Saturday, May 30, 2009

Philippines: 10 Years On, VFA Treaty only Serves US Interests

The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States has made all this possible:

" ... Apart from the "Nicole" rape case, other atrocities by US troops have taken place in areas where the Balikatan military exercises have been held, among them the shooting of farmer Buyong-Buyong Isnijal in Basilan in 2002. Early this month, another woman, "Vanessa," came out to accuse another US serviceman, purportedly assigned with the Joint Military Action Group (Jusmag) and Balikatan, of rape. ... "


Has the VFA served its avowed purpose? Or has it only reinforced the unequal alliance between the Philippines and the United States, a relationship so tilted in the Americans' favor that to call the VFA a treaty - with all the word's connotation of equal rights, benefits and privileges - would be a travesty?

MANILA - On May 27, 1999, the Philippine Senate passed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States. Then president Joseph Estrada soon after signed the agreement.

The VFA grants extraterritorial and extrajudicial "rights" to US servicemen visiting the Philippines. It made possible the Balikatan military exercises, which have been held annually since 2002.

In the VFA's preamble, it is stated that both parties reaffirm "their obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty of (Aug.) 30, 1951" and that each side should assert their independence as they see fit. In other words, the VFA, on paper, preaches parity and mutual respect.

In practice, however, the picture is entirely different so that, a decade after it took effect, some questions emerge: Has the VFA served its avowed purpose? Has it served the interests of Filipinos? Or has it only reinforced the unequal alliance between the two countries, a relationship so tilted in the Americans' favor that to call the VFA a treaty - with all the word's connotation of equal rights, benefits and privileges - would be a travesty?

Even as it was still being deliberated upon in the Senate, the VFA had its own share of critics. And the past 10 years have served only to vindicate those who opposed the agreement, said Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance) chairperson Dr. Carol Pagaduan-Araullo. Muallam/

"On one hand, it appears that everyone who raised objections, criticisms, projections of what could happen against the interest of ordinary Filipinos and national sovereignty were vindicated," Araullo said in an interview with Bulatlat. But this vindication, she quickly pointed out, "does not make us happy."

Because the VFA, Araullo said, "has meant farmers whose livelihood was destroyed, fishermen whose boats were hit by bombs, women who were raped - dishonor for the Philippines."

The Philippines, she added, is supposed to be an independent and sovereign country and yet it "cannot even assert the authority of the court over convicted felons like Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, cannot assert a breakthrough within our criminal justice system for rape."

Smith, a US Marine, had been convicted by a local court for the rape of "Nicole" in Subic, Zambales, in 2005 but the Court of Appeals overturned the conviction early this year. Apart from the "Nicole" rape case, other atrocities by US troops have taken place in areas where the Balikatan military exercises have been held, among them the shooting of farmer Buyong-Buyong Isnijal in Basilan in 2002. Early this month, another woman, "Vanessa," came out to accuse another US serviceman, purportedly assigned with the Joint Military Action Group (Jusmag) and Balikatan, of rape.

Utter Subservience

"The Arroyo regime has shown its utter subservience to US interests when it caused the acquittal of a previously convicted US soldier," said Bayan secretary-general Renato M. Reyes Jr. in a statement on Wednesday. "Arroyo is now hoping to reap the rewards of her subservience when she meets with US Defense secretary Robert Gates on May 31. She's banking on increased military aid for her repressive regime." om)

Reyes cited the case of the Joint Special Task Force Philippines based in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City. This task force "hosts a rotating batch of US troops of around 200-300 soldiers who are ever present in the province."

He also pointed out that the recent AH1N1 flu crisis highlighted one of the basic defects of the VFA: American soldiers can be exempted from health inspections by Philippine health authorities when they enter the country. "Under the VFA, it is the US commander who issues a health status for the US soldiers," effectively undermining local health policies, Reyes said.

Roland Simbulan, a professor of development studies at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila and an expert on US-Philippine relations, believes that the last 10 years of the VFA have been used for purposes other than what the agreement was designed for.

"The purpose of the Visiting Forces Agreement was to provide joint military training for both US and Philippine Army personnel," he told Bulatlat in a separate interview. "But I think that the way it has been used in the Philippines, the VFA has actually been merely used as a camouflage to do certain activities (that are) not within the boundaries of the Visiting Forces Agreement - (for) example, the direct involvement of US military personnel in counter-insurgency through intelligence, covert operations, as well as other activities that are in direct assistance to (operations related to) the internal conflict in the Philippines, or it has also been used especially for hiding other activities related to our relations with other countries, like for example the use of our territory as a springboard for military operations against other countries." Muallam/

These activities, Simbulan said, "are not within the bounds of the Visiting Forces Agreement. But for the past 10 years, that is how this agreement has, in fact, been used - to try to legalize, at the same time cover, covert activities by US forces in support of the so-called US 'war on terror'."

Simbulan pointed out that "the first units of the US Special Operations Forces that were deployed here were referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, while in Afghanistan, after 9-11, the US forces deployed there, the Special Operations Forces, were called Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan. So there's a similarity, and we know what these forces were for, and they used the legal cover of the Visiting Forces Agreement to hide, if not camouflage, these activities which are related to US military intervention here in the Philippines as well as against other countries."

US Geopolitical Interests

According to Araullo of Bayan, US military presence in the Philippines is not in the interest of the Filipino people. But the Americans are here for their interests in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, she said.

Simbulan agreed, saying the VFA has instead served to further US geopolitical interests in Asia and the Pacific.

"After the pullout of US military bases in 1992, after the Senate rejected the proposed bases treaty, the United States wanted a restoration of their presence here, their military presence, because by virtue of our strategic location - the Philippines is at the gateway between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean - our location gives the United States a presence that is used as a springboard for their operations in other countries, as well as a monitoring station, especially against the people of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are Muslim countries. The US is afraid to deploy US forces there because of what they consider to be the hostile population, which are two of the largest Islamic countries in the world. So they prefer to deploy their forces here while monitoring the activities there," said Simbulan. the author of "The Bases of Our Insecurity," a book published in 1983 that is considered the most authoritative on the issue of US military presence in the Philippines.

"But, by and large, the most important value for them of the Philippines is its strategic location: we are at a critical area where north of the Philippines and south of the Philippines you have the critical flow of sea lanes for US (and) Japanese vessels - both military and commercial - coming from the Middle East, bringing in oil supplies and other raw materials all the way from Africa to the Pacific Ocean. Of course, anyone who controls this area, this gateway where the Philippines is located, will control the flow of trade in this area. And next to that, of course, is the location of the Philippines facing China, because in the medium-term and long-term basis, the United States still looks at China as a potential rival within the next 15 years, (if) its military prowess (catches) up with the economic power that it has right now.

"So these are some things that they have factored in in their strategy, so they would want a restoration of strong military presence in the Philippines after the pullout of the US bases in 1992."

"Benefits" from VFA

What, then, has the Philippines gained from the VFA?

In a fact sheet released last February, titled "VFA Helps Build a Strong Republic", the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) stated that in the 2008 Balikatan alone, 17,209 people received treatment through the medical civic action program (Medcap), while 10 school buildings were either rebuilt or repainted through the engineering civic action program (Encap).

"The humanitarian missions are held in conjunction with the military exercises," Araullo said. "But if you look at it in a deeper way, do we have to surrender sovereignty so that roads may be built? There should be no such trade-off."

The DFA also states in the fact sheet that the "VFA is essential to RP-US cooperation in the Philippine Defense Reform Program." It goes on to enumerate the Excess Defense Articles that the Philippines has so far received from the US:

The United States has already provided the AFP with eight helicopters in 2000; 20 of the 30 committed UH-1H (Huey helicopters) in 2007; one cyclone; six fast anti-terrorism boats; 433 M-35 trucks; 30,000 M-16 rifles; one C130; two Point Class navy cutters; night vision goggles; navigation equipment; and protection equipment such as vests and helmets.

In addition to being the Philippines' largest source of foreign military financing, valued at an average of $30 million annually in grants, the United States has also committed to share in the expenses for the implementation of the Joint Defense Assessment (JDA), costing approximately $400 million over a ten-year period. The US National Defense Authorization Act also allocated $12 million and $16 million to the Coast Watch South Project in 2007 and 2008, respectively, to strengthen security at our borders.

"The Armed Forces of the Philippines believes that by accommodating US forces here, they will be getting surplus equipment from the United States, especially the surplus equipment that the US Army already considers scrap," Simbulan said. "Instead of throwing it to the junk yard, they 'donate' it, as they had done with the scrap that they had during the Vietnam War. Many of the obsolete helicopters that they used in Vietnam were turned over to the (Philippine) Army."

Excess Defense Articles are defined and described under the US Foreign Assistance Act thus:

...the quantity of defense articles (other than construction equipment, including tractors, scrapers, loaders, graders, bulldozers, dump trucks, generators, and compressors) owned by the United States Government, and not procured in anticipation of military assistance or sales requirements, or pursuant to a military assistance or sales order, which is in excess of the Approved Force Acquisition Objective and Approved Force Retention Stock of all Department of Defense Components at the time such articles are dropped from inventory by the supplying agency for delivery to countries or international organizations under this Act.

The Military Departments determine what is or is not excess, and after surveying requirements by potential recipient countries, recommend an allocation of excess assets to the EDA Coordinating Committee... Equipment which has been transferred from the Military Departments to the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), is also available for transfer through the EDA program if an eligible foreign government makes known its requirements for the equipment.

EDA is offered either at reduced or no cost to eligible foreign recipients on an "as is, where is" basis. The foreign recipients, in most cases, are responsible for the costs of packing, handling, and transportation, as well as any restorative work and follow on support. Foreign recipients may purchase such services from the Department of Defense through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.

Junking the VFA

Araullo and Simbulan agree that, at this point, there is more than sufficient reason to junk the VFA.

"We have more to lose" by keeping the VFA, Simbulan said. "It is only the United States that benefits from the VFA."

Ten years after the VFA was ratified, Bayan's Reyes said, "the Philippines is no better nor safer. What has happened is that our sovereignty has been constantly undermined by the permanent presence of foreign troops. What happened were cases of rape, human rights abuses and even corruption."

Araullo said that the campaign against the VFA should broaden so that it may be junked. It should broaden "in terms of the population reach and in terms of the number of people who are able to (come) out, to lobbies, to the street, to protests, to join us in the court cases - that is what has to be done," she said. (

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