have the money. We will buy, borrow, steal. Nakawan natin 'yung central bank mismo (We can steal from the central bank itself). If we have to do it, we will do it," Duterte said.
"We need the money, Sonny. I need it before it (war) actually starts," he added.
The bigger picture: Soleimani was killed in a United States drone strike at the Baghdad International Airport last Friday, January 3, in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the US and Iran. The Pentagon said US President Donald Trump ordered Soleimani's "killing" after a pro-Iran mob laid siege on the US embassy.
Soleimani, one of the most powerful military figures in the Middle East, was pivotal in steering events that shaped the region's battlefield. His assassination has sparked fears of all-out conflict, with Trump warning of "major retaliation" if Iran makes good on its threat to take "severe revenge."
World leaders have since appealed for the two countries to show restraint, emphasizing the need to de-escalate tensions. But Duterte believes conflict is almost certain.
"Iran seems to be hell-bent on retaliation, which I think will come. It is a matter of time. There is much hurt and even the loss of pride in the Arabic world. Retaliation and the cry for blood is there," he said.
In a meeting with security officials on Sunday, January 5, Duterte ordered the Philippine military to be ready to evacuate Filipinos if tensions worsen. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has since said it is "ready to deploy anytime," with the "nitty-gritty" of evacuation plans already presented to the President.