By the CENTER FOR PEOPLE EMPOWERMENT IN GOVERNANCE (CenPEG)
MANILA — The presence of heavily armed U.S. soldiers even in the remote areas of the Philippine countryside is now becoming a normal part of the local scenery. As we mark the ten years (1999-2009) of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), ratified by the Philippine Senate on May 27, 1999), it has made our countryside a free-fire zone for so-called joint military exercises using live ammunition and artillery that have killed, injured or maimed our people including children. These foreign troops enter Philippine territory without passports or visas, without clearances from our customs or immigration authorities, without quarantine clearances from our health authorities, and with neither licenses nor registration for driving their vehicles in our country. They have gotten away with murder, attempted murder, rape, harassment of our women, maltreatment of our countrymen, and destruction of our environment. A document called the “Visiting Forces Agreement” has given them the right to do so.
More than 40,000 U.S. troops have entered Philippine territory in more than 25 provinces this way since the VFA took effect in 1999. They came in more than 78 U.S. naval vessels and fleets which include nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, cruise ships, submarines – all in clear violation of the Philippine constitutional prohibition on the entry of nuclear weapons in any part of the country.
The VFA is the most anomalous aspect of our foreign relations today, 17 years after the historic dismantling of the U.S. military bases in 1992. It is a shameless document that is one-sided because it is not reciprocal. It denigrates the Philippine constitutional provision about “equal protection of the laws” by the very fact that it grants special rights and privileges to armed foreign troops on Philippine territory. The VFA has been an indignity to our people, a travesty to our people’s rights and rule of law. This is why Filipinos from all walks of life all over the country continue to protest this so-called treaty. It reminds us that we are still not really sovereign in our own territory as a nation.
The VFA is thus and indeed a bad example for other proposed or pending military agreements with other countries such as the Philippine-Australian Status of Visiting Forces Agreement which is still pending in the Senate, or similar draft agreements with Singapore and New Zealand. These are ostensibly using the VFA with the United States as a model.
Is the VFA legal and constitutional?
Clearly, the 2000 and 2009 Supreme Court decisions on the VFA only allows for joint military exercises like the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder), and small unit joint training exercises. It does not allow basing rights or facilities to be constructed for transient U.S. forces visiting the Philippines. It also does not allow U.S. forces to be involved in counterinsurgency operations in the country.
Basing Rights or Privileges
But since 2003, U.S. congressional budgetary documents have referred to the installation of “forward or advance operating bases” being set up in the Philippines. These have meticulously been exposed by Focus on the Global South researcher Herbert Docena in several articles (Docena, 2006). The facilities for the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (formerly called the Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines), now deployed all-year round in the country, have been beefed up with the U.S. Department of Defense contracting the American defense contractor Global Contingency Services LLC with a US$14.4-million (or P650 million pesos) contract for “base development” in Mindanao. These facilities which have been constructed are described by no less than official U.S. documents and in their Pentagon lexicon as “forward operating bases” or “advance operating base,” especially those that have been set up in various parts of Mindanao inside Philippine Army camps. In reality, these are permanent operating, support, intelligence and training bases set up in direct support for Philippine counterinsurgency operations. Are these really allowed by the provisions of the VFA and by the Philippine Supreme Court?
Role in Counter-Insurgency Activities
The Philippines, under the cover of Balikatan exercises, is being used as a laboratory for the latest U.S. counterinsurgency tactics and strategies, which are then used in other U.S. military interventions in other countries. This includes the “security-development approach” in counter-insurgency.
The traditional role of the U.S. Army in overseas operations include “small unit training of local forces, civic action initiatives, psychological warfare”. But there are “non-traditional” operations which are implemented in conjunction with agencies responsible for development assistance like the USAID and other conduits like the U.S. Institute for Peace, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc.
General T. Galvin of the U.S. Army testified in U.S. Senate congressional hearings that U.S. Special Operations Forces are also used in “direct action”, including “small unit commando activities,” where “speed and surprise…dictate, otherwise they are for security assistance, combat intelligence and communications.” (Galvin, 1987) Or under a special Executive Order 12333 issued by the President of the United States since the 1980s, they can engage in covert surgical “special activities” beyond the training of local government forces as Mobile Training Teams (MTT).