Feb 222013


Art Center in Ujijeonbu, Republic of Korea

September 13, 2002

“The Philippine SOFA and the State of the Philippine-US security relations”

Concepcion C. Asis

Secretariat, Gathering for Peace, Philippines



Two days ago, the world remembered with horror the attack on the World Center and the Pentagon. To this day, there are several interpretations why this took place. There are those that say it was a “wake-up call” to the US and aptly called it “911.” But for us in the Philippines the effects reverberated in real terms. It gave the US President George Bush and President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo a strong reason to open up the Philippines to the possibility of restoring the presence of the US military bases and thus (again) surrender our sovereignty. It was also an opportunity for the US to continue its imposition to the Philippines and  use its for its own ends, thus making the Philippines e “second front” against global terrorism, next only to Afghanistan.

The Philippines continues to be of strategic military importance to the US

UP Prof Roland Simbulan, author of several books and publications on US-RP relations   summarizes the US Strategic Posture in the Asia Pacific:

            “The US sees the Philippines as a good location to restore its military forces in Southeast Asia in the light of threats from Islamic fundamentalists groups especially from Indonesia and Malaysia where the US finds it dangerous to deploy US forces. The Philippines is also a gateway to the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf and would be therefore ideal for forward-deployed US forces in the Western Pacific.”

According to the 1997 Report of the Quadrennial defense Review by the US Department of Defense, US national defense and security policy implemented by 100,000 US troops deployed in the region, is intertwined with economic globalization such as “the protection of the sea lanes of trade”, and “ensuring unhampered access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” Pentagon literature now treats the operational jurisdiction of the US Pacific Command as “highways of trade, which are vital to US national security.”

A recent STRATFOR Report, prepared by former CIA and State Department analysts, talk about US plans to re-establish “forward bases” in the Philippines as part of an American strategy against international terrorism.”

Party List Bayan Muna Congressman, Crispin Beltran further explains this report, he states:

“ In the May 2002 report of the RAND Corporation, the think tank of the US Air force, it is advised that the US must once again gain access to the Philippines as staging ground to contain China and Russia fro East Asia. The report advocated a “robust security assistance program to allies in the region, particularly the Philippines” which RAND senior policy analyst Angel Rabasa

called  “a frontline state in the war on terrorism.”

Thus, it can be said that since the 1900s, the Philippines continues to be of strategic importance to the US politically, militarily and economically. The Philippines provides the “fulcrum” of activities in this part of the world and it is in this context that the US relations with the Philippines will continue.  It is a fact that during the war against Korea and Vietnam, the US Bases in the Philippines was used as a launching pad and forward deployment. The US naval ships made port calls and fuelled, re-supplied and carried nuclear weapons. The US air force used the virgin mountains of central Luzon to train attack pilots and Clark Airfield became the hub of US communications and airplanes.

The US foreign policy towards Asia became the foreign policy of the Philippines; we were stooges, lap dogs waiting for the masters to give us orders. Thus the nationalists, the activists worked hard to put an end to this subjugation. The threat of the US to attack Iraq has been looming for days, the Filipino people wonder how this will affect us, the choice is not ours, the war is not ours, yet we are a magnet of attack if the US Bases are restored.

Reclaiming our Sovereignty – the rejection of the RP-US Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security

The Philippines has been a colony of the US since the 1900 when it was seceded to the US by Spain and after waging a war that conquered our shores. In 1946, after the Second World War, the US granted our “independence” but not after ensuring that it had established several colonizing mechanisms through agreements, treaties aimed at manipulating and controlling our political and economic lives.

In 1947, the US and the Philippines signed both the Military Bases Agreement and the Military Assistance Agreement. The bases agreement was terminated in 1991, while the assistance agreement  was amended in 1953 and later known as the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement. In 1951, the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) was signed The MDT serves as the overarching framework and the “mother” treaty of the present day US and Philippine relations in line with “common security interests.”

All these agreements made the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) totally dependent on the US for its external defense and security. This has left the AFT untrained, unskilled and ill-equipped. We, however, have trust and confidence that the Filipino soldier is not less any other soldier in the world.

Article IV of the MDT states:

“ Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes…”

Article V of the MDT states:

“For purposes of Article IV, an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either Parties, or on the island territories under the jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

What this means is that any armed attack on the US in the Pacific is to be construed as an armed attack to the Philippines. Thus the agreement commits the Philippines to retaliate regardless if the attack was directed to it or not.

The MDT was the foundation for the Military Bases Agreement, which allowed the setting up of permanent structures in four (4) areas in the country. Two of the four structures were closed down in the 1970s.  The former Naval Base at Subic in Zambales and the Air force Base in Clark, Pampanga have been converted into economic zones. These bases were closed on September 16, 1991, when the Philippine senate led by nationalist Senators Jovito Salonga and Wigberto E. Tanada, now lead convenor of the Gathering for Peace led 10 other Senators to reject the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security between the Philippines and the US.

That same year on Nov. 24, the last ship of the US Forces at Subic Naval Base sailed away. The US Flag was finally lowered- a symbolic triumph for the Filipinos for it epitomized the ending of 50 years of US military presence.

The Return of the Troops –the Visiting Forces Agreement

By 1992, General Fidel V. Ramos was elected president and among his commitments was to give the US access to Philippine soil. Thereafter, several ships visited Subic and other ports for “servicing and refueling.” President Ramos allowed under the MDT, the holding of joint military exercises between the US and the Philippines and at times including Singapore. But it was not until 1994, that the proposed Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) came to be proposed by the US when the Pentagon asked that the “limited” access be expanded to include US military rights to supply, refueling and repairs, storage, and certain services on the part of the Philippine military, and the use of the Philippine territory as a launching pad for possible intervention.

The activists once more launched strong protests to this request both in and out of Congress. The proposal appeared to have been set aside, but it was not. By 1997, it was learned that discussions were ongoing at the Mutual Defense Board on the legal treatment of the US troops in the Philippines. The agreement was to be known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It was noted that the US had several SOFA Agreements in several countries and that they took on the nature of an Executive Agreement instead of a treaty, thereby not requiring senate concurrence.

The proposed SOFA was objectionable and onerous. Among the significant provisions was the “duty-free entry of US military supplies and equipment, passport and visa exemptions for American military personnel, as well as toll-free entry of US Armed Forces vehicles, vessel and aircrafts.” In addition, it exempted the US soldiers from “criminal jurisdiction” while on their tour of duty. Again opposition to the agreement was mounted, and since it was approaching the presidential elections, the issues were put aside.

Once more we were mistaken, just before the elections on February 10, 1998, the Ramos and Clinton Administration, represented by Foreign Secretary Domingo Siazon and US Ambassador Hubbard signed the SOFA. Later it became the Visiting Forces Agreement or the infamous VFA.

The VFA’s ratification now became the responsibility of the newly elected President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.  He was one of the “magnificent 12” who opposed the renewal of the US Bases Agreement in 1991. His Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado and his Ambassador to the US, Ernesto Maceda were also part of the “magnificent 12.” They claimed that the VFA was needed as a “military deterrence” and that the urgency of the AFP modernization and military aid needs to be addressed. These were the same arguments the US supporters presented during the Bases debate seven years after its non-renewal.

The VFA contains most of the objectionable provisions of the ACSA and SOFA. It opens the whole country to visits of aircrafts, ships and vessels at the choice of the US. While in 1991 the US forces were limited to 4 major ports, now it has access to 22 ports. In addition the geographic reach has been expanded to include not just the island of Luzon but also the two other major islands of the country- Visayas and Mindanao.

It defines “US personnel” as “US military and civilian personnel temporarily in the Philippines in connection with activities approved by the Philippine Government.” The activities are not defined and the duration not specified.

The US personnel are exempted and extended privileges not even enjoyed by other ex-pat and nationals, and in fact even Filipinos. These included exemption from visas, passports, driving permits and licenses, registration of US owned vehicles, duties, tax exemptions on importation and exportation of all properties, equipment and materials

The VFA allows the US total jurisdiction over crimes committed by US personnel while in the Philippines. It compels the Philippines to “waive their primary right to exercise jurisdiction (over all offenses committed by US troops) upon request by the US except in cases of particular importance to the Philippines. The Philippines also agreed to waive claims on damages to the environment, destructions caused by the activities of the VFA. Furthermore, as in the US Bases Agreement it makes no reference to the issue of nuclear weapons, which are expressly banned under the provisions of the Philippine constitution.

Upon appeal from activists, human rights advocates and Senators, the VFA was brought before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then was an “Estrada Court” and it upheld the VFA not merely as an executive agreement but as a treaty. By this ingle act, the Senate and the Supreme Court of the Philippines effectively denied the Filipino all the benefits that the rejection of the US Bases Agreement had gained. The Senate ratified Senate Resolution 18 on May 27, 1999 and VFA took effect

on July 1, 1999.  The US troops were back.

The VFA re-opened the doors to the US troops, albeit “temporary” the ships made port calls, the planes fuelled, the soldiers visited, and regularly on and off joint military exercises were held.

Balikatan Exercises: direct intervention on our sovereignty

Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2002 attack on the US, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo immediately offered an “all-out aid to the United States” and joined the bandwagon of states in support of the global war against terrorism. By October, it was reported that 26 military advisers where in “dialogue” with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. So much secrecy was held with regard to the preparations for the joint exercises dubbed as Balikatan-02-1, that even the members of Congress were unaware of the terms and conditions of the Joint Military Exercises.

Balikatan 02-1 was held for 6 months from January 23, 2002 to July 31, 2002. It was the longest joint military exercise ever, and had the biggest deployment of US Forces outside of Afghanistan. The forces included about 660 military advisers, special forces and soldiers. Of these, 160 were sent to Basilan, in Mindanao were the Abu Sayaf, and the kidnap-for-ransom bandits of about 100 were based. The Abu Sayaf bandits were notorious for kidnapping. Their victims include Deborah Yap a Filipino nurse, and Martin and Gracia Burnham, of the New Tribes Mission, who were seized from the Dos Palmas Beach Resort in Palawan.  About 250 were based in nearby Zamboanga City; and the other 250 in Mactan Airbase in Cebu to facilitate the transport of supplies and materials and map out air strikes to Basilan.

The choice of Basilan and Zamboanga clearly points to the intentions of the US to send a message that it will enforce the policy of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists. It identified the Abu Sayaf’s rag-tag band as having links with the notorious Al Quaida, of Osama Bin Laden.

Balikatan 02-1 was accompanied by Operation “Gentle Wind” which mobilized US development agencies to undertake community services such as medical missions, rebuilding burned churches or mosques, school and farm–to-market roads. This combination of US-RP operations was also aimed at “winning the hearts and the minds” of the people affected.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the deployment was not  “modest in number,” but  “ different in size, scope and location.”  It includes Special Forces like Navy Seals and Army Green Berets. Another senior official stated that  “the US Forces could increase, depending on how the campaign progresses.”

The New York Times article on January 17, 2002, Rumsfeld stated “they will accompany Filipino soldiers on patrol. If they are fired upon, they will use their arms and defend themselves.” Notably, the VFA Supreme Court decisions specifically prohibit any foreign troops to engage in combat operations. On this alone, the Balikatan-02-1 had already violated our Constitution.

The “secrecy and lack of transparency” that surrounded the preparations for Balikatan –02-1 triggered the activist and the politicians led by Congresswomen Imee Marcos to deliver a privilege speech condemning these activities. It was only late January when the Department of National Defense released what was to be known as the Terms of Reference (TOR) covering the joint exercises. Only when the TOR was released did the   public get to know what Balikatan was all about. As a result, there were Congressional Hearings held. Former Senator Wigberto E. Tanada in his testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Relations stated:

“ ….I do not believe that RP-US Balikatan 02-1 consists of mere joint training exercises, it includes actual US involvement in combat operations to wipe out the country’s terrorists, for now represented by the Abu Sayaf. I thus question the wisdom of an executive policy which has not been transparent about the real mission and objective of these so called war games, its types of training, exercise, duration, area, forces, concepts of training and logistics. We cannot allow the US to dictate the terms of their presence and abuse our hospitality with their unrestricted movement. It would be the height of naiveté to think that the current war exercises will not be attended by massive dislocations and even deaths of civilians in areas where they will take place…The operations may re-open old wounds that will not only inflame Christian-Muslim strife but open up the Philippines into a new front war, or as an American Senator aptly put it “ the new Afghanistan.”

In August 2002, former Senator Teofisto Guingona, Vice President of the Philippines and concurrent Foreign Affairs Secretary was graciously asked to resign in view of policy differences on the TOR and the proposed MLSA. The Vice President was one of the “magnificent 12” who voted to reject the US Bases Agreement.

Concerned over the blatant violations to our constitution that Balikatan-02-1 was undertaking, Civil Society groups led by Akbayan and Gathering for Peace conducted a Fact-Finding Mission in Zamboanga and Basilan. Similarly, the House Committee on Human Rights led by Akbayan Party List Representative Etta Rosales held public hearings. The results lead us to believe that families, women and children were forcibly displaced and that communities were living under a shadow of fear.

The issue of the Abusayaf to us is a police matter. It does not partake of the “definition” of terrorism.  The Abusayaf are bandits, criminal and murderers .We are against any form of terrorism and we support the use of the full force of the law to wipeout this group.

It is alarming however to note the role of the war in the current AFP counter-insurgency campaigns. Prof. Simbulan reveals:

“In a TOP SECRET memorandum to former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada dated May 9, 2000, of the TASK FORCE BLACK CRESCENT which analyzed the TOP SECRET OPLAN MINDANAO/BLACK RAIN operations against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the TF Black Cresent headed by former Secretary of National Defense Fortunato Abat referred to the “ Conduct of military advance training exercises, in consonance with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA)(p.5);” the arming of the Alliance of Christian Vigilantes for Muslim Free Mindanao and the Spiritual Soldiers of God in Mindanao to whom, 20,763 units consisting of M14s and M16s had already secretly distributed.”(p.8)

This document clearly shows the wanton use of vigilantism against so-called terrorism in Mindanao, now, reinforced by the rewards systems for bounty hunters.

This development must be viewed against the perceived “crack-down” against activists in certain parts of the country. In fact Bayan Muna and Bayan report that since January, about 22 leaders and activists have been reported missing or found dead.

As the protests against the extension of the Balikatan heightened with the visit of US Secretary Powell in Manila, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo threatened to lift her “maximum” tolerance policy against mass actions. Recently the US State Department has listed the CPP/NPA/NDF as  “foreign terrorist organizations” and has caused the freezing of their assets. A few days ago, the Canadian Government has adopted the same policy.

A few days ago, in a speech, Secretary Roilo Golez stated that this development was without any intervention from the Philippines, however he admitted that it has caused some “increased tensions” in the peace process between the GRP and the CCP/NPA/NDF. The Peace process has been going on since 1989.

Towards the Re-establishment of the US Bases in the Philippines

To further concretize the US re-entry to the Philippines, the Pentagon is again proposing another agreement, the Mutual Logistics and Support Agreement (MLSA). Rep. Imee Marcos calls this a “ Trojan Horse,” for it comes with empty promises of military aid. As in the VFA, and the Balikatan, the MLSA is surrounded in secrecy. Today we still have to see the official draft agreement.

From what we have learned the MLSA contains the following:

–        Grants permanent basing services- support services such as billeting, medical services, operations support, storage, use of facilities, training manpower resources servicing.

–        Setting up of infrastructures, housing, storage, roads

–        Like the VFA offers not only 22 ports but also the entire country as facilities, land, sea and air space.

–        Expands the application of the MDT from mere attack on one party to times of peace, war and other possibilities

–        Compromises our diplomatic relations with countries the US seeks to attack such as Iran and Iraq

–        Provides for mechanisms for purchase, exchange of military material

–        Will be considered an Executive Agreement, and as the Supreme Court has already ruled, will have the effect and force of a Treaty.

–        The agreement will cover a period of ten years

By October 17, 2002, we expect the next Joint Military exercises to take place. Under a new operations name, the next exercises are rumored to cover the whole Mindanao where the government is fighting the MILF in central Mindanao and the CPP/NPA/NDF has strongholds in northern and southern Mindanao. It will also cover Central Luzon the home of the former Subic Naval Base now a booming international port with several foreign investments in place, and Clark Air Base, where a plush tourist resort center is in operation. We expect about 5,000 US troops to be deployed. But until now, we have no knowledge under what specific arrangement these US Forces will be allowed to re-enter.

To the nationalist activists, the MLSA is the last agreement that will ensure the re-establishment of the US Bases in Philippine soil. It is a blatant violation of our Constitution and it is pulling the rag from under our feet on the struggle for freedom we have worked for so many years.

As an activist that followed the struggle to oust the US Bases in the Philippines having been Chief of Staff to Senator Wigberto E. Tanada from 1987 to 2001, I have been witness to the difficult and heroic task to regain our sovereignty by the rejection of the US Bases Agreement in 1991. The US Eagle however is not and will not give up. So must we.

One of the main success factors in our work in the Philippines is the strong solidarity that prevails among the people that share a common history and oppression. Now we see a global solidarity born out of our desire for peace and justice. Our desire to preserve the gains of democracy and freedom which the US imperialist are trying to take away with a global war against terrorism and the imposition of actions against an unknown enemy will keep us on our toes and fight for what is rightfully ours. Terrorism is like a black angel thrown at us so that we will behave and give in to US demands for world hegemony.

Political observers believe that President Arroyo will work hard to get the MLSA approved, as it needs the US to help her stabilize her leadership. She asks the US to show goodwill for her willingness and cooperation through economic concessions but the US has still to reply. She asked for military aid, but the promised $ 55 M is not coming, reports are that the US will only be able to deliver $ 25 M. For whose benefit therefore is the restoration of the US Bases in the Philippines?

We call on you our brother and sisters to help us fight this Eagle whose claws are clinging to our shores. Let us not allow our lands to be used as staging points for a war that is not ours, Let us now allow our governments to be cowed to be used as pawns in wars of aggression. Let us not stop until all the US Bases offshore are shut down. NO TO WAR NOW!

References Cited:

Crispin Beltran, The Philippines and the U.S. Hegemonic thrust and wars of intervention and aggression, keynote address to the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS), August 2002

Roland G. Simbulan. U.S. Policy in Asia and the State of Philippine-U.S. Security Relation, lecture delivered during the Symposium of the Asian Peace Alliance, Asian Center Auditorium, August 2002

Wigberto E. Tanada, On the U.S. Military Assistance and the fight against terrorism, speech delivered in the  Bishop-Businessmen’s Conference, February 2002

Wigberto E. Tanada, Why the VFA should not be ratified? speech delivered in the  Kilosbayan Forum, September 1998

Wigberto E. Tanada, The ACSA and SOFA Pacts: A throwback to our colonial past, speech delivered in the Kilosbayan Forum, June 1997

The US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement. Ibon Special Release. No.34, April 1998


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 Feb 3rd 2004

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