September 11, 2008

US military presence

Close to seventeen years ago, on September 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate terminated forty-four years of US military presence on Philippine soil by rejecting the renewal of the 1947 US Military Bases Agreement (MBA). The Senate pronounced the existence of foreign military installations to be inconsistent with the bases-free and nuclear weapons-free provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Thereby the era of US enclaves in Philippine territory, where the lone Superpower exercised extraterritorial rights and where Filipinos where on the receiving end of indignities and abuse, finally ended. The US military bases -- a highly visible symbol of continuing domination by the former colonizer – had been kicked out.

But as soon as this historic achievement had taken place, the new president, former military general Fidel V. Ramos, began negotiations for the return of US military troops. In 1999, under President Joseph E. Estrada, the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was ratified by the new Senate, paving the way for what former US Ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Ricciardone, has candidly admitted to be a “semi-continuous” military presence.

Today, in another unfortunate instance of historical amnesia, the ubiquitous presence of US servicemen in Mindanao, especially in areas of conflict where either the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) or the New People’s Army (NPA) are active, as well as in Luzon and the Visayas, is verily taken for granted. In full battle gear, US soldiers provide security escort to US Ambassador Kristie Kenney during her frequent trips to Mindanao to oversee USAID-funded projects or to hand over reward money to informants on wanted “terrorists”.

These foreign troops are all ostensibly undertaking joint military training exercises or are engaged in humanitarian and civic action projects. As such, all their activities are said to be covered by the VFA so long as they do not engage in actual combat or build permanent structures that could be misconstrued as military bases.

The newspapers report the US providing critical combat support services in the form of intelligence, logistics and emergency evacuation for “counter-terrorism” operations of the AFP. This is deliberately misrepresented as not part of combat operations but as mere support by a friendly government to the Philippine military, undertrained and undersupplied as it is, and badly in need of whatever assistance the US has to give. However, any trained military man knows that combat support services are integral to the proper functioning of a combat unit; e.g. intelligence gathering is highly necessary for a combat mission to be successful. How many unmanned military spy planes have flown over Sulu, Basilan, Maguindanao, Sultan Kudarat, Lanao and the Cotobato provinces and delivered the coordinates that the Philippine army needs to pinpoint the areas they will bombard with missiles?

Evidence is slowly coming to light that under the administration of Mrs. Gloria Arroyo, i.e. since the Balikatan exercises started in 2001, US troops are actually involved directly in military operations against not just the Abu Sayyaf Group, the ragtag group of bandits operating in Muslim-populated areas that the US and Philippine governments have elevated to the status of “terrorists”, but also against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the MILF.

Apart from an Associated Press photograph of US personnel apparently embedded in a Philippine combat unit, there are eyewitness accounts of US soldiers participating in actual operations as in the case of Isnijal Buyong-buyong, a Moro peasant living in Basilan, whose house was raided and himself shot in the leg, in 2002. An American soldier named Sgt. Reggie Lane was identified but the case was hushed up and no serious investigation was undertaken despite a resolution filed in Congress.

More recently, in February this year, Rowina Wahid, the widow of Corporal Ibnon Wahid, vividly remembers seeing four American soldiers in a jovial mood when she was brought to a navy boat by government soldiers who ruthlessly tortured and shot her husband to death. The boat carried some goats, generators and other personal belongings of her husband. Rowina was one of the witnesses and survivors of the February 4, 2008 Maimbung massacre who pointed out that US troops were present during the assault by combined Army and Navy elite forces on Barangay village, Ipil, Maimbung, Sulu. Eight civilians, including a three-month pregnant woman, two children, two teenagers and Rowina’s husband, an Army soldier home on vacation, were killed in the incident.

More cases of human rights violations or plain criminal acts such as rape and mauling of civilians as well as “collateral damage” from bombing runs or live fire exercises have cropped up but are quickly papered over by the US military with the able assistance of Philippine authorities themselves who facilitate the payment of some amount of damage compensation to victims to prevent them from filing cases or even just reporting these incidents.

The existence of the headquarters for the US-headed Joint Special Operations task Force-Philippines in Camp Navarro, the camp of the AFP’s Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City, speaks a mouthful about the “semi-continuous” presence of the US military in the country. Retired General Edilberto Adan of the Presidential Commission on the VFA says that this headquarters is needed because the US military command needs to exercise “control over their units” and must have provisions for billeting, messing, a motor pool, operations room, etc. He justifies these structures as not being permanent since they are made of “light” materials and are to be turned over to the AFP after their use by the Americans, whenever that is.

Ludicrous of all is the statement of Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita that the US military presence is not permanent since the troops are constantly being rotated. “They just look alike,” according to the former general. Mr. Ermita would insult the public’s intelligence by making a big thing about the fact that, while officials admit that there are anywhere from 400-600 US soldiers at any given time in the country, these are not the same people; moreover, they supposedly stay for just brief periods from two weeks to less than six months. Ergo these soldiers’ stay is only temporary, not permanent, by any stretch of the imagination.

According to US Embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson, US troops are in the country only upon the invitation of the Philippine government and only for mutually beneficial ends. According to Philippine Defense and AFP officials, the US military does not venture into areas where their Philippine counterparts say they shouldn’t go. According to Mr. Adan, all the activities of the US armed forces in the country are covered and governed by the Mutual Defense Treaty, the VFA and other corollary agreements such as the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA).

It all sounds clean and aboveboard: the US oozes with altruism for a long-time ally and the Philippines is the lucky beneficiary of this no-strings-attached, we’re-just-doing-our-bit-for-world-peace mission of the lone Superpower and Global Policeman. However, in the light of historical and current world events such as the US-instigated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is much too good to be true. #

*Published in Business World
12-13 September 2008


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