Accommodating America

Soon after the end of World War II, the Philippines resumed preparations for independence, a track that was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. The flushing out of the Japanese and the recovery of the islands by the American forces in the closing stages of the war ironically destroyed much of the country and resulted in the horrific sacrifice of countless lives that had survived the Occupation itself. Rehabilitation from the devastation of the war did not come at a cheap price.

The United States, the one country that was morally obliged and indeed was in the best position to help in the rebuilding of its former colony, would only do so in exchange for continued colonial prerogatives in two key areas of special interest: economic relations and military relations.  This tradeoff produced the Bell Trade Act which gave preferential treatment to US products and companies, and the Military Bases Agreement which gave America control over vast tracts of land for 99 years for its exclusive military use. The Philippine Congress approved the Bell Trade Act right on the eve of the country’s formal independence. The same Congress also amended the 1935 Constitution to accommodate American “parity rights” in the Philippine economy.

Interestingly, the Military Bases Agreement and its companion measure, the Military Assistance Agreement, were similarly concluded by the two governments on the same month the plebiscite on the parity amendment was held—in March 1947. This uncanny timing moved the American historian Stephen Shalom to view these events as signifying the advent of a neocolonial relationship. In his book, “The Philippines and the United States: A study of neocolonialism,” Shalom describes neocolonialism as America’s way of “groom[ing] a Philippine governing class that would administer the islands while preserving American strategic and economic interests.” Indeed, our understanding of Philippine politics would be greatly impoverished if we did not take its neocolonial underpinnings into account.

A recollection of these events provides the necessary context in which to understand the explosion of anti-American sentiments in the decades following independence. A profound sense of having been taken advantage of and treated with contempt by a supposed ally at a time of despair greatly informed these sentiments. Perhaps, this kind of remembering is what we need today if we are to muster enough anger over the way our leaders are reversing the bold decisions that were made during the rare moments when we could think for ourselves.

Two examples of such fine moments easily come to mind. The first was during the debates on the post-Edsa Constitution, when the appointed members of the Constitutional Commission came up with a transitory provision that was so clear in its intent and so forthright in its language that one would have thought there was no way of going around it.

Section 25, Article XVIII of the 1987 Constitution states: “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 party.”

The second moment came on Sept. 16, 1991. At the end of a contentious national discussion of a new treaty that sought to extend the stay beyond 1991 of American bases in the Philippines, a divided Senate defied the wishes of President Cory Aquino and rejected the new treaty. This stunning event unfolded as a moment of catharsis—an in-your-face declaration of independence previous generations of colonial politicians in our country had scrupulously avoided doing.

But, like giddy adolescents who often surprise themselves by their first assertions of freedom, it doesn’t take long before we find ways of softening our resolve. America gave us the silent treatment for nearly a decade after that historic Senate vote. In our eyes, America, our old ally, had taken offense, and we felt we had to do something to appease her.

The first chance to make amends came in February 1998, toward the end of the Ramos presidency. The United States expressed interest in reviving the joint military exercises and sought a legal instrument that would cover the presence of its visiting troops. The outcome was the Visiting Forces Agreement, whose final  approval was deferred to await the inauguration of the new president, Joseph “Erap” Estrada. As a senator, Erap had opposed the extended stay of the US military bases. But, strangely enough, he proceeded to approve the VFA and endorsed it to the Senate, where it was ratified by an overwhelming vote of 18-5. The Supreme Court subsequently upheld its constitutionality.

From my reading, the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement recently signed by Philippine and US officials goes way beyond the modest parameters of the VFA, which only meant to provide legal cover for the US troops participating in joint military exercises. Over the years, however, US military presence in the Philippines has expanded in scope, and become more permanent than rotational.  The Edca legalizes this reality. Our fear of China has trumped the resolve we expressed in the 1987 Constitution. Indeed, the Americans have no need to build any bases; we have offered to accommodate them in our own camps.

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