CITIZENS’ PEACE WATCH
7 October 2008
ON US MILITARY BASING IN MINDANAO
An Appeal for Truth and Vigilance in the midst of Deceit
The Citizens’ Peace Watch is gratified that we are contributing in a small way towards attaining the truth about US military basing in the country. Our fact-finding mission report[i] has apparently served as the basis of the Legislative Oversight Committee on the Visiting Forces Agreement’s (LOVFA) recent trip to Zamboanga City ostensibly to verify our allegations that, among others, the US has built a military base in the said city.[ii]
We, however, raise issues with the manner by which the 6-hour-long “inspection” was conducted. First, it was conducted by and only with parties whose backgrounds cast immediate questions on their conclusions: they are known proponents of the VFA, are on record as having defended or supported US military presence in the country, or whose personal or institutional interests lie in perpetuating said presence. This is like getting friends of a crime suspect to investigate the crime.
Second, it was hosted by the very parties that were supposed to be subjected to the investigation: the US and Philippine military and defense officials who may be the very people responsible for the violations being investigated by the committee. Like giving a crime suspect the power to dictate what the police can and cannot examine in a crime scene, the inspection gave the organizers the opportunity to stage-manage the inspection, allowing the so-called investigators to see only what those being investigated would have wanted to see.
Third, it appears that the LOVFA did not interview a single person whose testimonies and opinions diverged from those of the ones being investigated. They could, for instance, have sought out the airport official who claims that the US has been expanding the structures it has been using inside the airport, or the Commission on Human Rights officials that investigated the involvement of US troops in the February 2008 incident in which 8 civilians were killed, or rank-and-file Filipino soldiers who have said that they are barred from entering the JSOTF-P compound, therefore belying the claim that the JSOTF-P camp is under Philippine control. This is like the police not interviewing any witnesses whose testimonies could pin the suspect.
Fourth, that only a limited number of reporters were allowed to cover limited moments of the event raise further concerns on the openness and transparency of the process.
Given all these, it is no surprise that the LOVFA members overlooked what they were supposed to oversee.
It is not that they did not catch sight of US military bases. In fact they were pictured as walking out of the US military’s Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) base inside Camp Navarro – the very US military base which we saw with our own eyes last February but from which we were denied entry despite formally seeking permission from the authorities (See picture).
The members of the LOVFA just refused to call what they saw as a “US military base.” Senator Rodolfo Biazon, co-chairman of the LOVFA, has gone on record to admit that “what the LOVFA members found were US military facilities built within the existing rules and regulations of the VFA.” In other words, for Biazon, a “US military facility” is not a “US military base.”
According to the US Department of Defense’s own Dictionary of Military Terms, a “base” is defined as “1. A locality from which operations are projected or supported. 2. An area or locality containing installations which provide logistic or other support.”[iii]
The JSOFT-P headquarters in Camp Navarro is the locality from which the JSOTF-P’s operations are projected or supported, as US troops themselves have acknowledged. They even refer to their bases in Mindanao as “Advance Operating Base” or “Forward Operating Base.”[iv] The US embassy itself has admitted that the US has been building structures in Zamboanga City for “medical, logistical, and administrative services” “for them [US troops] to eat, sleep, and work.”[v] The Visiting Forces Commission itself has acknowledged that the US maintains “living quarters” and stocks supplies inside their camps.[vi] Zamboanga City’s airport and piers have been used to regularly transport troops in and out of their area of operations and therefore serve military purposes even if they are nominally Philippine owned and civilian infrastructure. From the outside, the JSOTF-P’s satellite dishes and other communication devices are visible and it can be safely assumed that these devices serve to support operations. What else is inside the compound cannot be ascertained precisely because of the deliberate secrecy enforced by the US and Philippine governments.
Regardless of what are there, however, they are there for a purpose: to support US military operations. Biazon’s claim that the base is “administrative in nature and not combat in nature” is contrary to how US and Filipino troops themselves describe the activities the US military is conducting in Mindanao. US troops are not just slumped on their desks filing logbooks, making coffee, or waiting for five o’clock. US troops are first to declare that they are out there on the battleground – to conduct “humanitarian” operations “to win hearts and minds”, yes, but also to gather intelligence, and to join Filipino troops in their operations, in the thick of the battle.[vii] They are at war.
In other words, under the US military’s own definition – and, in fact, under a common-sense layman definition – the “US military facilities” that the LOVFA members admit to have found constitute a “US military base.” To insist that it is not is to create distinctions that do not exist – not even in the minds of those who use the bases. It is also to deliberately ignore how US military bases have evolved through the years: from large fortress-like city-size bases to smaller, more austere facilities that accomplish the functions of a “base.”[viii] Whether or not they fly the American flag, whether they are as big as Subic or Clark, or whether they are inside Philippine camps – these are not the defining characteristics of a military base. What defines a base is the fact that it is used by the military for military operations – a definition that covers the US’ structures in Mindanao.
It is thus regrettable that the LOVFA has refused to see what they have found.
In light of this, we with the Citizens Peace Watch reiterate our call for a truly independent investigation into the issue – an issue of grave constitutional import and an issue that affects the prospects of peace in the country and beyond.
We call for the formation of an independent commission composed of people of unquestioned integrity and impartiality – none of whom should have voted on the VFA or similar agreement before and none of whom should have past or present ties with the military and the administration – and with real powers and resources to inspect the military bases, to compel officials to appear, to summon witnesses and to provide protection to them, to conduct their investigation without interference from US and Philippine militaries and the executive branch. Their findings could serve as the basis or guide for further legislative and judicial actions on the matter.
Pending these actions, we reiterate our call for the suspension of the deployments of US military troops to the country. No investigation can be fair and thorough as long as the subjects of the investigation are in a position to change the facts on the ground and to determine what can and cannot be investigated.
The Citizens Peace Watch believes that the truth about US military basing in the country can be visible to all but those who refuse to see. n
About the Citizens’ Peace Watch
The Citizens’ Peace Watch is an independent initiative of concerned citizens brought together by various non-government organizations and other civil society groups to continuously and consistently monitor the peace and security situation in the country in order to contribute to well-informed public debates and policy discussions.
Atty Corazon Fabros: 09178871153, firstname.lastname@example.org
Atty Virginia Suarez Pinlac: 09228361402
[i] Citizens Peace Watch Final Report of Fact-Finding Mission to Zamboanga City and Sulu, February 2008, http://www.focusweb.org/philippines/docs/CPWReport.pdf
[ii] “No Secret US Military Bases Found in Mindanao,” abs-cbnNews.com, October 3, 2008
[iii] United States Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/data/b/00636.html
[iv] Maj. Kevin T. Henderson, US Army, “Army Special Operations Forces and Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) Integration: Something a Joint Task Force Commander should Consider,” monograph, United States Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, 19 May 2004; another writer talks about a “Forward Operating Base 11” in the southern Philippines (Cherilyn Walley, “Impact of the semi-permissive environment on force protection in Philippine engagements,” Special Warfare, September 2004); T.D. Flack, “When Visiting Jolo, Show a Little Courtesy, Please,” Stars and Stripes, March 12, 2007
[v] “US denies building bases in Mindanao,” GMANews.TV, August 27, 2007
[vi] Veronica Uy, “VFACom Chief Denies US bases in Mindanao,” Inquirer.net, August 24, 2007.
[vii] For more on the actual activities of US troops in Mindanao, see Focus on the Global South, Unconventional Warfare: Are US troops engaged in an ‘offensive’ war in the Philippines?, http://focusweb.org/downloads/download/reports/unconventional-warfare:-are-us-special-forces-engaged-in-an-%E2%80%98offensive-war%E2%80%99-in-the-philippines?.html
[viii] For more on these changes to US basing strategy, see Focus on the Global South, ‘At the Door of all the East’: The Philippines in US Military Strategy, November 2007, www.focusweb.org/at-the-door-of-all-the-east.pdf
[i] United States Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/data/b/00636.html
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on Oct 8th 2008