Prescription for disaster

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

“The goodwill the (December 26, 2004) tsunami relief brought the US is incalculable,” said Jonah Blank, who’s described as “a senior political scientist” at the conservative US think tank RAND Corp., in the aftermath of the Yolanda super typhoon that has killed over 5,000 people in the Philippines.
“Nearly a decade later,” he continued, “the effort may rank as one of the most concrete reasons Southeast Asian nations trust the long-term US commitment to a strategy of ‘Asian rebalancing.’

” The Obama administration recognizes the value of disaster relief. As the Pentagon attempts to shift more of its weight to the Asian Pacific region, while balancing a shrinking budget, this could turn out to be one of the best decisions it could make.”

“One of the best decisions” the United States made in the aftermath of Yolanda was to send some 50 U. ships and aircraft to the Visayas including Leyte island– where, 68 years ago, General Douglas MacArthur landed to assure the US re-occupation of the Philippines. Among the air and seacraft the US sent were 10 C-130 transport planes, 12 V-22 Ospreys, and 14 Seahawk helicopters which almost immediately upon arrival started air-dropping supplies from an aircraft carrier anchored off Leyte Gulf.

The on-the-ground reaction among the Yolanda survivors was effusive gratitude. They had been without the food, water, shelter and medical supplies the Philippine government was supposed to be providing, but wasn’t, six days after Yolanda smashed into the Visayas. The Philippine media, meanwhile, universally hailed the “breathtaking” US effort, as did much of the Philippine population. Popular gratitude plus media approval equals a boost of support for the enhanced US military presence in the Philippines the Aquino administration has been campaigning for, supposedly to stop Chinese incursions into the West Philippine Sea.

The US military’s distribution of relief supplies was a God-send, and in many cases literally life-saving. But it was also a God-send to the Aquino administration and the US, whose spokespersons, after only a half-decent interval, began using the US military’s relief operations to justify the further deployment of US troops beyond their pre-Yolanda strength.

As if reading from a script, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario declared that the US involvement in relief efforts had demonstrated the country’s supposed necessity for even greater US military presence. The US involvement, said del Rosario, “demonstrates the need for the framework agreement we’re working out with the US, because it accentuates the purposes of the framework [one of] which is to make humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and response a very major aspect of the agreement.”

If that last phrase about disaster relief sounded like an afterthought, Del Rosario’s argument was itself breathtaking. There’s no arguing against the fact that the US response has been far above those of other countries. But units from the military establishments of 17 other countries including Japan and China (its hospital ship Peace Ark is part of the facilities of the People’s Liberation Army) have also been deployed for relief operations. Would their having contributed as well to the vast effort to provide food, water, medical care and other supplies to the survivors of typhoon Yolanda, similarly justify the making of some kind of agreement to keep their forces in the Philippines?

The Aquino administration will of course say no, those countries, among them Japan, New Zealand, the Ukraine, Israel, etc., do not have the same historic relationship with the Philippines as the US. But that is precisely the point. The country’s long and bitter association with the US, particularly at the military level which began with a brutal war of conquest at the turn of the 20th century, should warn our so-called leaders about the need to look before they leap, even as the presence of foreign troops on Philippine soil, which would become permanent and could consist of thousands of troops relocated from Okinawa, Japan once the framework agreement is signed, would be in violation of the Philippine Constitution.

Article XVIII, Section 25 of that document declares that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

Beyond the legal issue, however, are other, even more urgent issues.

The main justification for allowing the deployment of US troops in the Philippines and their use of Philippine military bases is currently the country’s problems with Chinese intrusion into the West Philippine Sea, where the Philippines has a claim over the Spratlys island group.

It is based on the assumption that the Philippines has no other means of countering China’s military might except by playing the US card, an assumption that over time could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

With the US providing the military muscle for that purpose, the Philippine government can end up being completely and unalterably dependent on a foreign power for its defense, as has happened in the past, when US forces occupied several military bases in the Philippines, the most important being Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base.

Any form of dependency, including military dependency, has a bearing on sovereignty, which neither most Filipinos nor the so-called leaders of the Philippines cannot seem to comprehend, in turn bears on such issues as justice at the level which matters most, and that’s in the lives of citizens.

In 1991, the Philippine Senate did not renew the country’s military bases treaty with the US on the basis of, among others, its members’ recognition of the offense on Philippine sovereignty perpetuated by extra-territoriality-the exemption of US servicemen who committed crimes ranging from shootings to rape from arrest, and prosecution and trial by Philippine courts. In every case, the offender escaped punishment by being simply shipped off to another assignment, in what were instances of the same culture of impunity that still haunts the country.

Certainly the US deserves the gratitude of the people of the Philippines for its response to the Yolanda disaster– as those other countries which came to the country deserve their thanks as well.

Their support was timely, and urgently needed, because the Philippine government was unable to provide what these foreign sources could in the first critical days after the typhoon.

It should be obvious that the main lesson from the experience is the need for the Philippine government to develop the competence and capacity to deal with disasters on its own and within the first critical days after a typhoon or earthquake, even as it accepts offers of support from whatever source.

That the Philippines needs the US so it can cope with disasters, and that it’s time to bring US troops back into the country despite its over 50 years’ experience with them when they had “their” bases isn’t the lesson the country should be teaching itself, but a prescription for another disaster.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
November 28, 2013

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