Fidel Ramos…. In the Footsteps of Marcos?

Daniel B. Schirmer


The Philippine post-Marcos constitution
prohibits Fidel Ramos from running for re-election in 1998
when the next presidential vote is scheduled. But leaders of
his party, the ruling Lakas-NUCD, are campaigning for a
constitutional amendment to extend his term of office for
several years. These leaders claim to have secured more
signatures than legally required to a petition calling for a
constitutional convention. (Later comes they required
national referendum on amendments proposed by such a
convention.) An amendment to extend Ramos’s term has
been discussed before. However, its organized promotion gives
the question what Manila’s Philippine Daily Inquirer
calls "an alarming turn," and a stormy political
crisis is on the way.

An anti-amendment coalition, now
assembling, is many-sided, including labor unions, peasant
associations, religious bodies–Catholic and Protestant–and
a host of cause-oriented, community-based organizations.
Politically it runs from the conservative Cardinal Sin,
leader of the Philippine Catholic Church, through the center
as represented by Laban, an important minority party in the
Philippine congress, to groups like Bayan and Bisig on the

Ramos has done nothing to prevent his
supporters from promoting the constitutional amendment to
extend his term of office. He has vetoed legislation limiting
funds for a constitutional convention to forward such a goal.
Formally, however, he takes a hands-off attitude toward the
amendment. The Philippine president does acknowledge his
interest in constitutional reform to prevent the Philippine
judiciary from interfering with the executive’s handling of
economic affairs. Philippine courts have recently interrupted
privatization in two cases: that of the historic Manila Hotel
to Malaysian investors, citing constitutional prohibition of
the alienation of the national patrimony, and that of
Manila’s water and sewage systems to foreign and domestic
corporations, citing procedural faults.

Ramos’s adherence to both free market
ideology and U.S. military dominance is evident in his
support for the Pentagon’s policy of "rest and
recreation" in the Philippines (widely understood as the
U.S. military’s use of Philippine women as prostitutes). He
apparently accepts as normal and legitimate the exploitation
of cheap Philippine labor–in this case sexual labor–by the
armed forces of the superpower.

President Ramos’s commitment to the
reign of the free market in the Philippines and Asia is well
known, especially since he played host to the 1996 APEC
conference in Manila. Less known in the United States,
perhaps, are the efforts he and his administration have made
on behalf of the U.S. military in the Philippines. Since the
Philippine Senate defeated the bases treaty in September
1991, the Pentagon has been trying to re-establish its
military presence in the Philippines in order to be able to
use that country again as a springboard for U.S. power
projection. President Ramos and his administration have been
the Pentagon’s main allies in this effort.

To renew its presence in the
Philippines the Pentagon has turned to the policy of military
access. This operates through executive agreement implemented
by the military forces of the U.S. and the host country.
Executive agreement also governed the U.S. and Philippine
military in matters concerning the bases during the Marcos
regime. In the eyes of many Filipinos the present access
agreement violates the post-Marcos constitution which
requires Senate approval of a U.S. military presence in the

As a high military official of the
Marcos dictatorship Ramos supported the U.S. bases; as
President Aquino’s Minister of Defense he continued this
support; as a candidate for president in 1992 Ramos declared
for access, and shortly after his election the Pentagon got
its access agreement.

In November 1992, at the initiative of
high U.S. military officials in the Pacific, their Philippine
counterparts agreed to give the U.S. military access to
Philippine ports, air fields, and military installations for
purposes of ship visits, air transit, and small unit military
exercises (as was reported in the press at the time). In
November 1994 the Pentagon, with Ramos’s support, proposed to
broaden the limited access agreement of 1992 with an
Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) giving the
U.S. military rights in the Philippines, and the use of
Philippine territory as a launching pad for possible U.S.

From the complacent (if not arrogant)
manner with which both access and ACSA were proposed it seems
the Pentagon seriously underestimated the strength of the
nationalist opposition to the renewed U.S. military presence
that was to arise, bringing with it the leadership of the
Philippine congress. But it was not long before the U.S.
military realized its mistake.

The persistent and cumulative nature of
this opposition was certainly a factor leading the U.S.
embassy in Manila and the U.S. Pacific high command to
declare in June 1996 that they were no longer interested in
the ratification of ACSA by a Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense
Board (although both had originally taken this ratification
for granted). In October President Ramos followed suit with a
more extreme repudiation. He denied an attempt on the part of
the Philippine and U.S. governments to give the U.S. access
to its former Philippine military installations. This strange
dynamic did not rest here. In late January 1997 the U.S.
military suspended military exercises in the Philippines,
because, it was reported, the Ramos Administration refused to
grant immunity from criminal liability to participating
soldiers. Yet only some four years earlier President Ramos
had made a point of personally welcoming U.S. troops to their
first military exercise on Philippine soil since base

The Pentagon’s stated loss of interest
in strengthening U.S.-Philippine military ties through ACSA
seems questionable when set against its repeatedly declared
intention to remain the dominant military power in the
Pacific. President Ramos’s virtual denial of access is
contradicted by the public record. In this uncertain
atmosphere the reported disagreement on military exercises
might remind a skeptic of a sham battle–moro-moro, in the
language of the Philippines.

These anomalies suggest another reason
for the present deflated status of U.S.-Philippine military
relations, in addition–but connected–to the pressure of the
Philippine opposition. That is the approach of the
presidential elections of 1998. The U.S. government may want
to keep the issue of military access out of the election
debate. President Ramos, with possible ambitions to extend
his rule, may also think it wise to separate himself from the

Fidel Ramos follows the lead of
Ferdinand Marcos in willingness to open the Philippines to
foreign capital, with minimal restraint. He follows the lead
of Marcos in solicitous attention to the claims of the U.S.
military, covered over when politically expedient by gestures
of nationalist intent. Will Ramos take a step toward
dictatorship; as did Marcos before him, with the
constitutional amendment prolonging his hold on power? A year
ago Ramos proposed "anti-terrorist" bills that
popular opposition rejected as dictatorial. This could happen

Ramos and the Pentagon recently appear
to have taken considerable pains to distance themselves from
each other. That is one side of the picture. The other side
can be seen by asking a question. In 1998, which would the
Pentagon most likely prefer: the continuation in office of
Fidel Ramos, or the election to the Philippine presidency of
the current frontrunner, Vice President Jose Estrada, who
campaigned against the bases in 1991?

Reprinted with permission from Malaya