Many Filipinos are acutely aware of the connections between the US-led assault on Iraq and issues much closer to home. Aside from the massive troop build-up in the Middle East, the Philippines has seen the second biggest US military deployment since Afghanistan, and the largest concentration of US forces there since the withdrawal of US military bases in 1992.
In February, another 1700 US troops arrived. This follows last year’s Operation Balikatan (“shoulder to shoulder”), which saw 1300 US soldiers “training and advising” the Philippine armed forces in counter-terrorism, focusing on Basilan, the island where the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang had a stronghold. The Philippines had already been declared the “second front.” Bush’s recent “wartime supplemental appropriations request” to Congress specifies the Philippines as one of the areas for additional funding for the “broader war on terror.”
As I write, a color photo on the front page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer tells the story. Gun in hand, a young US marine guards the perimeter of the Southern Command Headquarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao. There, in the Southern Philippines, US forces are currently training Filipino commandos in “counterterrorism” in the so-called Balikatan 03-1. At a March anti-war rally in Manila’s Rizal Park, I heard speakers from across the political spectrum, Christians and Muslims, oppose the war in Iraq, and, in the same breath, call for peace in wartorn Mindanao and an end to US military involvement in the Philippines.
It’s not surprising that so many Filipinos were making the connections. For many, especially in the south, war isn’t something mediated by a TV screen, it’s a lived, “hell on earth” reality.
As the Philippine government wages war against Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been fighting for the self-determination of Muslim Moro people since 1978, internal displacement of families continues in Mindanao and the nearby islands of Basilan and Sulu (Jolo). Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced by war in Mindanao. Others have fled to neighboring Sabah in Malaysia.
The Armed Forces have razed villages to the ground, destroyed crops and killed livestock in a campaign of terror that has left a trail of human rights violations, death, and destruction. That’s what wars tend to do. Although many people were resettled by the start of last year, 90,000 more were displaced in 2002 while joint military operations were conducted.
An estimated one and a half million Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East face an uncertain future. Over 46,000 Filipino workers, many from Muslim communities, were displaced during the Gulf War. Labor unions and migrant workers’ organizations have struggled for over a decade to obtain compensation for many of these overseas contract workers. With the government’s official labor export policy, high unemployment, and growing poverty, an estimated 2000 Filipinos leave the country daily to work elsewhere. Remittances from Filipinos working overseas are the country’s largest single source of foreign exchange. With so many in the Middle East, and the effects of the last Gulf War painfully fresh for workers and their families, these are particularly worrying times.
The destination of the latest batch of US forces could not have been more sensitive: the island called Sulu. The Moro people there were the staunchest enemies of Spanish colonialism and US imperialism. Less than 100 years ago, during the US colonial occupation, US soldiers committed horrific atrocities. Two of the worst massacres happened at Bud Dajo (March, 1906) and Bud Bagsak (June, 1913), both on Sulu and both under General John “Black Jack” Pershing. An estimated 2000 Moros, including many women and children, were slaughtered in the crater of Bud Bagsak. These shameful crimes have never been forgotten on the island. Thus, the planned deployment of US troops was met with anger, and even talk of revenge against US soldiers.
US military and economic aid to the Philippines has increased sharply since 9/11, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo continues to dance to the Bush administration’s tune. Elmer Labog, head of a militant trade union center, recently described Macapagal-Arroyo as “no more than a remote-controlled dummy of the Bush administration”. Her statements justifying the US-led attacks on Iraq while attempting to link Iraq, Al-Qaeda and her domestic foes lack credibility. Although fueling considerable domestic anti-Muslim prejudice, they have been met with scorn and skepticism.
In February, the Arroyo government expelled the Iraqi Embassy’s Second Secretary Husham Hussein, claiming he had links to Abu Sayyaf. A month later, two more Iraqi diplomats, first secretary Abdul Karim Shwaikh and attache Karim Nassir Hamid, were thrown out for “spying.” After Hussein’s expulsion, Simon Elegant, asked in a Time Magazine (Asia) article: “As skeptics suggest, is the Philippine intelligence community performing a shadow dance of Colin Powell’s efforts in the UN to convince the world that Iraq and al-Qaeda are working together?”
During the same period, a series of power pylon bombings caused blackouts over most of Mindanao. The government was quick to blame the MILF. But no one I asked in Manila believed it; instead, they were concerned about the lengths to which the government might go to justify its own, and potential US, military operations. For its part, the MILF denied responsibility for those bombings, as well as the March 4 bombing at Davao airport, saying that it does not target civilians and civilian installations. The latter made it into US media because an American was killed.
While Philippine government officials held exploratory talks with an MILF peace panel in Kuala Lumpur in late March, their defense officials met with US Pacific Command and Embassy staff to discuss further joint military operations. Just when it seemed as if the Sulu deployment had been cancelled, it was announced that a modified version of the joint exercise would begin there in May or June.
Speaking at the Philippine Military Academy on March 20, President Macapagal-Arroyo justified joining the so-called “coalition of the willing” against Iraq with the claim that Iraq’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction” might end up in the hands of Abu Sayyaf or the MILF. “Somebody is saving us from our own terrorists in the Philippines getting these weapons,” she said. The statement is ironic given the close links between Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine military, which helped create the group to split and discredit the MILF.
National police chief Hermogenes Ebdane adds the ludicrous claim that the Iraqi embassy is funding anti-war protests in Manila that have targeted the US embassy.
The fierce controversy over the arrival and role of the latest US military deployment has led both US and Philippine politicians to downplay or deny reports that the troops could engage in combat operations. The 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and Mutual Logistics Supply Agreement, signed last November, re-established much of what the US lost a decade earlier when popular pressure forced the Aquino government to oust the US military presence.
The 1987 Constitution clearly forbids foreign forces from engaging in combat on Philippine soil. In contrast, Washington has insisted that US forces would actively participate in combat, although the exact role would be, in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s cagey words, “consistent with their Constitution and their circumstance.”
Serious problems surround how US and Philippine authorities characterize US participation. Pentagon officials speak of combat operations to “disrupt and destroy” Abu Sayyaf. Manila calls it an exercise to train, advise and assist Philippine forces. Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes reduces the issue to a matter of semantics, “groping for the exact term” to define the US involvement.
Teddy Casino, secretary general for Bayan, a leftwing alliance of people’s organizations, says that Manila and Washington are trying to find the “correct formulation to avoid being questioned in court” about troop deployment.
Not only leftists oppose the US-backed military operations. Last year, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona resigned from his Foreign Secretary post over the US forces deployment in Basilan. Afterward, he continued to predict that the US presence will lead to more conflict in Mindanao. Numerous politicians have protested the arrangement as an affront to Philippine sovereignty.
Mindanao senator Aquilino Pimentel warns that allowing foreigners to fight “our war against rebels and criminals” could get both the Philippines and the rescuing nation “embroiled in a messy war such as the one in Colombia.” Commenting on the latest US contingent, he told the Bangkok Post in March, “They want military presence in our country without the bases. And one way of doing that is to run after the terrorists because the search for terrorists is a never-ending quest. Nobody is a terrorist until he commits an act of terrorism. So that is an endless pursuit.”
Randy David, a newspaper columnist and University of the Philippines sociologist, foresees the country being turned into a US training camp. “We are offering our Iraq-bound friends controlled battlefields with live targets and real-life situations.”
Seeking a Foothold
And of course, there’s the oil. The Philippines is rich in natural gas, oil, and geothermal supplies. Mindanao has long been exploited for its natural resources by local and overseas elites. Creating a stable environment for foreign investment, at any social or environmental cost, has been the aim of successive Philippine governments. The aspirations of Moro people for self-determination directly challenge this agenda.
The Philippines is estimated to have 3.7 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. The Malampaya offshore field, the largest natural gas development in Philippine history, was discovered off Palawan by Shell Philippines Exploration. Many other oil and gas corporations have investments in the country. The largest deposits of oil and gas in Asia could lie in the region.
Another US objective appears to be containment of China as a potential regional rival. Thus, Washington has urged the Philippines to host Team Challenge, umbrella exercises involving the US Pacific Command and forces from the Philippines, Australia, Singapore, and Thailand. Last year, an anonymous Philippine government official claimed that the US was pushing the exercises to counter the threat allegedly posed by China. Team Challenge involves invasion scenarios, with China as aggressor, and responses to a strong Chinese move in the disputed Spratly Islands (which the Philippines also claims).
The Pentagon sees the exercises as a strategic opportunity to reinforce a critical alliance. The Philippines provides the US with a foothold in Southeast Asia, a launch point for operations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and wherever else it has markets, investments or other geopolitical interests to protect – and can use the “war on terror” to do so. With sabers being rattled at North Korea, let’s not forget the role of the Philippines as a forward base for the US during the Korean War, not to mention 1991 Gulf operations. The Philippines lies next to one of the world’s busiest and most strategic trade routes – the Strait of Malacca.
When “groping for the exact term” to define US military involvement, Defense Secretary Reyes overlooked “recolonization” and “strengthening US geopolitical hegemony in South East Asia.” But both are apt. Filipinos have struggled repeatedly to eject the US military. This time, they are resisting a new wave of colonial occupation, one with regional, if not global, consequences.