Japan Peace Conference 2009
Stop the War Coalition Philippines
A snapshot of US Military presence in the Philippines and our continuing struggle for a peaceful, sovereign and bases free Philippines is one that can enrage as well as inspire. It is a story of a nation and its people aspiring to free itself from the most visible symbol of our colonial legacy and the Cold War in the Philippines. After almost a century of occupation, the United States had to leave their bases in the Philippines in November 24, 1992 brought about by the historic Senate vote to reject the new Military Bases Agreement in September 1991 and decades of people’s resistance.
It did not take long before the US and Philippine governments forged a new agreement – which is now euphemistically named Visiting Forces Agreement. This indicated that our work has not been finished and remains as a major issue if not the most important one in the peace and justice movement in the Philippines today.
Since 2001, a steady stream of U.S. troops have been coming to the Philippines to take part in the annual Balikatan joint military exercises with Filipino troops. An increasing number of such exercises have been held year-round in venues throughout the country from Batanes (North) to Tawi-Tawi (South). Since 2002, a unit of US Special Operations Forces has been stationed continuously and indefinitely in various camps throughout Mindanao. An increasing number of US warships have been entering and visiting various ports throughout the country. It has become clear that the Philippines now hosts a new, more sophisticated form of US basing. (See Philippine map) 2
These exercises are part of the continuing, expanding, and deepening US military presence and intervention in the Philippines. Though less visible than the large bases that the US used to maintain in the Philippines until 1991, this basing’s impact is no less direct, its implications on peace and people’s security no less threatening. And yet, much of the US military's actions in the Philippines have been concealed from the public, with both the US and Philippine governments deliberately attempting to package and project US military presence in ways that directly contradict available information. Eight years since the first deployment of troops to Mindanao, unanswered questions about their intentions and their actual conduct, as well as their alleged involvement in direct combat actions and their construction of permanent military structures, have been mounting.
Concerned about these developments, social movements and civil society organizations and networks as well as academics and local government officials, many of them part of STOP the War Coalition Philippines came together to form the Citizens' Peace Watch. An independent initiative of concerned citizens brought together to continuously report on US military presence and intervention in the country.
The Citizens’ Peace Watch has embarked on important and timely fact-finding missions, consistent monitoring efforts, research, reporting, lobbying and information campaigns to contribute to the public discussion on the issue of US military presence and intervention.
One of Citizens’ Peace Watch’s major activity was a fact-finding mission to Zamboanga City and Sulu in Southern Philippines last year. Zamboanga City is known to host the headquarters of the US Special Forces unit that has been deployed to the Philippines since 2002; some members of this unit have been sent in small groups to Sulu -- site of ongoing military offensives ostensibly targeting the Abu Sayyaf Group (listed by the US as a terrorist organization).
The Citizens’ Peace Watch fact-finding mission to Zamboanga City and Sulu last year confirmed and found proof reinforcing concerns that
In light of the clear violation of the Philippine Constitution and actual danger to lives and human rights, the Citizens’ Peace Watch challenged elected representatives to take the initiative to demand and conduct Congressional and Senate inquiries on the issue of US military operations and interventions especially in Southern Philippines. We also issued an urgent demand for the suspension of US military deployment to the Philippines, specifically the stationing of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines as well as the military exercises, pending fair and independent review of and investigations on their presence and intervention.
This led to a series of Senate investigation and inquiry into the activities of US troops in the Philippines as well as a recommendation to review the Visiting Forces Agreement. Lately, the Philippine Senate issued a resolution directing the Executive to review and renegotiate the agreement with the United States and in case the US refuse to a process of review, that the agreement be abrogated. In the wake of the visit of State Secretary Hilary Clinton to the Philippines recently, the Philippine President declared (as expected) its continued support and cooperation to the US war on terror.
Subsequent investigations and Fact Finding Missions to Mindanao conducted by various citizens groups including the Senate Legislative Oversight on the Visiting Forces Agreement indicate very critical updates most notably the findings of US Troops Out Now Coalition Mindanao which categorically claims:
a) Involvement of US military personnel in combat operations
Over the past 8 years, the United States military and/or its personnel has played a role in actual combat related activities. While US and RP military officials continue to state in media reports that US soldiers are not engaged in “combat operations,” it is clear that the US military has played a crucial role in the execution of direct combat missions by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Documented incidents involved US military personnel gathering critical intelligence for use in AFP operations. The Philippine Information Agency reported that a high-ranking official of the Philippine Army admitted that US troops have been providing technical support in operations against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He said that the US provides maps and aerial pictures to the Philippine military for use in their operations. Intelligence is an essential part of any combat operation and without it, any operation would be impossible to execute.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines is acting on intelligence gathered by the US military, and therefore, US military personnel are directly engaging in combat operations through the provision of intelligence support and information. Clearly providing technical intelligence to the AFP combat maneuvers, the American operatives used satellite discs, laptop computers, scanners and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), spy planes (US P-3 Orion) providing intelligence for assaults on civilian population suspected as insurgents. Dynacorp (defense contractor) helicopter carrying supplies for US troops have also been reported seen in areas of Moro Islamic Liberation camps and offensive sites against Abu Sayyaf.
US military personnel also provide combat assistance by transporting wounded Philippine soldiers. These kinds of roles are defined in military terminology as “combat support,” or “combat service support.” US soldiers are carrying out this work in conflict zones, and integrating with AFP personnel engaged in direct combat. The common explanation by authorities is that US military personnel were present in an area because of infrastructure projects, medical missions, and other humanitarian assistance. Such activities fall under “civil-military operations”.
b) Evidence of infrastructure within Philippine territory for the sole use of the US military.
The following data regarding the existence of US military infrastructure in the Philippines has been culled from both primary and secondary sources:
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military personnel, bases, and facilities on Philippine soil except where authorized by a treaty. Findings indicate that despite constitutional restrictions on foreign military infrastructure, the US military has established certain areas as off limits to Philippine military personnel, and constructed intelligence infrastructure such as communications equipment. The United States Military itself considers its facilities on Jolo as “Advanced Operating Base - 920,” counter to claims that the United States no longer has military bases in the Philippines. While we are holding fast to the technicalities of our agreements with the United States, in practice, the US operates out of its own bases on Philippine soil.
c) Human Rights Violations and other incidents affecting civilians involving US military personnel.
Human rights violations being committed are the following:
Article VI of the Visiting Forces Agreement provides for the waiver of any and all claims for damage, death or injury, loss or destruction of property arising from activities to which the agreement applies. The VFA’s treatment of damages, loss, personal injury or death caused by acts or omission of US personnel undermines the rights of victims to pursue justice as they chose. By allowing the US to merely pay compensation to the victims, the incidents are swept under the rug and are forgotten about, while larger related issues of public health and safety remain unresolved.
A declaration made by a U.S. Pentagon official during a February 21, 2003 interview with CNN on US military deployment in the Philippines “This will be a no holds-barred effort. This is not an exercise,” were indicative of the nature and extent of Activities of US military personnel in the country, particularly the integration with Philippine military personnel in combat operations against the MILF, MNLF, and NPA. This is consistent with the claim of the afore-cited anonymous Pentagon official. Evidence suggesting the establishment of permanent, or long-term use facilities of US military personnel that are recognized even by the Overseas Basing Commission as operating bases of the US military, further indicates that US military presence in the country is not short-term and not for the sake of simple training exercises. Further, the existence of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines, a unit under the United States Pacific Command and based in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City since 2002 to date are clearly grounds for serious investigation by the Philippine government as it is a clear departure from the framework of the VFA which only provides for the “time to time” visits of US military personnel. While we believe that the VFA is in contradiction with the Constitution, it is also clear that the VFA itself is being violated through the continuous presence of US military personnel in the country. As the VFA continues to be invoked as the justification and basis for US military intervention in the Philippines without the governing terms of reference, we have continuously and strongly called for the immediate abrogation of this one sided agreement.
Our work continues in different fronts integrating our local as well as our regional work to contribute the global movement for the abolition of foreign military bases. International solidarity, consistent and sustained campaign initiatives and media work and more importantly the work to expand our constituency to build a critical mass of committed and dedicated campaigners in many fronts (in the academe, the government, business, the churches, social movements, the communities, etc.) with priorities on the student and young generation who will continue the struggle in the future.
We continue to take a stand on international issues by linking them to gut (bread and butter) issues and local concerns believing that civic life and social involvement should be practiced on a day to day basis. Learning from our experiences during some painful and difficult periods in our history, we will continue to be inspired by the experience of ousting a dictatorship, closing the bases, resisting the operation of nuclear power facility, ousting a corrupt and inept president thru the power of the people. We continue to be inspired by the continuing and dedicated struggles and victories of friends in Okinawa, Vieques, Italy No Dal Molin, Prague, Manta/Ecuador and in other parts of the world where people continue to organize and unite for peace, justice and freedom.
I hope that this conference will strengthen our lifetime commitment and give us the courage and inspiration that will lead us to the victory and success that we all long for and realize someday a world that is just, peaceful, nuclear free and bases free. Gambari Mashio!
1. Presented to the 2009 Japan Peace Conference, December 10-13, 2009 in Yokohama City, Japan by Corazon Valdez Fabros, Co-Convenor, STOP the War Coalition Philippines and member of the Coordinating Committee of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases (NO BASES Network)
2. For more details, see Focus on the Global South, At the Door of All the East: The Philippines in United States Military Strategy (Quezon City, 2007),