U.S. Troops in Philippines

Early in October, an American soldier was killed in Zamboanga City in
the Philippines outside a karaoke bar popular with U.S. military
personnel, when a nail bomb delivered by a local motorcyclist exploded
in his face. The soldier, identified by the Pentagon as Sgt. 1st
Class Mark Wayne Jackson, is the first American combat casualty
in what has been called the “second front” of the U.S.
international war on terror. His death forced the Defense Department
to acknowledge that some 260 Special Forces “military advisors”
remain in the predominantly Muslim province of Mindinao, following
the conclusion of the six-month “Balikitan” U.S.- Philippine
joint military operation. Many Filipinos and most Americans were
not aware that American troops were still in the country.

For many Filipinos, the U.S. presence is a painful reminder of the
colonial past the country has struggled to overcome, and may even
aggravate local ethnic and religious tensions. The U.S. military’s
presence in the Philippines goes far beyond subduing Abu Sayyaf,
the Islamist militia blamed for the bombing. In August, Defense
Secretary Angelo Reyes told the Philippine Daily Inquirer
that of Washington’s military aid package, half would go to
fight the Maoist-inspired New Peoples Army (NPA), recently added
to the U.S. State Department’s “foreign terrorist organization”

American soldiers are assisting the Philippine military in their
counter-insurgency campaign ag- ainst the NPA, according to an October
8 South China Morning Post story, which says 1,000 U.S. troops
are in the northern province of Luzon. Lt. Cmdr. Jensin Sommer of
the Pacific Command described the operation as “ground-air
integration training,” and said there were only 600 U.S. troops
in the region.

Uncomprehending the Philippines’ complex set of tensions and
power affiliations, the U.S. military is deepening its involvement
in the pursuit of its own aims. The Bush administration appears
to be in the process of reacquiring the Philippines as a staging
and refueling base for its Asian wars, in line with the mandate
of its recent National Security Strategy, which states, “The
United States will require bases and stations within and beyond
Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements
for the long-distance deployment of U.S. troops.”

“What the Philippines does really offer is a nice location
for other operations in Southeast Asia,” said Roger Baker,
a military analyst with the Texas-based private intelligence company

Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of
Bush’s policy of aggressive uni- lateralism, has acknowledged
the risks of a conspicuous U.S. military presence. “There’s
a certain sensitivity, a quite understandable sensitivity, in a
country that was an American colony for more than half a century
about the dangers or the fears that the United States might be there
to take over,” Wolfowitz told the conservative Hoover Institute
in June. The United States has a long history of intervention in
the Philippines, going back to its bloody 17-year war to crush Filipino
aspirations for independence begun in 1899.

At least 800,000 Filipinos perished in that war, along with 4,200
American troops, by some estimates. The conflict in the Philippines
has its own local dimensions. In 1995, Abu Sayyaf violently splintered
from the mass- based Moro independence movement, pursuing criminal
activities and paramilitary services for the local authorities.
The Moro independence movement was founded by young, lower-class
Muslim men in the late 1960s, who were galvanized by poverty, anti-Muslim
discrimination, and displacement by Catholic settlers from the north.

Abu Sayyaf attracted the attention of the Bush administration following
the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, when U.S. intelligence
agents tied the group to al Qaeda, although most reports indicate
these ties ended in 1995. Abu Sayyaf’s outrageous kidnapping
and extortion operations recently targeted a group of local Jehovah
Witness Avon saleswomen who were beheaded.

The mainline organizations of the Moro independence movement are
the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front. These groups, according to John Gershman of the think-tank
Foreign Policy in Focus, engage in community-level organization
and generally limit their violence to military targets.  The
centrifugal force of Moro identity politics is strong given that
the introduction of Islam to the region dates back to the arrival
of Arab merchants and Islamic missionaries nearly 800 years ago.
The southern islands of the Philippine archipelago were never fully
subordinated by Spanish or American colonialism.

Bush administration is negotiating with Philippine President Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo to develop a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement,
a secretive, euphemistic effort to skirt the country’s 1987
constitution prohibiting foreign military bases. Arroyo has declared
her support for the Bush administration’s war against Iraq,
enraging Islamic and anti-imperialist constituencies.

Evoking Filipino pride in the anti-colonial struggle, Congres- sperson
Satur Ocampo of the leftist Bayan Muna Party told an international
delegation of peace activists, “When we fight U.S. imperialism
today, we do so as a sovereign people.”

As a 1960s-era activist firmly stamped in the anti-imperialist mold,
Ocampo testified that Filipino “history is replete with experiences
that show U.S. imperialism is a deceitful and brutal enemy of the
people. The widespread poverty, social inequity, and deep exploitation
we suffer today is in large measure due to its domination of Philippine

Ocampo, whose party is a coalition of labor organizations, indigenous
groups, and former communist rebels, has voiced steady criticism
of U.S. involvement, suggesting that the Philippine government is
backing away from ratifying the International Criminal Court for
fear of angering the United States and losing economic aid. At the
conclusion of the first phase of joint U.S.-Philippines military
operations, Ocampo called for a congressional inquiry into the human
rights implications of the training given by Special Forces advisors.
The sentiments of Bayan Muna and other veterans of the communist
guerilla insurgency in the Philippines are not wildly divergent
from the outlook of policy analysts in the United States.

Gershman warns that the U.S. approach in Southeast Asia relies on
militaries that “commit human rights violations with impunity,”
specifically the Philippines and Indonesia. He adds that the campaign
against militant Islamic groups “risks legitimizing a broader
crackdown on dissent by Southeast Asian leaders eager to do away
with inconvenient opposition leaders.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2001 Human Rights Report on the
Philippines confirms this concern. According to the report, “Members
of the security services were responsible for extrajudicial executions,
disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention.”

The report noted that Philippine human rights groups charge that
violations increased as the government intensified its campaign
against Abu Sayyaf and that the government’s Commission on
Human Rights lists the Philippines National Police as the country’s
worst abuser.

Gershman recommends debt relief for the Philippines and other Southeast
Asian countries faced with violent Islamist groups, to address the
economic inequalities that propel people toward fundamentalism.

Jordan Green
is a graduate student at Columbia University and an associate researcher
for the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies. His work
has been published in
Color- Lines, CounterPunch,
and the
Nation, among other publications.