The return of the repressed

When the Philippine Senate in 1991 voted against a new proposed treaty that would extend the stay of American bases in our country, we thought that, at last, we had finally slain the great American father that for generations controlled our national psyche.  We knew then that we would be made to pay dearly for this decision.  But we were convinced that the rejection of the treaty was a necessary step in the recovery of our integrity as a nation.

To be free suddenly was not easy.  America took this rejection as an affront and showed its displeasure in countless ways.  For many years after the dismantling of the bases, no regular American ambassador was assigned to the Philippines.  US assistance to the country was drastically slashed.  The Americans ignored us when we asked for help to clean up the toxic waste they left behind.  We were taught the lesson never to stand up to America again. By all accounts, we survived the aftermath of American withdrawal, surprised by our own resilience.

But only seven years after the last American boat left Subic in 1992, the Senate turned around and ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement. This is a legal cover that permits American troops to land on our shores and use our facilities when they participate in joint military exercises with our armed forces. Thoughtful Filipinos warned that we were walking into a snare. But the desperate need to normalize relations with a traditional ally, and to tap the various forms of assistance that come with this status, stilled all apprehensions. We were assured that the presence of US troops was not a permanent arrangement, and that there was no need to fear the repetition of those abuses that in the era of the bases became major irritants in RP-US relations.

Under the VFA, American soldiers have come by waves.  After 9/11, these joint military exercises acquired a new warrant as an integral element of the global war against terrorism.  They are scheduled so close to one another that it is difficult to tell one from the other except by name. For example, the 4500 troops from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit that were here recently participated in two overlapping exercises: the “Talon Vision” held from Oct. 16 to Oct. 23, and the “PHIBLEX” held from Oct. 21 to Nov. 1.

In addition, US troops have been invited to hold exercises in various parts of the country, including conflict zones in Mindanao, that in the past were off-limits to foreign forces.  Their presence in our country has become so routine and so frequent that they have virtually vanished from the radar screen of the national consciousness.  The Americans are here, yet we hardly notice them.

But now, like a symptom of an almost forgotten trauma, the repressed is back.  It haunts us like a specter from the past, forcing us to acknowledge in retrospect the betrayal that the VFA represents.

That, to me, is what the rape of the 22-year-old Filipina by American soldiers in Subic last Nov. 1 is about.  From this perspective, how can this incident be, as Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye wishes to view it, “an isolated case that will not affect the strong ties between the Philippines and the United States”?  This crime is as symptomatic of the perniciousness of American power in our country as it is everywhere else today — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Okinawa, in South Korea — where American troops operate.  Rape has always been an integral part of conquest.

Therefore I beg to disagree with Sen. Richard Gordon.  He says: “This incident does not speak for the VFA, for the American people. It’s just them (the accused rapists).  Let’s just prosecute them to the hilt.” The senator wants us to erase the whole context in which this sordid crime is embedded. He wants us to go back to sleep, and not be bothered by this little ineradicable trace of a disturbed past.

Indeed, almost everyone in Malacanang seems to echo Gordon’s line.  While there is recognition that a grievous wrong has been committed, every effort is made to contain its meanings.  The connection to the VFA is avoided as much as possible, and yet at almost every point, Philippine officials themselves invoke its ambiguous provisions to explain why the accused cannot be treated like ordinary suspects in a case. Thus they remain in the custody of the US Embassy.  A ranking official in our own Dept. of Foreign Affairs has volunteered the view that nothing in the VFA prevents the US Government from shipping the soldiers out of the Philippines and holding them elsewhere.  These plus the confused testimony of the Filipino driver Timoteo Soriano all seem like a disturbing prelude to an acquittal.

There seems no way of hiding these traces of American extraterritoriality and arrogance, other than by diverting the public’s attention.  That is why the focus keeps shifting to the personal circumstances of the victim herself. It is a way of naturalizing her victimization.  Interviewed on television, one Filipino war veteran, who fought on the side of America in the last war, articulated the thoughts of many misguided Filipinos.  He bluntly called the victim a prostitute, as if this label erases the crime.  “My daughter is not a loose woman,” her mother protests, in clear anticipation of such unkind remarks.  It is a plea for the public not to participate in a second symbolic rape of her daughter.

No — this incident begs us to wake up from our stupor. It is telling us to work through this symptom now so that we may bring ourselves to an awareness of the full meaning of what we had done by approving the Visiting Forces Agreement:  we agreed to be re-colonized.

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