MANILA -- After nine years since he relinquished post, former President Joseph Estrada visited Malacañang Tuesday to attend the National Security Council (NSC) meeting with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Press Secretary Cerge Remonde said the first-ever meeting between the two political rivals and other government officials turned out cordial Tuesday, with Estrada having a healthy exchange of words with Arroyo.

"In fairness to him, (Estrada) is really a gentleman... The former President is very gracious and both of them sat beside each other. It's a very good meeting," he said.

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The Palace official said Estrada participated actively in the discussions concerning national security issues and his inputs were very well taken.

"We had a very fruitful NSC meeting this (Tuesday) morning. We discussed the national security report, we discussed measures to address private armed groups and loose firearms and also preparation for national election," Remonde said.

Estrada accepted the invitation to participate in a consensus with several senators, congressmen, and government officials tackling pressing issues in the country, such as dismantling private armed groups and the conduct of clean and credible automated election in May.

In an interview Tuesday, the former President said he was “not so” excited about the Malacañang visit but was glad to be invited and given the chance to share his opinion and give some advice “to help solve some of our pressing problems especially regarding peace and order.”

He admitted that he is excited with the first national automation, saying he wants to ensure “there will be no failure of election because people are excited for the election.”

Estrada and Arroyo had contrasting opinions on certain issues during Tuesday’s NSC meeting, but Remonde said Arroyo considered all recommendations made by the former President.

He said Arroyo even ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the commission tasked to dismantle private armies to take upon the suggestions of Estrada.

Estrada believed that the oversight committee tasked to dismantle private armed groups was unnecessary but the Palace in defense said, "The commission does not supplant both the Armed Forces and the PNP and that, in fact, will help or support both the Armed Forces and the PNP."

The former President also suggested that the governors and mayors should be held responsible for the existence of private armies, which Remonde partially agreed to.

Asked if Estrada's presence signifies reconciliation with President Arroyo, the Palace official said: "It was (former) President Estrada who came ahead. And then when he was informed that the President was coming, maybe out of protocol, he went out shortly and he talked with a lot of Cabinet members. It was a very cordial atmosphere. In fact, I was at their back when they were whispering, I don't know what they were whispering... probably sweet nothings..."

Fruitful consensus

In the three-hour meeting Tuesday, Remonde said they came up with a "fruitful" consensus about their top agenda.

He said the PNP and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will be working hand-in-hand with the independent commission, which will oversee the dismantling of private armies.

"There will be continuous and stricter campaign both the PNP and the AFP, with the support of our new commission in a campaign to dismantle private armies and also to go after loose firearms," he said.

In connection to this, they will urge for the stricter implementation of the firearms code to suppress proliferation of loose firearms.

Remonde furthered that the government will be putting up Commission on Elections (Comelec) joint security control centers to implement the nationwide firearms ban up to the municipal, provincial and city levels.

"They are also pressing for the passage of HB 6776, already passed in the house the comprehensive Firearms code, which is going to give more teeth in the Firearms law and that (is) also a call for registration of more strict firearms law," he added.

Comelec assurance

With the coming elections, Remonde said that Comelec chairman Jose Melo, who was also present in the meeting, gave the assurance that election will be held successfully.

Although Melo did not deny that they have been meeting problems, Remonde said: "In the end, the basic question of ensuring successful conduct of the election was answered in the affirmative by the Comelec."

In achieving clean and credible election, Remonde specified that the poll body has been active in its information program about the electronic election.

He said the Comelec has asked the cooperation of the all political parties and politicians to exercise clean election.

Other issues tackled in the meeting were security matters.

Remonde said one issue troubling the government was the report presented by Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri that some New People's Army (NPA) rebels were "exacting money from a mayoralty candidate."

To address this, President Arroyo has directed the Department of Interior and Local Government, the Department of National Defense, and the Comelec "to more or less ensure that rebel infested areas will have free and credible elections."

Others present in the meeting were Vice President Noli de Castro, Senators Aquilino Pimentel, Rodolfo Biazon and Juan Ponce Enrile; Bacolod Representative Monico Puentevella; and Comelec commissioner Rene Sarmiento. (Jill Beltran/Sunnex)