‘Relief operations are no justification for increased presence of US troops’ – progressive groups

“While we welcome all aid extended to our brothers and sisters in the Visayas, we don’t see the necessity of deploying missile cruisers and missile destroyers and, amphibious assault vehicles and other warships.” – Cristina Palabay, Karapatan


MANILA — Two weeks after the strongest supertyphoon to make landfall pounded much of Central Philippines and neighboring countries, the number of dead Filipinos are estimated to reach as high as 7,000 (of which more than 5,400 have so far been confirmed), more than 14 million were displaced, about P24-billion ($558 million) worth of infrastructure and agriculture were destroyed, water and electricity services remain cut off in most places — and all these figures may still go higher as the reckoning is not yet over. Local government officials in the affected areas say it would take years to rebuild and rehabilitate. Frameworks for doing that are still being conceptualized as we write, with the United Nations slated to come up with a proposal.

To this day though, the basic and immediate need for relief is still to be addressed. According to peoples’ organizations whose members have been going to Eastern Visayas to distribute relief, conduct medical mission and help in rehabilitation efforts, some villages are being reached only now by aid. Bulatlat.com reporters noted that despite the heavy presence of able-bodied soldiers, cadavers and ruins still litter various areas, and only the roads and highways could be described as “clear”. Daisy Arago, executive director of the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, said that as of Nov. 20, various towns of Leyte, for example, are still in a state of “total wreck.”

“Recovery has not begun. In communities lying near highways, children run toward relief trucks, and they are near the highways. The situation is far worse for the interior communities.”

“In the more than two weeks since the storm, the Aquino government has not yet fully arrived at an accurate picture of the destruction because it has focused only on the urban centers, while remaining ignorant about the situation in the vaster and more numerous towns. Even foreign observers note there is no organized and systematic government response to the calamity,” Fr. Santiago Salas, spokesman of National Democratic Front of the Philippines, Eastern Visayas chapter, said in a statement.

Contrary to DILG Secretary Mar Roxas’ boast last weekend while in Tacloban that “the worst is already over”, the worst appears yet to come, warned various peoples’ organizations.

US soldiers bring warships, warplanes, take control and command - officially until Nov 26 - of 'Operation Damayan' in storm-ravaged central Philippines (Photo by Pom Cahilog-Villanueva / bulatlat,com)
US soldiers bring warships, warplanes, take control and command – officially until Nov 26 – of ‘Operation Damayan’ in storm-ravaged central Philippines (Photo by Pom Cahilog-Villanueva / bulatlat.com)

On top of the slow and seemingly controlled flow of relief to the victims (the Philippine military and the Department of Social Welfare have reportedly been taking steps to make sure that much of the relief and donations would first pass through them or are centralized to them), the Aquino government is further intensifying militarization in the storm-ravaged areas. The AFP website said that as of Nov. 16, there are “12,000 troops on the ground under the Central Command,” aside from what it called as 3,400 “external troops” and “follow on forces” for augmentation, in Eastern Visayas.

Statements coming from the Communist Party of the Philippines, who claim to have guerrilla bases in the typhoon-ravaged areas and who has commanded its army, the New Peoples Army (NPA), to extend its ceasefire and prioritize rehabilitation work, condemned the Aquino government for continuing to undertake military offensives both in the storm-ravaged areas and in other parts of the Philippines.

Worse, the Aquino government is now seen, too, as “trying to justify greater US military presence through a framework agreement that has been in the works for months now,” Elmer “Bong” Labog, chairman of labor center Kilusang Mayo Uno said in another statement.

Based on mainstream media reports today (Nov. 26), Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario described the virtual takeover of US troops of Tacloban airport and its planes flying in and out of the area with relief goods (that were donated by the public), and their ferrying people, as demonstration “of the need for this framework agreement that we are working with the United States for increased rotational presence.” Del Rosario said this in a press conference yesterday (Nov. 25) with a visiting US congressional delegation headed by Representatives Chris Smith of New Jersey, Al Green of Texas and Trent Franks of Arizona.

The said framework has been subject to criticisms by patriotic groups and constitutionalists in the Philippines, who view it as another way of crafting a military basing agreement that is prohibited under the Philippine Constitution and already eschewed by the Filipinos in 1992.

“The cat is then out of the bag—the so-called humanitarian assistance by US troops in the disaster areas is a justification for their permanent basing and operation in the Philippines,” Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay said in a statement. She noted that even without the Yolanda disaster, the US has been pushing for an increased and more permanent presence of their troops in the Philippines for its pivot to Asia.

“While we welcome all aid extended to our brothers and sisters in the Visayas, we don’t see the necessity of deploying missile cruisers and missile destroyers and, amphibious assault vehicles and other warships,” added Palabay.

Capitalizing on Yolanda victims

With the increase in government soldiers and entry of US troops in the storm-ravaged zone, Karapatan warned of further disasters to come, this time concerning human rights. “We are aware that Samar and Leyte and, the provinces of Negros and Panay are among the priority areas of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ counterinsurgency program, Oplan Bayanihan,” Karapatan’s Cristina Palabay said. But now that the area is in a very vulnerable situation and in need of aid, the group warns against the possible repeat of the experience of typhoon Pablo victims last year.

“We do not want another Cristina Jose who was killed because she demanded for relief goods for her and for her community members,” said Palabay.

US soldiers in storm-ravaged central Philippines (Photo by Pom Cahilog-Villanueva / bulatlat,com)
US soldiers in storm-ravaged central Philippines (Photo by Pom Cahilog-Villanueva / bulatlat.com)

Palabay also warned the BS Aquino government not to take advantage of the situation, saying, “there were many instances in the past that combat operations, as part of military psywar, are disguised as humanitarian operations in communities considered by the government as ‘red-areas’.” She noted that Samar, Leyte, Negros and Panay are among the provinces with high incidences of human rights violations because of the government’s counterinsurgency program. This counterinsurgency program, in turn, was reportedly lifted from the US military’s 2009 Counterinsurgency Guide.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has admitted that while it is engaged in relief efforts, it is maintaining “sufficient equipment and support to Internal Security Operations.” But in CPP’s recent statements, it said that the government soldiers engaged in relief efforts are merely “a token,” as the bigger number are currently launching military offensives amid the cries for relief of typhoon victims.

Earlier, Karapatan documented that police and military checkpoints were already set up in the disaster-stricken areas. They also pointed to photos of policemen arresting “looters” being circulated in social media.

In a statement, the KMU slammed the Aquino government’s welcoming again of more US troops and evident promotion of the framework agreement they are currently formulating with American military counterparts.

‘Justice and govt accountability, not US bases or more militarization’

“What the aftermath of Yolanda shows is not the need for greater US military presence in the country, but the need for accountability from the Aquino government. We demand justice over this government’s criminal incompetence in handling Yolanda, not more US troops,” said Elmer “Bong” Labog, chairman of KMU. The labor leader blamed the Aquino government’s refusal to carry out a massive evacuation drive days before the supertyphoon struck the country as the reason why the number of deaths might reach more than 10,000. (Vietnam which was also hit by typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan had evacuated its coastal population; its death toll was 10.)

The Aquino government’s ineffectiveness in immediately delivering emergency relief goods to areas hit badly by Yolanda has caused hunger among survivors in the said areas, Labog said. Earlier, the KMU had criticized the Aquino’s militarization response to the supposed “state of lawlessness,” and demanded for a timely relief distribution, as well as a sound rehab plan for the typhoon survivors.

“What we need is a government that has a genuine concern for Filipinos, not one that’s more concerned with advancing US interests in the Asia-Pacific region,” Labog said. He described the Aquino government as “too slow in detecting what’s good for Filipinos amidst Yolanda but is always too swift in advancing what’s good for the US.”

In the aftermath of Yolanda, reports said US troops and their nuclear-powered warships have been freely coming and going in Eastern Visayas. More than that, as Bulatlat.com reporters noted, US soldiers seem in control of some areas, commanding even the Philippine government soldiers and the Tacloban airport, and US planes were circling the area every hour even without dropping off relief goods or people as of last week.

This week the US government announced plans to reduce the number of soldiers sent here for Yolanda, but it did not say by how much. Today (Nov. 26), as various patriotic groups assailed the intensified US military presence in a disaster that they say needs civilian action, the US military-led “Oplan Damayan” was also reportedly turned over to the control of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Both the air and maritime components were reportedly turned over by US Brigadier General James Hecker and US Rear Admiral Hugh Wetherland to their approved counterparts in the Philippine Armed Forces.

In announcing the reduction of troops sent here for Yolanda, the US did not mention how many US soldiers of the more than 5,000 sent here would remain to conduct various operations in the country. Before that, about a thousand special US forces are said to be already stationed in an American military base in southern Philippines.

Filipino patriotic groups asked the people to guard against the US and Aquino governments’ drive to open even more US military bases in the country. “The US has always tried to portray itself as a friend of Filipinos whenever it tries to justify its military presence in the country,” Labog of KMU said. He added that “Using the devastation caused by Yolanda in order to expand its military presence in the Philippines is not friendship, but swindle of the most unkind type.” (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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