US-Philippines Balikatan military exercise (File photo)

MANILA – “Undecided” on the fate of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States (US), President Rodrigo Duterte said he wants public input on the controversial defense deal.

In a public address delivered Wednesday night, Duterte sought to consult the public before he makes a decision on the VFA.

“I will be talking about the Visiting Forces Agreement na pinag-usap usapan na ngayon (which is already making headlines). And I said I must be frank, I do not keep secrets to the people. I have not yet, as yet, decided on what to do. Meaning to say, to abrogate or renew [the suspension of termination], because I want to hear the people,” Duterte said.

To recall, Duterte on Feb. 12 said the US needs to “pay” the Philippines first before he reconsiders his earlier decision to revoke the VFA.

Duterte drew flak over his recent remarks. On Feb. 16, Senator Panfilo Lacson claimed that the Senate’s concurrence is needed before the President can abrogate the VFA.

Duterte said he would consider the stance of the public, including lawmakers.

“I want the narratives to come up, not necessarily from the [lawmakers]. Well, of course they count very much pero hindi limitado dito sa (but it is not limited to) Congress,” he said.

Duterte advised Filipinos to give their opinion through the government’s 8888 citizens’ complaint hotline.

“Ordinary mamamayan (citizens) can have the say and I said there’s always the 888 and you can enter your objections or any comment that you think would help the country. Pati kami dito, matulungan ninyo (You can help us),” he said.

Lacson earlier said the Senate has “something to do with international agreements” like VFA.

Citing Section 21 of Article 7 of the 1987 Constitution, Lacson said “no treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all members of the Senate.”

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque and Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo opposed Lacson’s statement, noting that Duterte can terminate VFA anytime since the defense deal is not a treaty.

Duterte on Feb. 11, 2020 scrapped the VFA, a 1998 defense deal inked by Manila and Washington that allows US forces to join military drills in the Philippines without the need to secure passport and visa.

The VFA was supposed to be effectively scrapped in August last year, but Duterte on June 1 of the same year ordered the suspension of VFA abrogation for six months due to “political and other developments in the region.”

The Philippines extended in November last year the suspension of VFA termination for another six months.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Feb. 8 said the Philippine and US officials will meet this month to iron out differences over the VFA.

Last week, Senator Christopher Lawrence Go said Duterte will decide on VFA’s fate based on the “best interest of Filipinos.” (PNA)