Malacanang should move to cancel all upcoming joint military exercises and ongoing US military operations while the review of the Visiting Forces Agreement is ongoing.
If Malacanang is saying that there are questionable or problematic provisions in the agreement, why allow US troops unhampered entry into the country?
Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa has been quoted as saying the Palace review of the VFA will focus on the provisions on custody of erring US troops. This was spurred by the Philippine’s experience with the case of US Marine Daniel Smith who was accused of rape, convicted by a regional trial court, detained in a Philippine facility then transferred to the US embassy.
The Supreme Court ruled that such transfer was not in accordance with the VFA. However, before the matter could be fully resolved, before the Philippine government complied with the court ruling, Smith was acquitted by the Court of Appeals. The Philippine government under Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did not show any signs that it would comply with the SC order to begin with. When Smith was acquitted, the Philippine government asked the court to declare the issue of custody moot.
On a side note, the person who maneuvered to have Smith transferred to the US embassy, Alberto Romulo, was reappointed as DFA Secretary under Aquino.
Mr. Ochoa has said that the VFA provisions on custody are problematic. He worried that should a similar incident such as the Subic rape case happen, there would again be legal controversies.
This is why we believe that while the review is ongoing, ALL joint exercises and ALL US military operations in the country should be cancelled. What is the sense of allowing US military operations to continue when we know that when violations happen, the Philippines will again be at the losing end? How do we prevent a repeat of the humiliating experience we suffered in the Smith case?
Should there be another violation of Philippine law how will the Aquino government react? How do we ensure our national interests are upheld given the problematic VFA provisions on custody?
We can’t. The VFA was designed such that US troops will always be given special treatment. This alone is reason enough for the government to suspend all US military operations in the Philippines. This should include the operations of the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines based in Zamboanga and other areas in Mindanao. These overstaying troops have a streak of violations, gross misconduct and disrespect for Philippine laws.
The US recently held the annual Cooperation and Afloat Readiness Training exercises involving US warships like the USS Essex and USS Halsey. This activity was part of the “US power-projection” meant to strengthen US control and influence in the region.
But what happens after the VFA provisions on custody are resolved? Will that make the VFA more palatable?
We believe that the VFA is beyond redemption. It is not just the provision on custody of erring US troops which is problematic. The agreement itself is full of vague provisions that allow an unlimited number of US troops to enter the Philippines, stay here for an indefinite period of time, and engage in unspecified activities. The VFA is a legal framework for the unhampered and unregulated stationing of foreign troops on Philippine territory, sans any actual basing treaty.
It is untrue that the VFA can be mutually beneficial to the US and the Philippines and that a mere review can make it so. Those who are saying that the VFA can be mutually beneficial are living in a dream. The VFA was designed as a one-sided agreement that benefits mainly the US. The past 11 years have shown that the agreement is patently one-sided. We are being treated to American military junk in exchange for the unlimited use of Philippine territory for US basing operations.
I got to talk to a former member of the AFP (Air Force) who experienced training under the VFA. While this officer learned some “skills” during the Balikatan exercises (night flying), the “skills” could not be used because the equipment needed were with the US. The Philippines did not have equipment for night-flying. And those other officers who learned new skills will soon apply for jobs at commercial airlines! He said that there is no way the AFP will modernize under such as system. The training exercises were “just for show”, he said.
The stark reality is that no amount of fine-tuning can save this one-sided military pact.
The VFA was not even ratified by the US Senate, in direct contradiction with the requirements of the Philippine constitution. US policymakers “recognize” the VFA as a treaty even if the official actions of the US Senate show otherwise. This was argued extensively by the lawyers of various anti-VFA groups and personalities but unfortunately, the SC did not see it that way. The SC averred that the VFA was merely an implementation of an existing treaty, the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 which was approved more than half a century ago. Sen. Miriam Santiago asked how the MDT could contemplate something such as the VFA which was entered into more than 40 years after the MDT was signed! The two agreements are decades apart.
Presidential Commission on the VFA should also examine the legal basis for the continuous, uninterrupted and permanent presence of US troops in Mindanao since 2002. The US troops under the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines are indefinitely stationed in Mindanao following a unilateral announcement by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates last August 2009. Former Navy Lt.SG Nancy Gadian testified that before the Philippine Senate that US forces have built permanent structures and have remained stationed in Mindanao since 2002. This no longer falls under the definition of “visiting”.
While we have no illusions on the outcome, it would still be good to engage the VFA review being conducted by Malacanang. It’s important that the public be made aware of the serious flaws of the VFA. The illusion of mutuality and reciprocity under the VFA should once and for all be demolished. The review is an opportunity to revive discussions on national sovereignty and an independent foreign policy.
Right now, the biggest stumbling block to an honest and objective VFA review is the Aquino government’s subservience to US impositions and interests. So long as the Aquino government remains dependent on US investments, loans and grants, and on American military junk, it is not likely that it will move to terminate the VFA on its own. Such is the effect of having a mendicant foreign policy.
During the review period, the people’s actions will play a crucial role. As in the rejection of the US bases treaty in 1991, the people’s protest will be the decisive factor in pushing the Philippine government to terminate the VFA.