By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Solidarity Groups in Australia were quick to denounce the Philippine Senate as the latter ratified the Australia-RP Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) on July 24, 2012.The groups represent Filipino migrants in Australia, overseas Filipino workers and students, Australians of Filipino descent and citizens and residents of Australia.
“Let us not embroil peace-loving Australians in internal conflicts in the Philippines. Filipinos and Australians have never been involved in any form of hostilities. The presence of Australian troops is a potential to a shooting war. A shooting war will raise animosities between our two peoples. Ten of thousands of Filipinos in Australia, migrants and citizens, will only fall victims to indiscriminate hate that may result from any escalation of armed hostilities in the Philippines,” they said.
The Senate adopted the resolution concurring with President Benigno Aquino III’s ratification of the SOVFA through a vote of 17-1. The Senate adopted Senate Resolution 788 despite the protest of Senator Joker Arroyo.
Arroyo’s position is that the SOVFA would not benefit the Philippines.
“The Senate cannot simply not concur in treaties if other contracting parties have no consideration of the country’s interests. The Aquino administration only wants this ratified because of the country’s dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea,” he was quoted as saying in earlier reports.
Arroyo questioned the Aquino’s support for the SOVFA and said that it was questionable why the Philippine government was enlisting the help of Australia when it is so far away and already an ally of the United States.
“Although the agreement is not a defense pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China. Let us not grab at straws. We must persevere,” he said on reports in GMA-7 news.
Another senator who previously took a stand against the SOVFA is Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, but she was absent during the voting. Santiago based her opposition on her reading that the SOVFA was “vague” in its provisions and that it risks putting the Philippines at a disadvantage.
A proponent of the SOVFA in the meantime defended the agreement, saying that the SOVFA with Austraila is primarily an agreement on training and education.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III told the media the SOVFA does not intend to put up Australian military bases in the country or protect Australian military forces or nationals in the country from being prosecuted in Philippine courts on cases like murder, rape, sexual harassment, and the like.
Also on GMA-7, Guingona was quoted as saying that the senate vote on the SOVFA was simple because the objectives of the agreement itself were also simple. “It is simply recognition of a potentially beneficial and mutual partnership that can be continued between the Philippines and Australia in the field of military training, education, and exercise, and in humanitarian activities. No more. No less,” he said. “Let us not mislead the Filipino people into believing that the SOVFA will give us an automatic ally in times of armed conflict. This is not the objective of SOVFA.”
The Australia-based groups and its allies in the Philippines – Philippine Caucus for Peace, Philippines Australia Solidarity Association,Communications Workers Union Telecommunications Division, Gabriela Australia,Migrante Melbourne, Migrante Australia, Migrante Victoria, and the Philippine-Australian Cultural iInteraction Network – said the Philippines should address the root causes of poverty but not resort to military solutions or involve foreign troops.
“The human rights record of the Philippines of gross violations and unabated extrajudicial executions continue to tarnish the reputation of the only Christian nation in Southeast Asia. The presence of foreign military troops and their involvement in ‘civilian’ operations, joint war and military exercises and actual shooting war will only expose the Filipino people to more human rights violations,” they said.
The groups said the SOVFA was an agreement that was a seal of insecurity, and that it does not promote peace in the region.
“It threatens all peoples whose representative government takes part in the exchange and deployment of military forces on their shores. The security of any country is dependent mainly on its respectability and friendliness in the community of nations and the will of the people to defend themselves and not in military alliances. The agreement is counter to the building of peace based on mutual respect and understanding,” they argued.
Protests against the SOVFA have also been held in Australia as led by the various Philippine-Australia solidarity groups and people’s organizations.
“It does not speak well of the Filipino people and is contrary to the independence and sovereignty they have been fighting for in the last century. It does not speak well of the Australian people and is contrary to their historical lessons on the pains of colonization and discrimination. The people of Australia are building a society of acceptance, fairness, multiculturalism, independence and non-aggression. Filipinos can learn a lot from Australians in this aspect rather than be taught war expertise and militarism. Consider Australian-trained Filipino general and now fugitive Jovito Palparan.
Infamously known as the “butcher” of human rights activists and defenders, what guarantees do we have that we are not training the likes of him?,” said Len Cooper, state secretary of the CWU Telecommunications Division.
Cooper is also the vice-chairperson of the International League of Peoples’ Struggles.
Cooper also said the SOVFA drags Australia to the war plans of the US and bolsters US arrogance as the global cop.
“America has a bloody record of colonizing the Philippines at the turn of the century and continues up to this day its domination of all aspects of national life. Let us not commit Australia, through the SOVFA, to costly wars of aggression similar to Iraq and now in Afghanistan. Ratifying the agreement is similar to pinning the deputy sheriff’s star on Australia as US’ No. 2 cop for Asia-Pacific,” he said.
The solidarity groups also said the SOVFA is no different to the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement because it smacks of inequality and unconstitutionality.
“It strengthens the military alliance between US and Australia aimed at protecting their overseas investments including mining and energy while the Filipino people and their Asian neighbours stand to loose all including their sovereign will,” they said.
Berlin Guerrero, convener of the Philippine Peace Caucus said it was preferable that Australian and Philippine relations be based on support for the peace negotiations in the Philippines.
“We envisage a bilateral relation between Australia and the Philippines to include measures to bring about the resumption of peace talks between the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This will strengthen confidence-building on both parties to work together on the much needed comprehensive socio-economic reforms in the Philippines and the recognition of rights to ancestral lands and to self-determination,” he said.
Cooper said Australians and Filipino-Australians believe that a significant percentage of Australian taxes should be spent on peace-building efforts in the Philippines and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.
“We have held dialogues with communities and Australian politicians at the Federal Parliament and presented them this vision,” he said.
Malacañang, through its various spokespersons, has been pushing for the SOVFA ratification for the last few months. Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Secretary Ricky Carandang has previously said that the SOVFA will benefit the country’s efforts to enhance security.