The Philippines

The Yanks Are Back

Filipinos protest the return of U.S. troops to Philippine soil, March 3, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The near-centuries-old presence of American military bases and troops in the Philippines has long been the root of the most vociferous debates on nationalism among Filipinos. In September 1991, acrimonious exchanges took place when the Philippine Senate decided to end the Philippines’ military bases agreement with the United States.

But the Americans are back on Philippine soil, under the pretext of America’s war on terror. More than 650 American troops have joined 3,800 Philippine troops in “military exercises” that will include a joint combat mission against the extremist Muslim group Abu Sayyaf, which has been linked to the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden.

“The Return of the Yankees,” as local newspapers have called it, has rekindled passionate debates. Filipino nationalists have said that the exercises violate the constitution’s ban on foreign troops and facilities. The administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo pointed to the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed between the United States and the Philippines in 1999, and a Supreme Court ruling that the president is “the chief architect of the nation’s foreign policy.”

Amando Doronila, political analyst for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, noted (Jan. 17) that the exercises “are different from those in the past and their function and scope were not foreshadowed by the VFA.” The VFA contemplated exercises that never went beyond a few weeks, not the planned “six months to one year,” and certainly not “in the heart of a combat zone.”

More controversial were the “Terms of Reference,” or the ground rules, that would govern such exercises. Their signing last Feb. 13 has not assuaged fears of excesses by U.S. troops, who will be allowed to shoot in self-defense.

The past has shown “how next to impossible it is for this country to enforce the most basic terms of its military agreements with the United States,” wrote Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros (Feb. 6). “The bases agreement expressly state[s] that U.S. personnel would be under Philippine jurisdiction, but that none of the servicemen who shot scavenging children to death or who raped Filipino women [would ever appear] in court.”

President Arroyo was emboldened in her decision to allow U.S. troops in Mindanao by a survey that showed that 84 percent of Filipinos polled supported “U.S. assistance” against Abu Sayyaf. But warm welcome has turned to cautious optimism after U.S. President George W. Bush’s infamous “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” remark. What Bush’s remark revealed is that “in hounding its prey, America will not respect the sovereign borders of friends or foes,” wrote Paulynn Sicam, editor in chief of Cyber-Dyaryo (Feb. 4).

The Americans have been in the Philippines less than a month, and the debates are not likely to end soon. As Marites Vitug, editor in chief of Newsbreak, opined (Feb. 13): “In this changed world, what hasn’t changed is the weight of history.”