Philippines: Back To Bases

1998

Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

In 1991, Joseph Estrada was one of twelve senators dubbed “The Magnificent Twelve” whose vote prevented the renewal of the Military Bases Agreement between the Philippines and the United States. To publicise their stance, Estrada and fellow Senator Dominique Coseteng played the leading roles in the movie “Sa Kuko ng Agila” (In the Eagle’s Claws), which established their credentials as nationalist and populist politicians. Today, President Estrada and his Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado (another member of the “Magnificent Twelve”), are faced with the task of persuading the Senate to ratify a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US which is deemed by many to be a return to the days of compromised sovereignty under the shadow of US bases.

The VFA provides guidelines for the resumption of large-scale US military exercises, including the opening up the country’s 22 ports to US navy vessels and troops. It clarifies the entry requirements of visiting troops and the knotty issue of criminal jurisdiction over them. Its proponents stress the Philippines’ practical need, as a poor nation with a modest defence budget, to piggy-back on the world’s greatest power for its security requirements. The VFA is also supposed to fund the modernisation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and to train it them combat through joint exercises.

Soon after Estrada took over the reins of government at the end of June, the US stepped up its campaign for Senate ratification, sending no less than Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen to woo the 23 Filipino senators, at least 16 of whom must say “yes” to the agreement. Despite Estrada’s endorsement, however, the ratification faces a hurdle.

The similarities between the VFA and the old Military Bases Agreement are exploited by critics who include not just nationalist and “cause-oriented” lobbyists but Roman Catholic bishops and the majority of educators and press commentators as well. They resurrect memories of US servicemen spirited away after committing crimes of rape and murder. They take Estrada and Mercado to task for, in effect, abdicating their previous anti-bases stance. Even former military officers-turned-senators, Rodolfo Biazon and Gregorio Honasan, question the “security” rationale of the agreement. Should the Philippines become enmeshed in the US’s grand strategy of containing China and combatting the imagined spectre of Islamic fundamentalism?

Proponents of the VFA argue that there is no choice but to say “yes,” what with China’s periodic sabre-rattling over claims to the Spratly islands, the Islamic resurgence in the wake of Suharto’s fall, and the regional financial crisis which has dashed hopes of a self-reliant Philippine military. Yet the going will be rough for the VFA. When the US granted sovereignty to the Philippines in 1946, the population generally saw the country’s destiny as remaining tied to its colonial “tutor.” Brave, indeed, were those politicians who dared to displease America and to be called “anti-American.” The rejection of the bases renewal by the “Magnificent Twelve” was a turning point. No doubt there are economic incentives and other silent deals underpinning Estrada’s endorsement of a modified VFA. But Estrada claimed, during this year’s centennial of the declaration of independence from Spain, that he is the latter-day version of the anticolonial hero Andres Bonifacio, and this will add to the VFA’s woes when the Senate's deliberations begin simultaneously with the centennial commemoration of the Filipino-American war of 1899-1902.

WATCHPOINT: It will be difficult for Estrada to stick his neck out for the VFA in the face of continued public criticism of it.

 

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