Philippines: US bases again?
By Reihana Mohideen
MANILA — On January 14, the Philippine and US governments initialled a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which allows for the resumption of joint military exercises and US warship visits to the Philippines.
The new agreement incorporates many of the provisions of the 1947 post-colonial military bases agreement, which established the infamous Clark Air Base and the Subic Naval Base on Philippines soil.
These provisions include allowing the US to conduct military combat operations throughout the country; unhampered access to and unrestricted movement within the Philippines; the entry of nuclear weapons; immunity from prosecution for offences committed by US servicemen in the country; allowing the US to violate Philippine laws and judicial procedures, and to circumvent the Philippine constitution.
The Clark and Subic bases were closed during President Cory Aquino's administration due to mass pressure resulting from a strong anti-bases movement and the 1986 people's uprising against the Marcos dictatorship.
According to the US defence secretary William Cohen, the current agreement could permit establishment of new military bases in the Philippines in the future.
The negotiations leading to the new agreement were conducted in utmost secrecy. For the past two years, joint military activity between the two countries has been suspended.
The agreement was announced in the midst of the campaign leading to national elections in May. Anti-bases activists here argue that the timing was designed so that the issue will be sidelined by the elections and to bind the next government to the agreement.
According to Roland Simbulan, the national chairperson of the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition, while the agreement doesn't establish bases, "The function and purpose for military access is about the same as operating a base — staging, replenishment, training and repairs. These were the very reasons that we decided to remove the bases.
"But for us the most controversial issue is that it will grant extraterritorial rights to US military forces in any part of the country. If they violate our laws, rape and murder our people, as long as they are on 'duty', Philippine law cannot prosecute them."
According to Simbulan, this provision is even worse than the previous agreement, in which extraterritorial rights were granted only inside the base.
"Now it covers the entire country. This agreement is quite unusual. Usually it's granted by countries still hosting US bases, such as Okinawa in Japan under the provisions of the US Japan Security Treaty. This agreement is quite anomalous for a country with no US bases.
"It means they will treat the entire country as a military base. They will also be given other special privileges. We will waive our procedures on immigration, visa and customs, including for civilian personnel connected with the US armed forces. All they have to do is bring their identification."
According to Simbulan, the US has tried to push through the VFA in order to maximise the advantage from the close relationship between Philippine President Fidel Ramos and the Pentagon. "He [Ramos] is a graduate from the West Point military academy. They feel he hasn't fully maximised his term by reintroducing the US military presence", Simbulan said.
What is the main purpose for the US military? According to Simbulan, "They want to use the Philippines for rest and recreational purposes for US personnel on the way to the Middle East and back. The countries in the Middle East have many restrictions when it comes to rest and recreational activities. So [US military personnel] cannot do what they want unhampered. They know from their past experiences here that the government will let them get away with just about anything.
"Currently the US is also pushing for joint military exercises to display their latest firepower in the region. They want to sell their weapons to ASEAN, which is trying to modernise its armed forces and which is shopping around for the latest technology."
How does the VFA fit into the restructuring of the US armed forces? "The trend after the Cold War saw a number of US bases closed down. But in the Asia Pacific region the US still wants to maintain its dominance. Their target is to keep around 100,000 troops in the region.
But their problem is in countries where they still have US bases, the people are very unfriendly, particularly in Okinawa after the rape case. In order to appease the protesters, the US has been trying to reduce and relocate some of its forces in Japan. The US is trying to find a place to reshuffle their armed forces. The Philippines is such a location."
But the US doesn't need permanent bases such as the previous bases in the Philippines, Simbulan explained. "The nature of their weapons and aircraft does not require this. They need access for mobile forces training and replenishment.
"Under the VFA the Philippines would serve as a jump-off point in support of US fleets on military missions.
"So we subordinate our national security interests to the US. It will affect our ties and relations with other countries in the Middle East. There are many Filipinos who are working in these countries. We will endanger their lives too. These are the very reasons that we decided to remove the old bases."
The fact that the Philippines has no external enemy "is their problem after the Cold War" Simbulan said. "That's why they're trying to predict the emergence of new enemies.
"They are trying to drum up the threat from China in the Spratly Islands. Why are we so aggressive when it comes to the defence of these islands? When it come to our own territory they [the government] are giving away wholesale our jurisdiction and control of our territory, of our sovereign rights.
"The scare campaign about the Spratlys is really about pushing us towards welcoming back US forces."
According to Simbulan, the campaign against the VFA is part of a broad international campaign to put pressure on the US to pull its forces out of Asia.
"We are not only for the removal of the US military presence in the Philippines, and then having it transferred to another Asian country. When they closed down Clark, they transferred some of the units to Okinawa and Guam.
"The US military presence should be removed from the Asia Pacific itself so that we can make the Pacific region truly pacific, free from foreign military bases and nuclear weapons."
"Neither does it mean that we are anti-American. We know there are people in the US campaigning to cut back the military budget and have money channelled into welfare, education. We have a common purpose with them.
"Last month our US supporters came out with a paid advertisement in the Inquirer [a leading Philippines daily] expressing their opposition to the agreement. This included more than 300 academics, church people and activists."
The treaty is yet to be ratified by the Senate, which has to approve it by a two-thirds majority under the present Philippines constitution. Protest messages can be sent to Philippines embassies overseas and to: The President, Malacanang Palace, Metro Manila, Philippines. Solidarity messages can be sent to Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition, fax: 63 2 716 1084.