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“Groping For The Exact Term”


Semantics, US Soldiers and The Philippines

As we mobilize against the murderous onslaught on Iraq we cannot afford to ignore US military operations in other parts of the world.

Many Filipinos are acutely aware of the connections between the US-led assault on Iraq and issues much closer to home.

Besides the massive troop build-up in the Middle East, the Philippines has seen the second biggest US military deployment since Afghanistan, and the largest concentration of US forces there since the withdrawal of US military bases in 1992. In February another 1700 US troops went to the Philippines, after last year’s Operation Balikatan (“shoulder to shoulder”) saw 1300 US soldiers “training and advising” the Philippine armed forces in counter-terrorism, focussing on the island of Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang had a stronghold. This followed the Philippines being declared the “second front” in the “war on terror”.

As I write, I am looking at a colour photo on the front page of the March 2 edition of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Gun in hand, a young US marine stands guard at the perimeter of the Southern Command Headquarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines, where US forces are currently training Filipino commandos in “counterterrorism” in the so-called Balikatan 03-1. Two days earlier at an anti-war rally in Rizal Park, Manila, I heard speakers from across the political spectrum, Christians and Muslims, oppose the war in Iraq in the same breath as they called for peace in wartorn Mindanao and an end to US military involvement in the Philippines.

Perhaps it is not surprising that so many Filipinos were making such a connection. For many, especially in the south, the hell on earth that is war is not something mediated by a TV screen but a lived reality.

As the Philippine government wages war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for self-determination for the Muslim Moro people since 1978, and Abu Sayyaf, internal displacement of families continues in Mindanao and the nearby islands of Basilan and Sulu (Jolo). Hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced by war in Mindanao. Others have fled to neighbouring Sabah, in Malaysia.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines have razed villages to the ground, destroyed people’s crops and killed their livestock, in a campaign of terror which has left a trail of human rights violations, death and destruction. That is what wars tend to do. Although many people had been resettled by the beginning of last year, a further 90,000 were displaced in 2002 as joint military operations were being conducted by Philippine and US forces.

An estimated one and a half million Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East face an uncertain future. Over 46000 Filipino workers, many of them from Muslim communities, were displaced during the Gulf War. Labour unions and migrant workers’ organizations have struggled for over a decade to obtain compensation for many of these Filipino overseas contract workers.

With the government’s official labour export policy, high unemployment, and growing poverty, an estimated 2000 Filipinos leave the country daily to work overseas. Remittances from overseas Filipinos are the country’s largest single source of foreign exchange. With so many in the Middle East, and with the effects of the last war in the Gulf painfully fresh for both workers and their dependent families, these are particularly worrying times.

The destination for the latest batch of US forces in the Philippines could not have been a more sensitive spot than the island of Sulu. The Moro people were the staunchest enemies of Spanish colonialism and US imperialism in the Philippines. Less than 100 years ago, during the US colonial occupation, US soldiers committed horrific atrocities against the Moro. Two of the worst massacres happened on Sulu at Bud Dajo in March 1906, and Bud Bagsak in June 1913, under General John “Black Jack” Pershing. An estimated 2000 Moros, including many women and children, were slaughtered in the crater of Bud Bagsak. These bitter memories have never been forgotten on Sulu, and the planned deployment of US troops was met with a wave of anger and even talk of revenge against American soldiers.

US military and economic aid to the Philippines has increased sharply since 9/11. Meanwhile President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo continues to dance to the Bush administration’s tune. Elmer Labog, Secretary General of the KMU, the militant trade union centre, recently described Macapagal-Arroyo as “no more than a remote-controlled dummy of the Bush administration”. Her statements and moves to justify support for the US-led attacks on Iraq and to convince Filipinos of sinister links between Iraq, Al-Qaeda and her domestic foes have lacked credible evidence. While they have fuelled the considerable domestic anti-Muslim prejudice they have also met with much scorn and scepticism.

In February the Arroyo government expelled the Iraqi Embassy’s Second Secretary Husham Hussein, claiming that he had links to Abu Sayyaf. Just days ago, another two Iraqi diplomats, first secretary Abdul Karim Shwaikh and attache Karim Nassir Hamid were expelled for “spying”. After Hussein’s expulsion, Simon Elegant, writing for Time Magazine (Asia) on February 24 asked “as skeptics suggest, is the Philippine intelligence community performing a shadow dance of Colin Powell’s efforts in the U.N. to convince the world that Iraq and al-Qaeda are working together?”

In late February a series of power pylon bombings caused power blackouts over most of Mindanao. Nobody I spoke with in Manila believed this to be the work of the MILF, whom the government was quick to blame, and expressed concern at the lengths to which the government would go to justify upscaling its own – and potentially US – military operations against the MILF, and to appease the Bush administration. The MILF, for its part, denied responsibility for these bombings and also the Davao airport bombing on March 4 (which made it into US media because an American was killed) saying that it does not target civilians and civilian installations.

On 20th March, speaking at the Philippine Military Academy, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo justified the country joining the US-led so-called “coalition of the willing” against Iraq by claiming that Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” might end up in the hands of Abu Sayyaf or the MILF. “Somebody is saving us from our own terrorists in the Philippines getting these weapons.” Her statement is even more ironic given the close links that Abu Sayyaf has with the Philippine military. After all, it was largely created by them to split and discredit the MILF.

Now National police chief Hermogenes Ebdane has made the ludicrous claim that the Iraqi embassy is funding the ongoing anti-war protests in Manila which have targeted the US embassy.

The fierce controversy which has erupted in the Philippines over the arrival and role of the latest US military deployment has seen both US and Philippine politicians trying to downplay or deny reports that US troops would engage in combat operations while in the Philippines. The Visiting Forces Agreement, signed in 1999, and the Mutual Logistics Supply Agreement, signed last November, re-established much of what the US had lost when popular pressure led to the Aquino government kicking out the US bases a decade earlier.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution clearly forbids foreign forces from engaging in combat on Philippine soil. Washington insisted that US forces would actively participate in combat once in the Philippines yet that its role would be, as Donald Rumsfeld put it “consistent with their Constitution and their circumstance” (Philippine Star, March 2). Serious problems arose from how U.S. and Philippine authorities characterized the American participation. Pentagon officials had spoken of combat operations to “disrupt and destroy” Abu Sayyaf.

Manila called it an exercise to train, advise and assist Philippine forces. . Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes put the issue down to a matter of semantics and spoke of “groping for the exact term” to define the US involvement. The deployment to Sulu has been cancelled while a new venue for joint US-Philippine military operations is found.

Teddy Casino, secretary general for Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance, a leftwing multi-sectoral alliance of people’s organizations), said that Manila and Washington were merely trying to find the “correct formulation to avoid being questioned in court” about the troop deployment.

It is not only people on the left in the Philippines who oppose the US-backed military operations. Vice-President Teofisto Guingona resigned from his Foreign Secretary post over the US forces deployment in Basilan last year and has continued to express concerns that the US presence in the Philippines will lead to an escalation of conflict in Mindanao. He has also opposed the war against Iraq. Many other politicians have protested the arrangement as an affront to Philippine sovereignty.

Mindanao senator Aquilino Pimentel has warned that allowing foreigners to fight “our war against rebels and criminals” could get the Philippines and the rescuing nation “embroiled in a messy war such as the one in Colombia.” Commenting on the latest US contingent, he told the Bangkok Post (5 March) “They want military presence in our country without the bases. And one way of doing that is to run after the terrorists because the search for terrorists is a never-ending quest. Nobody is a terrorist until he commits an act of terrorism. So that is an endless pursuit”.

Randy David, a regular newspaper columnist and sociologist at University of the Philippines sees the country being turned into a US military training camp.

“We are offering our Iraq-bound friends controlled battlefields with live targets and real-life situations.”

Oh, and then there’s the oil.

The Philippines is rich in natural gas, oil and geothermal supplies. Mindanao has long been exploited for its natural resources by local and overseas power elites. Creating a stable environment for foreign investment – at any social or environmental cost – has been the aim of successive Philippine governments. The aspirations of Moro people for self-determination directly challenge this agenda.

The Philippines is estimated to have 3.7 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. The Malampaya offshore field, off Palawan, the largest natural gas development in Philippine history, was discovered by Shell Philippines Exploration. Many other oil and gas corporations have investments in the country. There is speculation that the largest deposits of oil and gas in Asia could lie in the region.

Another US objective appears to be the containment of China as a potential regional rival. Washington has been urging the Philippines to host Team Challenge, an umbrella exercise involving U.S. Pacific Command and the armed forces of the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, and Thailand. Last year an anonymous Philippine government official claimed that the US was pushing for the exercise as a counterfoil to the supposed threat posed by China in the region. This would involve invasion scenarios, with China as the aggressor-nation, and responses to a strong Chinese move in the disputed Spratly Islands (which the Philippines also lays claim to).

It is clear that the Pentagon sees these exercises as a strategic opportunity to reinforce a critical alliance with the Philippines. The Philippines provides the US with a foothold in SouthEast Asia, a jump-off point for operations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei and elsewhere in Asia where it has markets, investments and other geopolitical interests to protect, and where it can use “war on terror” rhetoric to do so. With the increasing sabre-rattling directed against North Korea, we should not forget the role that the Philippines played as a forward base for the US military during the Korean War (not to mention, the Gulf War).

Defense Secretary Reyes overlooked the words “recolonization” and “strengthening US geopolitical hegemony in South East Asia” when “groping for the exact term” to define the nature of the US military involvement in the Philippines. For many years, Filipinos have struggled valiantly to rid themselves of US military presence. They deserve our support as they resist a new wave of colonial occupation which will have regional, if not global, consequences.

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