September 19, 2008

US troops back

Seventeen years ago, the Philippine Senate voted to reject the renewal of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, ending more than 40 years of US military presence and activity in the Philippines. The decision was met with acclaim from nearly all quarters, indicating it had broad support from the population. Within a year, the Filipino people once again cheered when the Mt. Pinatubo eruption forced the early withdrawal of all US personnel and the closure of the Subic Naval Base and the Clark Air Base.

For good. Or so we all thought then.

Yes, US troops and their war materiel are now definitely back. Their stay in the country -- with full freedom of movement, flexibility in disposition and maneuver, a broad range of permissible activities that can justify almost anything as well as virtual impunity for crimes committed against Filipinos on Philippine soil -- has been legalized and questions as to the constitutionality of their presence set aside by the Supreme Court.*

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA, 1999), the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA, 2003; renewed, 2008) and the Security Engagement Board (SEB, 2006) allow the unlimited, unrestricted and indefinite stay of US military forces, including civilians attached to them, in Philippine territory; their bringing in of war ships, aircraft, tanks and entire gamut of war materiel including nuclear weapons that they need not declare despite nuclear-free provisions in the Philippine Constitution; and their construction, utilization and control over physical infrastructure required for their continuing operations.

The little-known SEB is a consultative group headed by the AFP chief of staff and the commander of the US Pacific Command that supervises US-RP security cooperation based on a broadened definition of the term "security". While the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty addressed so-called "traditional" security issues such as threats of a foreign military invasion, the new agreement now covers "non-traditional threats" such as terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy and disasters such as floods, typhoons, earthquakes and epidemics.

Activities of US troops in the Philippines are classified according to US military doctrine as “stability operations” and are packaged as operations outside the theater of war, i.e., non-combat operations. But in fact, US military doctrine emphasizes how, especially in overseas operations, the situation could be so volatile as to turn at any time from a non-war or non-combat situation to a war or combat situation.

US military field manuals, for example, cite the Fil-American War as an early example of stability operations by the US Army. To wit: “The Army also provided disaster relief, quieted domestic disturbances, and supported American foreign policy (for example, conducting stability operations in the Philippines from 1899–1904 and Haiti from 1915–1934).” Take note how stability operations by the US Army which resulted in the death of more than half a million Filipinos, is described as “quieting domestic disturbances”.

The Arroyo regime justifies current US military presence by invoking the threat of international and domestic “terrorism” and how the AFP’s capabilities and effectiveness in counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency are buttressed by US training, intelligence sharing, equipment upgrade and use of high-tech capabilities. The US military’s participation in rescue and relief operations, civil works, medical missions, security support for development projects, etc. are pointed to as highly beneficial given the government’s inadequacies and limitations.

But even while the “terrorism” bogey still works, its effectiveness in generating support for the so-called war on terror has been significantly blunted with the exposure of the US President’s blatant lie regarding the Saddam regime’s possession of weapons of mass destruction; the rising cost, brutality and unclear direction of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the carnage, massive destruction and human rights abuse inflicted on entire civilian populations, non-combatants, “terrorist” suspects and detainees.

The US and Philippine governments have gone to great lengths to argue that US military presence does not constitute military intervention because the US presence and activities are all “upon the request of the Philippine government”. But undoubtedly, the US has its own agenda that goes far beyond the Philippine government’s “requests”.

The Arroyo regime deliberately obfuscates the unbending aim of US geopolitical and military strategy in the Philippines and elsewhere: the pursuit of its own Superpower interests. These include securing areas with strategic communication and supply lines and resources, primarily oil, (such as in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia), trade routes (such as the South China Sea) and other geographically strategic areas that will ensure its achievement of unrivalled global power. Domestically, the US has a keen interest and long history of interfering in the country’s internal affairs most especially countering the growing strength and influence of the local anti-imperialist, patriotic and democratic movement.

The US conversion of the entire Philippines into an essential cog in its regional and global war machinery, once more in violation of the Constitution that renounces war as an instrument of national policy and contrary to the wishes and interest of the Filipino people, is also covered up. The consequent dangers and pitfalls for the country are treacherously and foolishly being brushed aside.

It cannot be overemphasized that the US has indeed a long record, internationally and locally, of doing as it pleases when it pleases, regardless of the “host” country’s requests or intentions. This is so even as both the US and Philippine governments continuously assure the Filipino people that, being a long-term and most dependable ally, the US would never violate Philippine sovereignty or do anything inimical to the interest of the Filipino people.

We only have to look a century back into our history to see how the US entered the circle of world imperialist powers by "helping" the Filipino revolutionaries kick out the Spanish colonizers, then turning their guns not only on their erstwhile allies but on the entire Filipino people in a brutal pacification drive starting with the Fil-American War and lasting through 1916.

A more recent example is how US forces based in Afghanistan attacked Pakistani communities suspected of harboring Al Qaeda or alleged Muslim militants without bothering to get the permission of the Pakistani government, supposedly a staunch ally in the war against terror. Despite protests from the Pakistani government and army the US appears unfazed.

Given these facts, can anyone say for certain that US military presence is temporary, beneficial and innocuous? #

*Bayan, together with other complainants including “Nicole”, the young Filipina who accused four US servicemen of raping her in 2006, have filed another suit in the Supreme Court asking the SC to revisit the question of VFA constitutionality. Oral arguments are scheduled today, 19 September 2008.

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

September 05, 2008

Formula for failure

There is nothing new in the so-called policy shift in dealing with Moro rebels of “disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation” (DDR) recently announced by de facto President Gloria Arroyo. It is simply a rehash of the old, discredited and failed policy of “surrender before we talk” that has been the mark of this deceitful and arrogant regime. Ambiguity, tentativeness, flip-flopping, and self-contradictory equivocation betrays government attempts to repackage its worn-out policy in order to undercut criticism of bogged down peace processes -- first with the National Democratic Front (NDF), and now, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Moreover, the purported shift to “consultations with communities” is merely a ploy to mute outrage over the secrecy that attended the negotiations of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD). It obscures the fact that peace negotiations had been preceded as early 1992 by nationwide consultations done by the National Unification Commission, authorized by then President Ramos, that have supposedly been continuing all this time, according to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), parallel to the peace negotiations .

The GMA regime is reneging on the MOA-AD and four earlier agreements (1976 Tripoli Agreement, 1996 GRP-MNLF Final Peace Agreement, 1997 GRP-MILF Agreement on Cessation of General Hostilities and 2001 GRP-MILF Tripoli Agreement on Peace) that have progressively acknowledged that the root cause of the Mindanao conflict is the continued denial of the historic and legitimate right of the Bangsamoro people to self-determination through some form of self-rule over their ancestral domain.

It is also clearly tossing out the window its own avowed “Six Paths to Peace” policy framework that was set by President Ramos in 1993 and adopted by Mrs. Arroyo when she took power in 2001. In particular, the provisions on the “pursuit of reforms (including changes in the constitution if needed) that deal with the root causes of insurgency and social unrest” and “peace talks with rebel groups aimed at final negotiated settlement, with neither dishonor nor surrender for any of the parties”. The announced “new policy” of the GMA regime is a throwback to pre 1993. It will undo whatever gains there have been in the peace negotiations in the last 15 years aside from shutting the door to peace negotiations with the MILF, the same way it has with the NDF.

What happened to the peace negotiations with the NDF is indeed telling. Formal talks with the NDF have not taken place since June 2004. Meanwhile, government has not honored its own signature on joint agreements earlier forged. These include the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees or JASIG (NDF panel members, consultants and staff have been killed, arrested or harassed with trumped-up charges) and the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law or CARHRIHL (with the rash of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, displacement of civilian communities, torture and illegal arrests consequent to government’s counter-insurgency plan Oplan Bantay Laya I and II).

Furthermore, in the two Oslo Joint Statements in February and April 2004, government was committed to eschew the “terrorist” tag on the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and New People’s Army (NPA) that is considered by the NDF to be prejudicial to the peace negotiations. Concretely, government agreed to take steps to correct the “terrorist” categorization of these revolutionary organizations by the US, EU and other governments, something which the GMA regime had campaigned for in the first place, but instead of doing so, it has been using the “terrorist” label to pressure the NDFP to capitulate in the negotiating table.

Let us recall that when newly installed Armed Forces Chief Yano proposed an “indefinite ceasefire” with the NPA in order to pave the way for the resumption of peace talks with the NDFP, both Mr. Teodoro and Mr. Dureza immediately and unequivocally corrected him stating that the standing government policy with regard to the NDF was “no peace negotiations”. Mr. Teodoro said, “The order of the President is very clear: Make the insurgency irrelevant by 2010 and there should be no interpolations or extrapolations of that directive.”

Such a militarist mindset is undoubtedly the dominant view holding sway in Malacañang with the cabal of Mrs. Arroyo, Executive Secretary Ermita, National Security Adviser Gonzales, Defense Secretary Teodoro, former OPAPP head and now Presidential Spokesperson Dureza and former AFP Chief and current peace adviser Esperon discarding almost all pretensions to seeking peaceful avenues to end the war in Mindanao and the rest of the country.

It should be no surprise therefore when the GMA regime, not satisfied with the indefinite ceasefire the MILF agreed to even as no agreement on the substantive agenda of the peace negotiations has actually been reached save for the unsigned MOA-AD, now demands –unreasonably -- that the MILF completely disarm and demobilize before peace talks can be resumed. This is nothing but a deliberately impossible proposition that no self-respecting armed revolutionary organization will even consider. It is designed to justify all-out war with the MILF, when the latter predictably, rebuffs the demand.

Much earlier, riding on public condemnation of the attacks on civilians by the units of two MILF commanders, Kato and Bravo, that were acknowledged by the MILF to be unauthorized military actions in retaliation for the non-signing of the MOA-AD, the GMA regime had demanded the surrender of the two rebel leaders by the MILF leadership. The Arroyo regime insists on dealing with the two as common criminals rather than through the bilateral agreement on security that defines the parameters of its ceasefire with the MILF.

The reason for this emerges: the GMA regime wishes to justify the withdrawal of its implied recognition of the MILF (wittingly or unwittingly conferred by government’s engaging in peace negotiations with the rebel group) as a legitimate political force representing a significant section of the Moro people. It is meant to lay the ground for scuttling the peace talks with the MILF.

Thus Mr. Teodoro can now declare the MILF “irrelevant” and categorically announce the end of the talks; same with Mr. Dureza. These pronouncements reflect the real hard-line position of Malacañang despite duplicitous avowals by Executive Secretary Ermita that “the peace process is still on” pointing to the 2003 ceasefire mechanism being in place, a mechanism that the government nonetheless refuses to avail of in the current outbreak of hostilities with the MILF.

Mrs. Arroyo and her cabal of warmongers are making a big mistake if they think they can get away with Mrs. Arroyo’s pretense at seeking peace in Mindanao first, through the MOA-AD and her opportunistic waving of the flag of federalism; and now, the call to arms riding on anti-Moro chauvinism and pseudo-nationalism. The resumption of all-out hostilities, no matter which side initiates it, is bound to exacerbate age-old prejudices, drain the economy, and eventually contribute to the Arroyo regime’s early downfall.#