US military still plaguing the Philippines


By Michael Garay

The "Soviet threat", which provided the US justification for the transformation of the Pacific into an "American Lake" has ended. The Pentagon, however, intends to remain.

"It is ironic that at the very zenith of its power, the US military presence has lost its raison d' etre, with the end of the Cold War and the Russian Pacific Fleet's withdrawal from the unilateral military competition with the United States", notes Dr Walden Bello, executive director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First).

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on August 4 told the regional forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that the US will continue its domination of the western Pacific. He said, "A strong US presence remains the foundation for regional stability and prosperity. We will stand by our commitment to security in the Pacific in peacetime no less than we did in the three wars in Asia."

The US has five treaty alliances — with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia — which "anchor the United States' security commitment". There are 100,000 US troops deployed in the Asia-Pacific region.

The ties between the US military and the Philippines are the longest relationship between the US and a south-east Asian country. For nearly a century, the US military had unhampered use of two major bases in the Philippines, before a strong anti-nuclear, anti-imperialist mass movement and a majority vote in the Philippine Senate prevented extension of its lease.

'Strategic position'

After the United States "liberated" the Philippines from Spanish rule, Subic Bay was designated as principal US naval station in the Philippines in 1901. A naval base was constructed and became operational in 1907. It became the largest training facility for the US Marines prior to World War I. In 1902, Fort Stotsenberg, renamed Clark Air Base in 1947, was established in Pampanga province.

The US agenda and expansionist interests were clearly expressed by General Arthur MacArthur, father of the more famous Douglas. He described the Philippines as "the finest group of islands in the world. Its strategic position is unexcelled by that of any other position in the globe ... it affords a means of protecting American interests which with the very least output of physical power has the effect of a commanding position in itself for hostile action."

After World War II, US and Philippine authorities signed a military bases agreement in March 1947, eight months after the Philippines obtained nominal independence. That same year, the Truman Doctrine was proclaimed and the US campaign to "contain Communism" began. Clark Air Base became the headquarters of the 13th Air Force and Subic became a forward station for the Seventh Fleet.

Clark and Subic played a key logistical role in support of the US forces in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. From 1965 to 1975, the US bases served as logistical fulcrums of the US war of intervention in Indochina. Air traffic at Clark reached as high as 40 transports per day, all bound for Vietnam.

In 1966, the duration of the bases agreement was reduced from 99 to 25 years, with the treaty to expire on September 16, 1991.

During the oil crisis of the '70s, regular deployment of Subic-based naval units to the Indian Ocean began. Carrier task forces from Subic were deployed to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea during the Iranian revolution and North Yemen-South Yemen border war in 1979 and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in late 1979 and 1980.

In August 1983, former Senator Benigno Aquino was assassinated and the country was in crisis. The anti-dictatorial movement was gaining strength and was led by the slain senator's widow, Cory Aquino. Marcos called a snap election in 1986. The opposition led by Aquino called for the withdrawal of the US bases.

After Marcos was deposed in a popular uprising led by Aquino, Ramos, Enrile and Cardinal Sin in February 1986, a new constitution was adopted a year later. It stated that after expiration of the bases treaty in September 1991, "foreign military bases, troops or facilities, shall not be allowed" in the country unless a new treaty was ratified by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

In 1991, President Aquino broke her election promises and campaigned for the bases' extension. On September 16, hundreds of thousands marched outside the Senate as it voted 12-11 to reject the new treaty.

The record

Far from being the "foundation of stability and prosperity" and democracy, the track record of the US military in the Philippines shows that it is a factor for instability, poverty and authoritarianism.

Throughout the Cold War, Filipinos lived in constant fear of foreign aggression and nuclear assault. The participation of the US bases in wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East placed the Philippines in a cross-fire in a war not of its own choosing. The late Filipino nationalist Senator Claro M. Recto warned in the late 1950s, "The American bases are magnets for nuclear attack".

The US rhetoric of democracy was contradicted by its practice. The US supported the dictatorial regime of Marcos. In January 1979 after the US-Philippine Executive Agreement was signed, US President Jimmy Carter promised Marcos that he would exercise his "best effort" to obtain $500 million in military and military-related aid for the regime between 1979 and 1984. In September 1982, Marcos, on a state visit to Washington, assured Reagan of "unhampered military operation" of the bases.

Philippine governments have been constant buyers of US military "surplus-rejects" and second-hand equipment. Most of it is outdated and its aircraft are dubbed "flying coffins" by the press because of their reputation for breaking down in flight. Last year, 1.7% of the country's gross national product went to military expenditures while only 0.7% of GNP was apportioned to public health.

A report by Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that the 39,000 Filipinos employed at the two bases were paid only one-eighth of the wages of US workers for the same kind of work and productivity. A 1976 study of the Philippine Department of Labor found that while the average monthly salary of a Philippine base worker was $65, Korean and Japanese base workers received $200 and $400, respectively.

Toxic heritage

The US military also left behind a ruined environment within its facilities. Shortly after the US troops were forced to withdraw from Subic and Clark, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) uncovered PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination, lead and other hazardous substances buried in a land fill, fuel leakages into soil and ground water and other toxic hot spots.

A US defence official, David Berteau, remarked, "If there's a horror story out there, Subic may be it". But so far, the US has not been held accountable. A US Air Force official acknowledged that there is no official assessment of the ecological damage done in Clark Air Base, adding, "We comply with host country laws. In the Philippines, there are none, so we are not in violation of any." In fact, there have been three volumes of Philippine environmental laws since the 1970s.

The forced withdrawal from Subic and Clark is a big blow to the US military's extensive base network in the Pacific. It was quick to try to regain lost ground.

Despite the provision of the Philippine constitution that forbids military facilities, discussions between President Ramos and the US ambassador to the Philippines, John Negroponte, on an "Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement" (ACSA)began in November 1992. It would obligate the Philippine military to provide logistics, support, supplies and services to the US military.