How Filipinos pay for US bases

June 12, 1991

In the ongoing conflict over the future of US military bases in the Philippines, the focus is usually on the clash between US strategic interests and Filipino nationalism. But there is another side to the issue, the social costs to the Filipino people of hosting US military facilities. ANDREW NETTE reports in the first of two articles on a visit to the area around a major base.

Five hours' drive north-west of Manila is Olongapo City. It was once a small fishing village. Now it is the biggest brothel in Asia, spawned by its proximity to the US Subic Bay Naval Station. The base and the city are symbiotic. The US servicemen have money and want to buy entertainment; Olongapinos have flesh and need to eat.

The economy of Olongapo has always been a direct result of the presence of the base. In one way or another, 95% of the population depend on money from Subic to survive, and the main form of that dependence is prostitution.

Subic is the home port of the massive US Seventh Fleet. During the Vietnam war, it became the busiest port in the western Pacific. Consequently, the "rest and relaxation industry" flourished.

It remains the city's main source of income. During the Gulf War, Subic was used for refuelling and resupplying the huge US armada on its way to the Middle East. At Christmas, 30,000 military personnel were in Olongapo, spending nearly $2 million a day on the entertainment industry. The US and Philippine administrations claimed this "proved their use" as economic assets to the Philippines. It was effective propaganda against anti-bases activists in the build-up to the signing of a new bases treaty in September. The reality is very different.

No other jobs

There is literally no alternative industry for the city's people except the few jobs available in local government and retail trades, or inside the base, where the pay of Filipinos is often one-tenth of their US counterparts. Along with catering to the demands of the US servicemen, the sex industry has caused many broken homes, unhappy marriages, exploited and abandoned women, street children and the spread of venereal diseases and AIDS.

Arriving in Olongapo, our first stop was the PREDA centre, run by an Irish Columban priest, Shay Cullen. A six-foot, lanky man, whose Irish brogue is peppered with a dash of Filipino-accented English, Cullen as much as anybody knows the social costs inflicted by the bases on the people of Olongapo.

He came out from Dublin in 1969 as a missionary priest to do routine parish work among Olongapo's youth. He soon realised the enormous problems among the city's population resulting from the base. "After six months of hearing amazing confessions", Cullen recalls, "I the box and do something about it".

He built the PREDA Centre, a drug rehabilitation project that now serves 20 recovering addicts. Some are getting over the effects of cocaine and heroin, neither of which is produced in the Philippines and must be smuggled in from South-east Asia; Subic Bay provides an ideal channel for this. But most are suffering from the effects of locally produced drugs such as loylonrine, a very addictive synthetic liquid, and glue.

Cullen also started a handicrafts workshop which, he points out, is the single largest manufacturing enterprise in the whole city. It provides employment for the families he helps and also finances the centre's activities.

On the hill just above the centre is the best view of the broad sweep of Olongapo and the sheer size of the naval station. The contrast between the two is indeed stark. Neatly parked on one side of the bay are the steely grey buildings of Subic, while directly opposite is the huge rambling mass of makeshift shacks and shanties which make up the vast majority of Olongapo's dwellings.

Separating the two is a thin canal, resembling an open sewer. During the day, children play in the murky brown water.

Child victims

Here you can also see another aspect of the base's effect on Olongapo. In a small wooden dormitory perched on the hill is the home of 13 children, all victims of child prostitution, sexual abuse and the broken homes caused by the base's presence.

They are incredibly good-natured children: warm and friendly, they tear about joking and laughing, excited by the arrival of strangers. They gladly talk about their life at the centre and their future ambitions, but few will discuss their past. One girl, Christine, is 14 and an exception. She says she doesn't know her parents. She grew up on Olongapo's streets, where she was forced to prostitute herself to survive. Now she is at the centre she is happy, but she knows she cannot stay there forever.

A particularly shy child, Michael, hangs back from the rest. Later Cullen informs me that Michael's father was an alcoholic who continually abused his wife. At 10, Michael ran away from home and, while living on the streets, was seduced by an Austrian sex tourist. The man was subsequently caught and put in jail, where he paid the guards to bring Michael to him again.

Cullen estimates there are about 3000 street children in Olongapo. "They are easy prey to the free-spending paedophile who can make all the difference to their lives with a few sweets or a new set of clothes." Although Cullen admits the real extent of the widespread sexual abuse of these children is unknown, the few official cases that have come to his attention give an indication of the seriousness of the problem.

One well-known case occurred in October 1987, when a 12-year-old girl died as a result of injuries caused when a vibrator broke inside her body. Social workers found her abandoned and cared for her until her death a few days later. A foreign tourist was found guilty and given life imprisonment. He claimed the US Navy framed him to protect one of their own.

The most appalling case to come to Cullen's attention was reported last January, when an 18-month-old baby was found to be infected with gonorrhea. The suspects were three US servicemen. The child's aunt reported to the police that her niece had been found positive by a private doctor, and this was later confirmed by the Olongapo General Hospital. The hospital's report said the child "could not possibly have got the disease from anybody else but the three servicemen because the servicemen are sharing an apartment with the baby and the baby's mother".

Immunity

Just as shocking is the immunity US servicemen have from local justice. Since 1981, court records show, 108 US servicemen have been charged with rape and seduction, 15 of the charges involving children under the age of 16. All the cases were dismissed.

"US servicemen are protected by the navy", according to Cullen. "If they are ever accused of sexually related crimes they can evoke the agreement covering the bases, immediately go under US jurisdiction and get very light treatment." Similarly, because they do not want to offend the US presence, many city officials are hesitant to pursue servicemen linked to sexual crimes.

The cover-up goes very deep. In August 1988, an undercover operation was mounted by the US Investigative Service to discover if there were child prostitution rings operating in Olongapo City. From the outset the investigation ran into problems. US authorities, not keen on what might be uncovered, set aside only $1500 for the operation, and to have it approved in the first place, they had to argue that it would "enhance the image of US bases in the Philippines".

The official reports of the operation revealed that the undercover agents were offered, for the purposes of prostitution, four-, five- and six-year-olds as well as a 13-year-old. The agents contacted social workers at a government-run centre, and three girls aged 12 and under were identified as having been victims of child prostitution, who could identify two US citizens involved in child prostitution. Nine Filipinos were also identified as being involved.

The reports were submitted to local politicians and police, but none of the suspects was charged. The excuse given by local politicians was that the press prematurely exposed news of the investigations and the suspects escaped. In another case, a US serviceman was arrested by the Philippines Immigration Commission last January, on charges of trafficking women to a trader in Hong Kong. Some employees of the Olongapo City government were allegedly forging their documents, and some US servicemen were escorting the women to Hong Kong. No charges were ever laid.

The ease with which US servicemen get away with such activities says more about the extreme poverty of Olongapo's inhabitants than anything else. In a city where a waitress can earn as little as A$2 for a 10-hour shift, criminal charges are often dropped by the complainant for a cash settlement.

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