The Constitution and foreign troops

If only because every so often it haunts us like an annoying ghost from an exultant past, it is worth remembering that the 1987 Constitution was ratified on Feb. 11, 1987, exactly 25 years ago.  On this day, the entire government of President Corazon Aquino, together with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, swore allegiance to the new Constitution.  The event was more than symbolic.  It signified the end of the extraordinary powers under which Cory had ruled the country since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. It paved the way for the return of a republican system in which governmental powers are to be exercised by three separate and co-equal branches.  It authorized the establishment of a Congress and the calling of legislative elections in May that year.

Four years down the road, President Cory found herself marching to the Senate to lobby for the ratification of a new treaty seeking to extend the stay of American troops and military facilities in the country.  She had learned that the senators, almost all of whom she had handpicked and campaigned for, were evenly divided on the issue. She was determined to use her personal influence to soften the stubborn nationalists among them. She felt obliged to repay America’s unfailing support for her presidency whenever it was threatened by a military coup.

Yet, it was the 1987 Constitution itself that stood between her political inclinations and the nation’s historic aspirations.  Article XVIII, Sec. 25, of the new Constitution provides: “After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning military bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.” This convoluted sentence bears the traces of the passionate debate within the Constitutional Commission over this particular provision.

Cory’s march to the Senate on the eve of the final debate on the bases issue yielded no positive result. Twelve senators, led by 10 of her allies, went on to sign a resolution of non-concurrence. Senate President Jovito R. Salonga’s deft handling of this divisive issue made the rejection of the new treaty possible. The historic Senate vote marked the culmination of a trans-generational struggle against American military presence in the country that began in the closing years of the 19th century.

Still, it was a bold and reckless move. There were no plans in place for the use of the bases, no immediate relief for the communities that were affected.  Clark and Subic were still under the thick cover of tons of ash from the eruption of the Mt. Pinatubo volcano. The United States expressed its extreme displeasure over this rejection by abandoning Clark without a formal turnover. For many years after that, the United States would not even bother to name a regular ambassador to its former colony.

Ironically, it was in February 1998, on the year of the centennial of the nation’s declaration of its independence from Spain, that the Philippine government signed a Visiting Forces Agreement allowing American troops to enter the country.  The VFA was repeatedly challenged before the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional.  It took more than a year before it would be enforced.  Public opposition to the return of US troops was somehow blunted by the assurance that they did not require permanent facilities, and that their visit was only in connection with the joint military exercises provided by the US-RP mutual defense treaty.

These “visits” however have become open-ended. Regularly stationed in Mindanao, US troops, numbering about 500, have largely avoided public scrutiny.  It is their periodic visits to Subic for R&R that brought back painful memories of past abuse.  Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, a visiting soldier who was charged with raping a Filipina inside Subic base, but who remained under US custody, became the poster boy of extra-territoriality.

It is easy to think that 25 years will have erased the irritants and resentments that led to the closure of Clark and Subic to American military use.  Thus, today, our leaders are seriously entertaining the idea of hosting a larger contingent of American troops under the auspices of a joint effort to secure the unhampered flow of vessels in the South China Sea. The unnamed but obvious threat here is China, and not some terrorist group. One can see how well this expanded US presence fits in with the Philippines’ desire to shield itself from China’s habitual sabre-rattling over the disputed Spratlys.

A Bloomberg report cited in the Feb. 8 Inquirer issue states that about 8,600 US Marines will soon be pulled out of Okinawa in Japan.  Half will be sent to Guam, and the rest will be deployed on a “rotation” basis to “Australia, Hawaii, Subic Bay, and perhaps a smaller bay in the Philippines.”  Such numbers cannot be stationed here without violating the Constitution.  But if these troops remain aboard ships that are outfitted as floating bases, would the prohibition still apply to them?

We can almost hear the new semantics. They are foreign troops on “rotation,” not based here. They are merely passing through. As a philosopher once said, there is nothing in the world that cannot be made to look acceptable by sheer re-description.