September 16, 1991: The Day the Senate said ‘No!’ to Uncle Sam
An Insider’s Account
Roland G. Simbulan
The author is a professor in Development Studies and Public Management in the University of the Philippines. He was Senior Political Consultant to former Senator Wigberto E. Tañada who led the Magnificent 12 Senators in ending the presence of U.S. military bases on Philippine soil.)
Everyone remembers it as a rainy day. In front of the old Senate building at the Executive House in Manila, marchers were assembled the whole day. Wet banners and streamers surrounded the building as anti-base advocates laid vigil the night before and stayed on the following day. Yet it was to be a jubilant day for Philippine nationalism. Twelve senators rejected the proposed treaty that would have extended the presence of the U.S. military bases in the country.
The day before, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had already sealed the fate of the proposed treaty. It voted to approve Sen. Wigberto Tañada’s Resolution No. 1259 of Non-Concurrence to “A Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security”— the sugarcoated title of the proposed agreement that would have allowed the US military bases to stay in the Philippines for another 10 years. The 12 who introduced and supported this Resolution of Non-Concurrence were: Senate President Jovito Salonga and Senators Agapito “Butz” Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile, Joseph Estrada, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Sotero Laurel, Ernesto Maceda, Orlando Mercado, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Rene Saguisag, Victor Ziga and Tañada.
That votation assured the death of the bases treaty that needed only eight “no” votes to be rejected by the Senate. A two-thirds vote by the chamber was needed to concur with the treaty. It thus paved the way for the approval of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report No. 1422, recommending before the Senate plenary its non-concurrence with what was in fact a 10-year bases treaty.
From Sept. 2 to 6, 1991, the Senate had conducted daily public hearings both in the mornings and afternoons. Resource persons from the Philippine negotiating panel, Cabinet members, defense officials, academicians and experts on Philippine–US relations were invited to give their opinions. Representatives from labor unions, NGOs and peoples organizations and churches were likewise invited for their inputs. Then from Sept. 7 to 10, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations under Sen. Leticia Shahani sat down to discuss the treaty; the plenary debates were from Sept. 11-15.
In the last phases of the Senate committee meetings, then President Corazon Aquino had even tried to lobby with the Senate to approve the bases treaty. She became the first president of an independent republic to march and lead a rally to the Senate to call for the restoration of foreign military bases and troops. It was an act that her own cabinet member in the Philippine negotiating panel, Alfredo Bengzon, considered so shameful that at that moment, he wanted to dissociate himself from the Aquino government!
Despite the signs of an impending rejection, the US government thought that the Philippine senators were bluffing and merely asking for more crumbs in the form of aid and political patronage. Especially after the victory of US-led forces in the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo which brought untold sufferings to many Filipinos, no one could believe that what happened on Sept. 16, 1991, was possible. So confident was the US that just about a month before the Senate made its crucial decision, the US changed its ambassador to the Philippines. But the Senate did not blink and it held out.
But just how was it possible for a traditionally conservative and pro-US institution like the Philippine Senate, which is regarded as the training ground for future Presidents, brave American displeasure by rejecting a bases treaty of extension? In Philippine politics, the Senate is the turf of pro-US conservatives among Filipino politicians vying for the highest position in the land. How, many skeptics had asked, could a handful of “trapos”—the popular acronym for traditional opportunistic politicians but which in the Philippine vernacular also derisively means rags – turn around from an age-old stance of compromise and subservience to the United States, and instead, in a decisive moment, re-make history? How could a country so economically deprived and politically unstable hold its ground (or in the words of an American senator, “tweak our noses”) before the only remaining superpower in the world?
Paying for supporting dictatorship
My explanation is this. The United States was unquestionably looked up to as the standard-bearer of the free world and democracy. This view was shattered when Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, and dismantled the same democratic political institutions that the US had introduced to the country since the pre-war Commonwealth period.
Many Filipinos, including most of the senators elected in the post-Marcos era (1987), could not understand how and why the US could support a dictatorship that imprisoned, tortured and murdered all who stood in Marcos’ way, closed all mass media except his mouthpieces, abolished Congress, scrapped the Constitution, and banned freedom of speech and assembly. The US not only maintained its support for Marcos; it doubled and tripled its military aid for his martial law government, thus, enabling Marcos to expand his military forces from 60,000 in 1972 to 250,000 by 1985.
It became very clear to Filipinos and their future senators that the US was not truly interested in democracy in the Philippines. If it were a choice between US strategic interests such as nuclear bases versus human rights and democracy in the Philippines, the US showed it would not hesitate to choose the former. Thus, the martial law experience under Marcos had made more Filipinos more critical of US intentions, motives and interests in its former colony.
When the time came to decide, Filipino national interests had to prevail over narrow US strategic interests. The United States’ support for the Marcos dictatorship had developed animosity and anger among the Filipino people who were its victims. (Note: many of the senators who served between 1987-1992 were human rights lawyers or former detainees during the Marcos dictatorship.)
It was, however, on Feb. 2, 1987, when the Philippines made a breakthrough in its pro-peace and anti-nuclear weapons position. On that day, Filipinos ratified a new constitution that banned the entry of such weapons and the presence of foreign military forces in the country.
The senators who rejected the treaty had argued that the Philippines could not pay mere lip service to nuclear disarmament both in our municipal law and international agreements. As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the country had signed the declaration for a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality. It had also signed the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water.
In addition, the Philippines even signed an international treaty banning the deployment of nuclear weapons in the moon and other celestial bodies! How then could it allow such weapons in its own territory?
During the 42nd General Assembly of the United Nations, the Philippines voted “Yes” to 39 of the 40 nuclear disarmament resolutions. In consonance with these constitutional and international initiatives, the Senate, by a bipartisan vote of 19 affirmative votes, 3 negative votes and 1 abstention, approved on June 6, 1988, the “Freedom from Nuclear Weapons Act.”
This measure effectively served to implement and enforce the constitutional mandate and now, the national policy banning nuclear weapons from Philippine territory. That was the last nail on the US bases coffin since everyone knew that the bases stored and transited nuclear weapons. All these events reinforced one another as the day of reckoning neared.
It is now 11 years since that historic day and ten years since the completion of the US military pullout from the former Subic Naval Base. Yet, we now seem to be passing through a time warp, where the Philippines – no thanks to the Visiting Forces Agreement, Balikatan and the proposed Mutual Logistics Support Agreement – has become one whole US military base. Even the remote island of Batanes is now being used as a staging area for the US’ so-called war on terrorism.
Looking back, Sept. 16, 1991 was a day of triumph for the Filipino people as the Magnificent 12 senators defied US attempts to bully and bamboozle the Senate into accepting an onerous bases treaty. Many of the senators who rejected the proposed bases treaty believed that terminating the agreement was a fitting way of commemorating the coming 1998 centennial of Philippine independence – by having no foreign troops or bases on Philippine soil.
The US negotiating panel was led by Richard Armitage who, according to then Health Secretary Bengzon who was vice chair of the Philippine negotiating panel and who later wrote a book on the negotiations titled A Matter of Honor, seemed more used to bullying than negotiating with Third World allies.
Armitage , who was just after all looking after his own country’s strategic and military interests, antagonized the senators with his brazen and brusque behavior. In doing so, he became the unwitting ally of the anti-bases senators and the anti-bases movement and helped ensure the defeat of the proposed treaty.
In the year-long negotiations between the Philippine and US panels, Armitage’s hard-line position produced a treaty so one-sidedly in favor of the US that even Philippine negotiators like Bengzon became ashamed of it. The lopsided treaty sealed the unexpected alliance between the senators who were pro-bases but anti-treaty and the core group of anti-bases senators led by Tañada.
In his book, Bengzon said that Armitage was so high-handed that the US official even tried to tell the Philippine government to remove Bengzon from the Philippine panel. The US thus had a very distorted view of the situation: it underestimated the capacity of the Filipino officials to think and act according to their own interests.
The negotiations for the treaty clearly showed that that US operates on the assumption that what is good for Uncle Sam must definitely be good for all freedom-loving peoples in the world—and that it would not hesitate to resort to bullying the latter to achieve this.
The US negotiating panel thought it got what it wanted: a 10-year extension plus the option of renewal after every 10 years. It would not even commit to put into the agreement any definite compensation or rental for the use of the US bases.
In fact, the draft submitted to the Senate did not even provide for reciprocal rights and obligations for the two countries: the treaty was mainly about the rights of the United States over base lands and the obligations of the Philippines to respect and enforce those US rights. But by being too greedy, the US lost precisely what it sought to gain: the retention of its military bases. The loss was suffered at the hands of a struggling, sovereign people and their Senate.
The US underestimated the post-EDSA Senate by thinking that, like the Philippine negotiating panel, the legislators were merely grandstanding (as, in fact, a few were). It thought that those who were resisting US pressure were merely opportunistic and vacillating Filipino politicians who would ultimately give way to its wishes. In the end, the Americans had the greatest shock of their lives.
The dismantling of the US bases proved the doomsayers wrong. Far from leading to the collapse of the country’s economy, Subic, Clark and other areas uncovered a vast economic and commercial potential which would benefit some of the most avid supporters of the bases’ retention, like former Olongapo Mayor Richard Gordon. Gordon would become administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority.
Thus, on that rainy day and night of Sept. 16, 1991, the 23 senators (excluding Raul Manglapus who had been appointed foreign affairs secretary) cast their final votes and delivered speeches to explain these. The proceedings began at 9 a.m. and ended at exactly 8:13 p.m. Senate President Salonga , who presided over the marathon proceedings, was the last to give his vote and explanation that evening. He said:
“September 16, 1991, may well be the day when we in this Senate found the soul, the true spirit of this nation because we mustered the courage and the will to declare the end of foreign military presence in the Philippines. I vote NO to this Treaty and vote Yes to the Resolution of Non-Concurrence.”
Lessons in sovereignty
The real moving spirit behind the 12 senators was the broad and unified people’s movement outside the Senate. In the end, it was the power of the people that ended the most visible symbols of our colonial legacy and the Cold War in the Philippines.
The Anti-Treaty Movement was forged with the broadest unity possible among organized forces and individuals. Sept. 16 was a great political victory for the Philippine nationalist movement in an arena that is traditionally not its own. The Americans and their statehood advocates were beaten in their own turf.
There will, however, always be Filipino officials who will act as lobbyists for the United States. In this case, there were senators and officials in the Aquino government who initiated back-channeling talks with the US. In doing so, they were ready to violate the 1986 Constitution, particularly its prohibition against nuclear weapons, and even proposed strategies that would undermine this.
There are those who now ask: can’t US ships and troops come here on our terms and abide by our rules and laws as befits a truly sovereign nation? Can we still be masters of our fate when a foreign country uses our territory for its military exercises and as a launching pad against other sovereign nations?
Sept. 16, 1991, is a challenge for all Filipinos, especially those aspiring to become leaders who will be counted upon to uphold the national dignity and sovereignty. On that day, former senator Lorenzo Tañada, then a sickly 90-year-old on a wheelchair, arrived in the Senate to witness his son Wigberto, finally succeed in the lofty cause the elder Tañada had fought so hard to attain since the 1950s. On that day, too, outside the Senate halls, more than 150,000 people waited under a heavy rain for the senators’ decision. Optimism and hope were the order of the day.
As Sen. Wigberto Tañada said in his sponsorship speech to the Senate Resolution of Non-Concurrence to the proposed bases treaty:
“A historic and economic opportunity awaits the Philippines as the Filipino people, reinforced by the mandate of their Constitution, now seek to remove the last most visible vestiges of colonialism in this country, the US military bases. Upon the powers vested in us by the will of our people, through the Constitution, let us be a beacon of the long-shackled hopes of our martyrs and nation.”
On that historic day, the Philippine Senate became the beacon of Philippine sovereignty. By its action, it gave substance to the country’s independence and taught Filipinos how to live out the spirit of sovereignty.
A reunion will be held today, Sept. 16, of the Magnificent 12 senators and the anti-bases movement at Bahay ng Alumni, UP Diliman, Quezon City, 4-6 p.m. Vice President Teofisto Guingona Jr., one of the Magnificent 12, will be keynote speaker for the event.
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 in 2002