US troops in Mindanao

The 1987 Constitution is clear enough on the matter: After the expiration of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement in 1991, no foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty.  On September 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected a new treaty that sought to extend the stay of US forces on Philippine soil.

Many years later, some quarters tried to smuggle elements of the rejected treaty into a harmless-looking Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).  Thoughtful Filipinos saw through this ruse and vigorously opposed it.  A watered down agreement was subsequently approved during the presidency of Joseph Estrada.  That VFA refers only to joint military exercises and foreign troop visits that are regularly scheduled. It does not confer legal warrant or protection on US forces who come to the Philippines to participate in an ongoing war, whether as combatants or as advisers.

The reason for this is quite simple.  Independent nations must fight their own wars, especially when these are waged within their own territory against some of their own people.  Governments that enlist foreign help in quelling local insurgencies compromise their independence.  They deserve the contempt of their citizens.

In November last year, two dozen so-called “military advisers” arrived from the US and have since been in and out of Mindanao.  These advisers are preparing the groundwork for the entry of more than 100 US troops who are expected to join Filipino troops in the frontline in Basilan.  A spokesman from Pentagon, Lt. Commander Jeff Davis, said the mission is purely supportive of the Philippine military and will not engage directly in combat.  Even so, it is the first time since the 1950s that American military advisers are being allowed to take an active part in managing a local war in the Philippines.

The apparent public acceptance of these troops seems to feed upon prevalent anti-Moro sentiments and a general exasperation with Philippine military efforts in Mindanao.  But this is a local war, and the Abu Sayyaf are local bandits.  That Americans and other foreigners have been among their victims does not make them global terrorists. This an internal problem that is being given an international dimension.  Why?

Sen. Ralph Recto is right in demanding that Malacanang state the “parameters” of the American presence in the Philippines at this time. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has sought to explain this presence in the light of the Visiting Forces Agreement.  She was reported as suggesting that perhaps the next military exercises might be held in Basilan.  Yet she knows that the war against the Abu Sayyaf is not a military exercise.

On the other hand, the Americans see their presence in Mindanao as part of the US commitment to help individual nations combat international terrorism in their own shores.  Unlike the restrictive VFA, the crusade against global terrorism gives them flexibility in defining the extent of their intervention in a country’s internal affairs.

In the postwar period, the containment of global communism became the warrant for the most unspeakable acts of US intervention in the affairs of other nations.  America made it a point, for example, to anoint Filipino presidents.  Today it is the war against terrorism on multiple fronts that is giving America that warrant.  This campaign will be comprehensive; it will not be exclusively military.  Ultimately, it will take the form of economic, political and cultural intervention.  Its final objective will not simply be the security of America but its economic and political hegemony.

The management of a post-Taliban Afghanistan serves as the model for this new interventionism.  The lessons being tried in Kabul today will be useful in controlling political transitions in places like Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

US intervention never thrives in a vacuum.  It requires a receptive local medium for it to flourish.  Nations governed by elites with a long history of colonial collaboration are filled with politicians who have no qualms about promoting personal ambition through foreign sponsorship.  Against the long-term interests of their people, they allow themselves to serve as subalterns of foreigners.

Foreign intervention corrodes a nation’s integrity.  It distorts its priorities, and fosters a culture of dependence that stifles initiative and self-respect.  Fifty years of American rule nearly extinguished the taste for freedom that our ancestors fiercely instilled in their children. We began to fear self-reliance. That is why many Filipinos thought the nation would sink with the departure of the last American boat from Subic.

September 11 was a wake-up call for America.  Americans have turned that tragedy into a source of energy for revitalized American global power.  Their moves are calculated; they don’t want to be perceived as being alone in this effort, and so they have offered to share their abundant resources with those that are willing to join them in their crusade.

Like other nations, we saw in this an opportunity to solve some of our own problems. But it is not clear how far we want to go in this US-led anti-terrorist crusade, and what we are willing to give up in exchange for new American arms and equipment.

The deployment of US troops in Mindanao represents to me a reversal of the 1991 paradigm shift in RP-US relations.  It is worth asking if we are being quietly led back to an era of presidents handpicked by America.


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