Transparency Must Extend to Foreign Affairs
Preliminary Statement of Rep. Walden Bello
Committee on Foreign Affairs Hearing, House of Representatives, Feb 21, 2012
I would like, first of all, to express my gratitude to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Alfrancis Bichara, for calling this series of hearings and the Committee Secretary Millet Apostol for arranging it.
Need for Transparency in Foreign Policy
Transparency has been one of the watchwords of this administration in its battle to root out corruption. It is a goal that I, as a member of the administration coalition, fervently agree with. Thus, it is with some disappointment that I must say that I still have to see the campaign for transparency extend to the realm of foreign relations, especially when it comes to our relations with the United States.
Congress is very much in the situation of the ordinary citizen these days when it comes to our relations with the United States. We know very little about what is going on. And this is not because we are preoccupied with the impeachment process, but because the Executive is sharing so little with us. And with so little information being passed on to us, many of us are beginning to feel incompetent when it comes to the formation of our country’s foreign policy, which is one of our constitutional obligations. We are not even in a position of being able to exercise our duty of providing a critical counterweight to executive decisions so that the interests of the people and the country are truly served. We are, in short, being taken for granted.
US-Philippine relations—our most important bilateral relationship—provide an example of the lack of transparency that mark the way the administration is conducting foreign policy. We hear that high-level negotiations have been taking place to strengthen the US-Philippine military alliance, with a particular emphasis in the West Philippine Sea. We barely know the content of these discussions except what is reported in newspapers. Not in our newspapers but in the Washington Postand the New York Times, which broke the news two weeks ago that a Philippine delegation was in Washington, DC, and which quoted a certain Peter Galvez, said to be the acting chief of the staff to the Secretary of Defense, to the effect that the Filipino officials were in the US capital to negotiate the conditions for “an expansion of the US military presence in the country.”
An Expanded US Military Presence?
Were we in Congress even subjected to the slightest consultation on whether we would go along with an expanded US military presence in the country, which one Filipino defense expert now at the University of California at Berkeley, Herbert Docena, characterized in an op-ed in yesterday’s Inquirer as already one big American base?
Why is it that it is only from remarks to the press by US Ambassador Harry Thomas that we learn that Philippine bases and facilities, such as Basa Air Base in Pampanga and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, are being upgraded with over $67 million in military aid for use by US troops?
Have we, as elected representatives of the Filipino people, been given the opportunity to discuss the strategic implications of our drawing in the US in a big way to serve as a military buffer against a perceived threat from China in the West Philippine Sea?
Let me just say in this connection that I led a team of members of Congress who visited Pag-asa Island in the Spratlys last August to back the Executive’s strong assertion of our sovereign rights to the islands and islets that we occupy in that archipelago in the face of the People’s Republic of China’s absurd position of claiming the whole West Philippine Sea. I would, however, be the first to support our government’s longstanding position that multilateral diplomacy is the way to resolve our territorial disagreements with China.
Have we in Congress been brought in as partners in a strategic discussion of the implications of a new approach that places the emphasis on a military containment of China as opposed to one that relies principally on the assistance of our ASEAN neighbors to achieve a multilateral settlement? Were we asked our opinion on a course of action that carries the risk of turning a delicate matter into a superpower confrontation and might eventually make a territorial settlement impossible?
The answer to all the questions I have raised is no, we in Congress have not been consulted. We have not been treated by the Executive as partners in the development of this country’s foreign policy. We have, to put it bluntly, been sidelined.
What is Happening in the South?
Let us face it. Not only do we in Congress have little input into the foreign policy decision-making process on the West Philippine Sea question. We also know very little about what is going on in the South, where the first batch of US Special Forces were deployed early in 2002, allegedly to assist the Philippine Armed Forces to destroy the Abu Sayyaf. (Parenthetically, I, along with 10 other members of a Peace Mission concerned about the way the Philippines was being drawn into America’s “War on Terror,” met with that first batch of Special Forces deep in the jungle in Basilan.) Ten years after that first deployment, the Abu Sayyaf is stronger than ever, and the security situation in the whole of Western Mindanao appears to be as bad, if not worse, than it was a decade ago.
We in Congress rightfully ask the following questions: What happened? Who is really running the show? Are the Americans carrying out their anti-terror campaign in a way that benefits both countries, or are they deriving the benefits of targeted assassination of alleged Southeast Asian Muslim terrorists while pushing the costs on our communities?
Many of us have long been raising these questions, but the answers we have been getting are either unsatisfactory or non-existent. Honestly, we don’t know what is going on in terms of military operations in the South, and our worry is that Malacanang might know little either, with the worst scenario being a US-directed campaign employing Philippine troops with little oversight by our civilian authorities, where the relevant decisionmakers are US officials working closely with the regional command of the Philippine military.
The eruption into the news in early February of a bombing raid that allegedly killed 15 people suspected to be terrorists in a baranggay of the town of Parang in Jolo deepened our apprehensions. Three of the people killed were allegedly top leaders of the Abu Sayyaf and the Jamiyah Islamiya jihadist group operating in Southeast Asia, one of them being a Malaysian, one Singaporean, and one Filipino. All three enjoyed the distinction of having a price on their heads placed by Washington, with the reward for one of them being $140,000. The operation did not involve ground engagement but was completely carried out from the air, allegedly by OV-10 planes carrying 500 pound explosives. The attack took place at the ungodly hour of 3 am, a mission for which the OV-10, a Vietnam-era reconnaissance aircraft, is ill equipped to carry out.
The attack had all the earmarks of a surgical strike carried out by armed drones in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. There were no reports of non-combatant casualties, and we are told to accept that the 15 people killed were all members of the terrorist band. I have been to Parang, having taught in Jolo a few decades back. It was heavily populated then. It is more heavily populated now. I cannot simply accept at face value an assertion that the people killed in an attack featuring heavy explosives were all combatants.
The attack has raised more questions than answers, and the biggest in my mind is whether the US hunt for terrorists has converted Sulu, Basilan, and the Zamboanga peninsula into a no man’s land in which rages an unending war that is claiming scores of Filipino lives and destroying communities and their economies.
Have we in Congress been given the opportunity to evaluate a strategy that is taking a dangerous, new trend, of armed drones or drone-guided aircraft carrying out high-explosive attacks against so-called “high value” targets that, as in Pakistan, bring with them the great risk of inflicting non-combatant casualties and collateral damage? Over the last decade, Washington has shifted the battleground for its War on Terror from the US to peripheral areas like the western region of Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and the southern Philippines. Are we willing to bear this terrible burden on our people so that the wealthy residents of Scarsdale, New York, and Beverly Hills, California can sleep better at night? This matter should be up for discussion in Congress rather than allowed by Executive inertia or passivity to become de facto policy.
These are some of the hard questions that we intend to raise to our guests from the Executive agencies today. We hope you will give us frank and honest answers, not dish out rhetoric and generalities. I also look forward to hearing the opinions of leaders of civil society and academia who will be joining us in the future sessions of this hearing.
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 Mar 5th 2012