A historic event worthy of the Guinness Book may have occurred in Washington in the last week of June. The worst “torture” president that the United States has ever had met the most corrupt and brutal president ever inflicted on the Filipino people. Grotesque or farcical? Bush is now credited with the horrendous deaths of nearly a million Iraqis, over four thousand American soldiers, the cruelties of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and a severe economic recession. Arroyo claims the distinction of having scored several thousand victims of paramilitary violence (903 extra-judicial killings and193 enforced disappearances, according to the Philippine human-rights monitor KARAPATAN), open bribery of officials by raiding the public treasury, unscrupulous cheating in elections, and untold kickbacks from government transactions (such as the ZTE Broadband scandal, among many) — all with impunity.
Scourge of Human Rights
International groups, from Amnesty International and the World Council of Churches to the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the International Association of People’s Lawyers, have all concurred on the outrageous truth of the “killing fields” in the US neocolony. An editorial of The Philippine Star (6 June 2007) noted that the country is one of the “least peaceful countries in the world, ranking 100th among 121 in the first-ever Global Peace Index drawn up by the Economic Intelligence Unit.” United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston reported to the 8th session of the UN Human Rights Council that Arroyo’s “state security forces have been involved in many of the killings of left-wing activists, indigenous leaders, trade union and farm leaders and civil society organization members and that the military remains in a ‘state of denial’ over these killings” (see E. San Juan, US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines, New York, 2007). “Not a single soldier has been convicted,” Alston added, urging the Arroyo regime to end the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) policy of “systematically hunting down the leaders of [legal and open] leftist organizations” such as BAYAN MUNA and assassinating their members (see the Web site of UN Human Rights Council).
The Arroyo regime recently defied the UN’s Universal Periodic Review session by rejecting the recommendation to strengthen the Witness Protection Program and approve the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. In its comprehensive survey “Scared Silent: Impunity for Extrajudicial Killings in the Philippines,” Human Rights Watch observed that in spite of public-relation ploys such as the Melo Commission and Arroyo’s refrain that there is “no state policy of killing people,” not one case has been solved, not a single military officer or soldier prosecuted for the murders and disappearances of activists such as Jonas Burgos, Luisa Posa Dominado, Shirley Cadapan, Karen Empeno, and thousands more (Inquirer.net. 5 October 2007).
Last year the Permanent People’s Tribunal concluded its meticulous appraisal of massive evidence with the judgment that the Arroyo regime and its sponsor, the Bush administration, were guilty of “gross and systematic violation of human rights, economic plunder and transgression of the Filipino people’s sovereignty.” The first session of the Tribunal on the Philippines in 1980 unequivocally condemned “the dominant economic and political role of the US in the Philippines and in the region through the implementation of an imperial policy” (PPT Verdict 2007). Arroyo’s ritual obeisance to Washington may be cited as one more proof, falling in line with a tradition of subservience of the Filipino oligarchy since the time of Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon to the first president of the 1946 Philippine Republic Manuel Roxas up to presidents Ramon Magsaysay (sponsored by the CIA) and Diosdado Macapagal (Arroyo’s father) to the notorious Marcos dictatorship and its unconscionable successors. No wonder both McCain and Obama parroted worn-out clichés about “Asia’s first democracy,” the Philippines as a faithful client regime during the Cold War and the current crusade against terrorists personified by politically informed combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New People’s Army.
Subaltern Medicancy Forever
Winding down as a tiresome fiasco and farcical boondoggle, Arroyo’s roadshow to the Empire’s heartland this June may have been cursed by the sinking of the Philippine ferry MV Princess of the Stars and the ravages of the deadly typhoon Frank. Thousands of victims and their families await her sycophantic pilgrimage with cries of help and anger. After wasting at least $1.5 million of public funds and getting a promised aid of $100,000 from State Dept. bureaucrat John Negroponte, infamous for organizing mass carnage in Central America, the Arroyo entourage is returning a the feckless attempt at fanfare. One episode of de facto president Arroyo’s visit strikes this writer as particularly telling. George W. Bush surpassed his father’s “I-love-your-democracy” apologia for the despot Marcos when he praised “the great talent” of “Philippine-Americans” whenever he dines at the White House — a nod to Filipina chef Chris Comerford. Arroyo’s pathetic “thank you” sums up over a century of gruesomely asymmetrical “US-Philippines” relations so beloved by US experts on the Philippines and their Filipino acolytes. Sadly hilarious but also infuriating to those out in Manila streets demonstrating against the brutality and injustice of Arroyo-US neoliberal privatization program.
Meanwhile, we learn that on June 17, retired Maj. General Antonio Taguba (not one of Bush’s talented ‘Philippine Americans”), in his testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Bush and his henchmen of committing war crimes by authorizing the use of harsh interrogation techniques. Taguba headed the committee that investigated the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Subsequent inquiries by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have revealed the scale and depth of the current administration’s violation of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the Geneva Convention on the treatment of what the US calls “unlawful” enemy combatants, otherwise considered political prisoners.
Arroyo’s trip was ostensibly made to lobby for the passage of the Veterans Equity Bill — Senate Bill 1315, approved by the Senate but pending at the House. This bill would set aside $350 million (out of $1 billion) for ten years to pay for the basic needs of thousands of Filipino veterans of World War II, most of whom are now dead, who were denied their rightful veterans’ back pay. Without Arroyo’s help, local organizers (such as the National Federation of Filipino American Associations) have mobilized enough support for the passage of the bill in the Senate. So Arroyo’s opportunistic appearance in Washington is clearly intended to prop up her severely damaged image after Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the US Senate sub-committee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and several congressmen chided her last year for her intolerable record of flagrant human-rights violations.
Just as Arroyo’s early trip in August 2005 was besieged with indignant protests, likewise her visit last week was met with numerous “lightning” demonstrations by outraged Filipino-Americans decrying her insensitivity to the plight of thousands of disaster victims, and the millions suffering from the rice shortage, fuel crisis, and unemployment brought about by the short-sighted neoliberal policies of the regime. With over half of 90 million citizens subsisting on $2 a day, the Philippines exports daily 3,000 contract workers to 186 countries around the world, getting in return $10 to $12 billon in overseas remittances, enough to pay the heavy foreign debt. In 2007 the US Congress allocated $30 million of citizens’ tax dollars for the beleaguered AFP on condition that Arroyo implements UN rapporteur’s Alston’s recommendations, a condition still unfulfilled in deeds up to now. The aid rocketed by 1,111% when Bush declared the Philippines the “second front” in his war after 9/11 (IBON Media Release, 21 Sept 2006). Between 2000 and 2003, US loans and grants to Arroyo increased by 1,176%, primarily funding for counter-terrorist schemes in addition to USAID spending for livelihood projects and infrastructure — activities that camouflage intelligence or special police operations in communities sheltering NPA or MILF partisans.
Pentagon to the Rescue
Less to pacify Arroyo’s entourage and more to threaten Myanmar’s junta, China, North Korea, and other recalcitrants — Al Qaeda supporters — in the Asia-Pacific region, Bush ordered the deployment of the strike group led by the nuclear-armed carrier USS Ronald Reagan to the Philippines. The alleged task of this armada of aircraft carrier, cruiser, three destroyers, and a frigate is to assist in the rescue of the survivors of the capsized MV Princess of the Stars, now being attended to by the Philippine Coast Guard. This may be the first time in military history that a nuclear-powered carrier has been assigned to perform distribution of relief goods in a situation far smaller in scope than the cyclone disaster in Myanmar or the earthquake destruction in China. But again, it’s a war against those unruly subjects, impoverished peasants and workers, including the Moros and the Filipino communists, that justifies this illegitimate intrusion.
Senator Rodolfo Biazon questioned the utility of an aircraft carrier of that size (with 6,000 crew and numerous F-18 airplanes) designed mainly for combat and rescue of distressed airplanes. As of this writing, the USS Ronald Reagan was moored near the coast of northwest Panay, clearly within Philippine territorial boundary (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 28 June 2008). In addition, the US Embassy revealed that the USNS Stockham and US Navy P-3 planes are on standby to provide maritime surveillance and other security needs (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 26 June 2008). This substantiates once more public suspicions of the sustained complicity of the US with the AFP campaigns against Moro insurgents, in particular the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) — including the notorious bandit-group with ties to local military and politicians, the Abu Sayyaf — and the Communist Party-led New People’s Army (NPA) guerillas active in Panay and Negros, the two islands that suffered the most from the typhoon Frank. This intrusion of the USS Ronald Reagan is an outright violation of the Philippine Constitution and bilateral treaties with the US
A local group, PAMALAKAYA (Fishermen’s Group of the Philippines), accused Arroyo of committing an impeachable crime: the Philippine Constitution expressly prohibits the entry of nuclear weapons into the country. While Arroyo’s spokesmen claimed that the USS Ronald Reagan is only “nuclear-powered,” the US Embassy is silent on the presence of nuclear weapons in the possession of the task force group. Fernando Hicap, PAMALAKAYA’s chair, charged that the presence of the US naval group is intended not only “to warn and provoke the local armed resistance groups [NPA, MILF] but also to score a psywar victory against China and North Korea that Washington is capable of shifting and redeploying US troops at any given situation or time” (GMANews.TV, 26 June 2008). At present, the US stations over 100,000 troops in Asia and the Pacific under its Pacific Command, with 80,000 troops based in Japan and Korea, and several hundreds at any one time in the Philippines.
Terms of Mutual Endearment?
How did this happen? The peculiarity of the presence of US combat troops in the Philippines may be explained by the leech-like stranglehold of the US on the Filipino ruling class and its military/paramilitary establishment. A series of unequal bilateral treaties sealed this toxic partnership. Obama correctly pointed to the 1954 Manila Pact that “formed a cornerstone of U.S policy in Southeast Asia during the Cold War.” But that was only the beginning.
The real key to US control may be found in the Military Bases Agreement of March 14 and March 21, 1947 between the two governments. The first allowed the US extensive military facilities in the Philippines for 99 years, chief of which were Clark Air Base (130,000 acres) and Subic Naval Base which housed nuclear-armed submarines for decades until both were scrapped in 1992. Thereafter 14,000 US troops left the Philippines. This agreement prohibited the Philippines from granting base rights to any other country. It put no restrictions on the use of the bases or on the types of weapons the US could store or deploy in them. Despite minor amendments, this agreement allowed the US to use the bases as springboards for unlimited US intervention in Asia, such as the aggression in Korea, Vietnam, and lately Afghanistan and Iraq (see Civil Liberties Union, A Question of National Security, Manila 1983). The second agreement allowed the US to provide military aid to the Philippines on the condition that a US. military advisory group be assigned to supervise the AFP and that Filipino military personnel be sent to the US for training. It also prohibited the Philippines from accepting military aid or advisers from any other nation without the consent of Washington. In the context of the campaign against the Huks, communist-led peasants fighting for land and justice at the time, the weapons and advisors supplied by Washington were used to suppress and kill Filipino “subversives” and preserve oppressive oligarchic rule, as well as subsidize the Marcos dictatorship and its repressive sequels. Under the framework of the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, the Joint RP-US Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG) continues to this day to be one crucial agency in perpetuating the reactionary, anti-people orientation of the AFP and its cognate institutions, the state security personnel of every administration up to Arroyo (see the relevant documents conveniently catalogued in Daniel Schirmer and Stephen Shalom, The Philippines Reader, Boston, 1987, including details of military aid to Marcos). It may be added here that a JUSMAG/ CIA functionary, Col. Nick Rowe, was slain by rebel forces on April 21, 1989, while allegedly shadowing “Cuban” advisors helping the NPA in South-Central Luzon.
Although the bases were shut down in 1992, the US maintains its dominance through JUSMAG and the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Board (established in 1958), which operates as a “new bilateral defense consultative mechanism” to oversee military cooperation between the two countries. These two mechanisms were reinforced by the Security Engagement Board (SEB) in 2006 designed to deal with nontraditional security threats such as terrorism, piracy, natural disasters (for example, the recent ferry sinking and typhoon), bird flu, and the like not falling under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that calls for battling external security threats in either countries. This was supplemented by the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA) signed in November 2002.
Very few know the details of this notorious MLSA. Its salient provision is its mandating the Philippine government to supply all the logistical support and supplies needed by the Pentagon during its exercises and redeployment. Pretty much a bargain compared to the costly Clark and Subic bases of the good old days. Of course, the humanitarian services performed by the troops are only a pretext for the US to interfere in local civil wars in the region, labeling them “international terrorism.” This agreement with the client regime thus insures a virtually un-evictable presence of the US military as police watchdog to promote and secure US economic and geopolitical interests — from profits in oil, energy, and mineral resources to safeguarding the Malacca Straits where 25 percent of all globally traded oil passes.
Immediately after 9/11, the US State Dept promptly labeled the NPA as terrorist organization so that Arroyo can call on US troops to help her counterinsurgency campaign, even though the Philippine Constitution (Art. II, sec. 3) prohibits foreign troops’ involvement in internal security matters. Aside from infringing on Philippine sovereignty, the SEB allows the US (to quote IBON, 26 May 2006) “to maintain a prolonged military presence in the country which suits the US military’s current strategy of seeking temporary access to facilities in foreign countries that enable US forces to conduct training and exercises” rather than spending for permanent physical bases. Moreover, the Philippines functions as an important link in the security chain of the US in the Western Pacific. The SEB enhances the US’s limited infrastructure for refueling and logistics needed in its operations in the Arabian Gulf and Western Pacific areas. Mindanao and Sulu islands have been considered strategic locations for monitoring developments in Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. where there is a rising trend of “Islamic revivalism,” of which the MILF is an instance.
There are also numerous clandestine partnerships allowed by executive “understandings” and philanthropic channels. But it is primarily the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that legitimizes unrelenting US intervention in the Philippines. Initiated by former president Fidel Ramos under the rubric of “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement” drawn up by the Pentagon, the VFA was finally approved during the Estrada administration (Daniel B. Schirmer, Fidel Ramos: The Pentagon’s Philippine Friend, 1992-1997, Cambridge, MA, 1997).
Made fully operational after September 11, 2001, the VFA makes up for the loss of Subic and Clark in a much more efficient way. It allows the Pentagon to land anywhere in the country without entailing the cost of maintaining physical structures and insuring environmental safety. It also has no responsibility in whatever damage it can cause by its joint exercises with the host country. While the MLSA (renewed for another 5 years) permits the US to use the Philippines as a launching pad for wars of aggression through the pre-positioning of war material in “virtual bases,” the VFA allows the unhampered entry of US troops for covert operations in the course of “Kapit-Bisig” war games and “Balikatan” joint exercises with its surrogate army, the AFP. Sara Flounders’ sharp analysis of this new Pentagon concept of “Cooperative Security Locations” — 5,458 discrete military installations around the world — highlights its key features: facilities with rotational US presence, containing prepositioned equipment, rapidly scalable and expandable, offering bilateral and regional training. One virtue is the overwhelming influence gained by the US on smaller and developing nations, verified by former US Pacific commander Admiral Thomas Fargo who explained in March 2003 that “relationships built through exercises and training are ‘our biggest guarantor of access in time of need'” (Sara Flounders, “Expansion of U.S. Bases Spurs Philippine Resistance,” International Action Center, 29 March 2008).
The virtually permanent presence of US troops in the Philippines can be accounted for by the VFA, MSLA, and other instrumentalities enforced by a subservient government parasitic on US military aid and political sponsorship. The Arroyo regime easily fits the bill. Because other countries in the region (Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia; Myanmar has rebuffed US humanitarian offers) cannot tolerate US ships or troops stationed in its territory, the US has no alternative but to support authoritarian rulers like Marcos and Arroyo if it wants to curb Al Qaeda influence, check China’s expansion, and project its military might in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical sphere. Surely, the splintered tiny Abu Sayyaf always used to rationalize US troops in the Philippines is no threat to US global hegemony. US military basing in the Philippines can only be explained by the long-range global strategy of preserving US superpower status by preventing the rise of competitors such as China (Herbert Docena, “In the Dragon’s Lair,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 26 February 2008).
Carnage and Mayhem All Around
Immediately after 9/11, the Pentagon announced that it would be sending 3,000 troops to the Philippines for joint operations against the Abu Sayyaf. Over 1,000 troops were eventually sent to participate in “Balikatan 2002” that took place in the combat areas of Basilan and Zamboanga where guerillas of the MILF were operating. This differed from previous exercises since it was now located in war zones, with soldiers using live ammunition, with no time constraints.
In July 2002, an International Solidarity Mission conducted a thorough fact-finding mission that led to three important conclusions: “1) American soldiers were directly involved in the raiding and shooting of an unarmed civilian in his house; 2) human rights abuses are continuing unabated under the Arroyo regime and are abetted by US military forces; and 3) the US military support operations that displace and violate the rights of Moro people and other Filipinos, including women and children” (Solidarity Mission Statement, July 2002). Because of such incidents, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel accused the regime of “treason,” turning the country into a deadly laboratory for the testing of the effectiveness of US troops, tactics and weaponry against the so-called terrorists” (Ellen Nakashima, “Philippines Debates US Combat Role against Rebels,” Washington Post, 23 Feb. 2003).
Another involvement of US troops in counterinsurgency plots may be cited here. In 2004, US troops made the University of Southeastern Mindanao as their temporary camp, an area claimed by the MILF as their territory. The US in effect converted civilians into human shields, potential collateral damage, in the event of armed confrontation between known antagonists in the region. This was part of the annual “Balikatan” exercise, this time in Carmen, North Cotabato. The humanitarian medical missions, distribution of toys, and building of Gawad Kalinga homes all serve as cover for US military intelligence-gathering and other tactical operations. In 2006, the “Balikatan” exercise from February to March was the biggest, involving 5,500 US troops and 2,800 Filipinos. This took place in the hotly contested regions of Jolo, Maimbung, Patikul and Panamao, Sulu, and North Cotabato.
A recent incident reveals how deeply entangled the US is in local counterinsurgency programs of the neocolonial state. In the town of Ipil, Sulu, last February 4, the AFP killed eight non-combatants (women and children), including a soldier on vacation. The widow of the slain soldier testified that she saw four US soldiers in a Navy boat. Subsequently, General Ruben Rafael, commander of Philippine troops in Jolo, stated in an interview that “a U.S. military spy plane circling high above the seaside village provided the intelligence that led to the February 4 assault” and that “the crew of the P-3 Orion turboprop, loaded with a sophisticated array of surveillance equipment pinpointed the village as a stronghold and arms depot for the radical Islamist Au Sayyaf movement” (Paul Watson, “U.S. Role in Philippine Raid Questioned,” Los Angeles Times, 9 March 2008). This same P-3 Orion spy planes was mentioned by the US Embassy as ready to be used for the disaster relief in Panay and Negroes where the NPA guerillas are vigorously challenging AFP terrorism. US embassy spokesperson Karen Schinnerer in Manila admitted that “an aerial reconnaissance vehicle” gathered intelligence over Sulu “at the request of Philippine forces.”
Heavy saturation bombings in Barangays Buansa and Cagay, a camp of the MILF in Indanan, Sulu, were carried out for five hours on April 30. Early last year, US troops participated in attacks on the Moro resistance fighters in this region. Witnesses of this latest genocidal foray attested to US-supplied “smart bombs” dropped by OV-10 airplanes, slaughtering many members of the 360 families who fled the area. Based on the research of Alexander Martin Remollino, US troops in Sulu belong to the Joint Special Operations Task-Force-Philippines that employs US Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations personnel “to conduct deliberate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in very focused areas, and based on collection plans, to perform tasks to prepare the environment and obtain critical information requirements” (Bulatlat, 4-10 May 2008). In lay idiom, this means clearing the area of enemy forces by spying and utilizing all weapons and logistics necessary to “neutralize” hostile elements. Although the AFP claims that those attacks were aimed at the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemayah Islamiyah, an Indonesian-based group, the MILF has responded by declaring that the territory involved is theirs and that no other group is allowed to operate from within the premises.
What is happening in the southern Philippines is clearly a carefully designed war to occupy and sanitize a whole region rich in natural and human resources, as well as a potential strategic base for military adventures. The problem is that it is inhabited by Moros, aboriginal peoples, and other Filipinos resisting US imperial conquest and oligarchic despotism. Prodded by the International Monitoring Team headed by Malaysia that helped enforce a ceasefire, the MILF and the Arroyo government were close to signing an agreement last February on wealth-sharing and ancestral domain. But the US-Arroyo attacks have worsened the displacement of 75,000 Moro civilians — the loss of property, farmland, and livelihood, not to speak of innocent lives — and permitted more extra-judicial killings, illegal detentions, and torture of Moro dissenters and ordinary citizens (Sandra R. Leavitt, “Pressure Brings Continued Progress in Mindanao Peace Negotiations,” Shigetsu Newsletter No. 912, 18 Feb. 2008).
Approaching the Endgame
What is the future for Arroyo’s brutal authoritarian rule? Collaborating with the torture president in the White House and his deceptive “iron fist and hand of friendship” policy, Arroyo has dug herself a grave deeper than all her corruption and ruthless political maneuverings can. If US troops succeed in building infrastructure — presumably better roads, schools, clinics, ports, which testifies to the failure of local governance — will that wipe out Moro separatists, local civilians who demand jobs, dignity, social services, and a measure of communal autonomy that are due them under Philippine laws and the UN Charter? A BBC reporter displayed her ignorance of the fraught history of US colonial domination of the Philippines — its civic culture, social practices, and institutions — when she reduced the whole complex fabric into a question-begging dilemma: “If Philippine government bodies could manage their resources to shelter and assist their own people, maybe all those special forces [US troops] could go home” (“US Plays Quiet Role in the Philippines,” 28 March 2008).
But how can this moribund state apparatus controlled by US-loving oligarchs and their self-serving intelligentsia and bureaucrats manage to do that? The economic crisis gripping the country seems irresolvable by Arroyo’s handouts and paltry rhetoric. The undefeatable MILF is withdrawing from peace talks with the Arroyo regime, just as the National Democratic Front (together with its “terrorist” affiliate, the NPA) has postponed negotiations unless the US-decreed stigma of “terrorist” is repudiated and extra-judicial killings halted. Surely, ninety million Filipinos, with their long tradition of fierce insurrections, will not allow the shameless puppetry of the Arroyo regime, with her generals and kowtowing officials, to continue for another hundred years. As a UPI Asia Online forecast puts it, the decrepit Arroyo band-wagon faces “bigger, bolder insurgency” in the years to come, despite the super-power’s “humanitarian” schemes and grotesque patronage.
E. San Juan, Jr. was recently a visiting professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. His recent books are In the Wake of Terror (Lexington Books) and US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Palgrave Macmillan). He will be a fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, in Spring 2009.