Forgotten legacy of Subic Bay

Issue 

By Catherine S. Beacham

When US naval personnel formally withdrew from their Philippine base at Subic Bay last November, they left behind far more than the unsightly neocolonial infrastructure of their postwar militarisation policies. Conveniently forgotten in the media brouhaha which surrounded the event was the tragic plight now facing several thousand children fathered by American serviceman stationed at Subic.

While there are no official figures on how many Amerasian children were abandoned by their American fathers, some estimates put the number as high as 50,000.

The issue of Amerasian children is not something new, indeed it has haunted successive US administrations for at least two decades as international and local US support groups have lobbied vocally in behalf of biracial children born to Vietnamese mothers during an earlier and equally disgraceful chapter in US military history. The issue of Filipino Amerasian children, on the other hand, is only now beginning to receive the attention it has long deserved.

A driving force behind efforts to expose the shameful neglect of these children is Father Shay Cullen, a Columban missionary who has lived in the Philippines since 1969. In early March this year, Father Cullen and a small group of children travelled to the US from Manila where they filed an unprecedented class-action suit against the US Navy. The suit rests on the claim that the US withdrawal breached an "implied contract" between the Navy and the mothers of the children.

Sanctioned prostitution

For almost 50 years the US Navy had unofficially sanctioned prostitution both inside the base at Subic and later in the bars and nightclubs in the neighbouring city of Olongapo. The Navy paid the prostituted women for their sexual labour, paid for medical and educational services, provided a maternity award for the birth of any children, and even forced some American fathers to pay child support. By assuming responsibility for the health and other needs of the children and their mothers, the US Navy had accepted an implied contract, the provisions of which were then violated when the pull-out took place.

The children's grim financial situation is a chief reason behind the lawsuit which is asking for $69 million, an amount less than the cost of one Navy jet. The money is to be administered through a trust fund and will cover the medical and educational expenses for as many as 9000 children up until the age of 18.

There is no question that the dollars are desperately needed. Life in Olongapo has always been tough but circumstances have worsened since the US departure. The city has no relief programs or alternative employment for the thousands of women and children whose bodies once attracted rich foreigners and servicemen. While base conversion plans move at snail-pace, power rates are going up and people are growing hungrier. Local charitable organisations can at best offer temporary aid from their ever-diminishing funds. Only the class-action suit term answer.

"Most of the children have always lived in very poor conditions", explains Father Cullen, "but since the base closed they are experiencing more difficult times as their fathers drop them. For the US sailors, Olongapo may have been their second or third port. Wherever they went to a port the sailors had a family, and in-between stays may have sent $20 or so. A measly amount but it kept the children alive. Now that the servicemen are back in the States they are not sending anything and that's why it's becoming a bigger problem."

Christopher's story is not atypical of many children. Crippled since birth, he lives with his sister and other siblings, all children to different American fathers in Olongapo. If the fathers were still around and admitted paternity, Christopher and his siblings could claim US citizenship and other rights entitled to the offspring of American citizens. Instead the family is supported by their 67 year- old grandmother who works to provide for their needs by washing clothes.

In 1982 the United States Congress passed legislation permitting Amerasian children from five different Asian countries to claim citizenship without acknowledgment of paternity by their American fathers. The Philippines was omitted from the list of countries on the grounds that biracial children in the Philippines did not suffer the same discrimination found in countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Most children in the Philippines with African-American fathers would argue otherwise.

Colonial heritage

Filipinos facetiously describe their colonial heritage under the Spanish and then under the US as "four hundred years in a convent and 50 years in a brothel". It was in Olongapo that the most sinister undertones of this saying were realised. The United States reclaimed Subic Bay after World War II and in the decades that followed a flourishing sex industry was established by enterprising local politicians and businessmen eager to supply the demand created by the US military presence. Conditions in the bars were notoriously exploitative. Most women were in constant debt, living from ship to ship. Pregnancy, abortion, the spread of disease and drug abuse were just some of the indignities imposed on Filipinas who were made whores of the Americans.

It was during the Marcos years that the flesh trade took on more grotesque dimensions. Children as young as 14 months were bought and sold by pimps and syndicates for the gratification of GI pedophiles. In his book titled The Marcos Dynasty, Sterling Seagrave provides graphic illustrations of the pre-pubescent extremes of Seventh Fleet shore leave. He quotes an Australian military attache who once observed, "At Subic, you're a virgin until you've screwed a two year-old".

When Father Cullen arrived in Olongapo he soon began looking for ways to help the many victims of the US-supported sex trade. In 1973 he founded the PREDA Centre. Originally involved in drug rehabilitation and community prevention programs, PREDA later began working with abandoned women, street children and child prostitutes. By 1975 the centre had already begun a handicraft industry and training program now offers a range of skilled training and other services such as non-formal education for parents.

PREDA has also been active in the investigation of human rights abuses and was instrumental in bringing to trial several cases which involved sexual abuse of Olongapo children, one resulting in the first ever conviction of a US serviceman.

PREDA's campaign activities and advocacy work won it few friends among the ranks of local government officials who have strived to project a clean image of the city. Father Cullen recounts the various forms of ongoing harassment and intimidation that have been attempted. "They have tried to have me deported several times, they have tried to close the centre, property has been confiscated, they set up a noise barrage on our driveway, they have filed cases against us, denied us building and fencing permits, they don't provide any services to the centre that a local government normally would, the mayor berates us in public, death threats come once in a while, crank phone calls and there is the usual non-cooperation in anyway whatsoever".

Father Cullen sheds no tears for the closure of Subic and loss of the commercial sex industry. Nightclub owners have long since left for their bars overseas or in other parts of the country. Most of the young women have also departed. The local people who worked on the base received large separation pays and were always comfortably off because they had a well-paying job for twenty years. Many were granted US citizenship and others had prepared for the inevitable, buying land and investing in small businesses. The poor in Olongapo, however, remain poor. They always were and will continue to be so unless new industry can be set up to train them.

Conversion stalled

If Subic base is genuinely converted by international investors there could be great hope for the people of Olongapo. Yet no conversion is taking place because of corruption, greed and organisational incompetence. The authority charged with the base's conversion comprises several local politicians who have a considerable stake in maintaining the area as a tourist attraction. The family of Olongapo Mayor Richard Gordon, head of the conversion committee, has extensive coastal landholdings which include beachfront resorts. According to Father Cullen, "Gordon is not the least bit interested in industry. His economic thinking starts and ends below the belt. He owns hotels and denies permits to others to build hotels, so of course his plans would benefit him. There is an obvious conflict of interest here".

Another reason for the tardy pace of the base conversion is a reluctance on the part of foreign investors. Neither the Philippine nor the US government is willing to give assurances that the former base site is clear of toxic waste. Without such guarantees foreign investors are understandably hesitant about establishing factories. They do not want to be faced with huge compensation pay-outs ten or so years down the track.

Since the United States assumed the self-appointed role of postwar global policeman, its attitude toward the provision of sexual labour has been nothing short of abhorrent. Commercial sex industries have thrived across Southeast Asia, all too often supported by the tacit collusion of the American military. Drawn into the flesh market by children have been used and discarded with no regard for their suffering. Compared to the miseries that these victims have endured, the class-action suit appears to be seeking minimal redress for many injustices.