For 2014, President Aquino’s “righteous path” took another perverted turn as the Philippines signed a defense agreement with the US, signalling the return of US bases in the country.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA — It started with hush-hush, secret negotiations, before the public signing of a document which was a gift to the head of the “world’s biggest free nation.” Six months later, a murder.
On the day of the state visit by US President Barack Obama on April 28, the Philippines, represented by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and the US, thru Ambassador Philip Goldberg, signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca). It was touted by the Aquino administration as an implementing agreement of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Critics say it’s a totally new basing agreement, which violates the Constitution, Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Less than six months later, on Oct. 11, Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude was found drowned in a toilet in Olongapo City, Zambales. US Marine Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, who participated in joint exercises under VFA was charged with the murder on Dec. 15.
The murder brought back to light the issue of jurisdiction on criminally accused US soldiers, whom the US can insist on keeping custody under the VFA. Of course, the Philippines can also assert its right to have custody and jurisdiction, but it depends on the presence of an actual spine in our officials.
To dissipate growing anti-US sentiments, Pemberton was whisked from the warship USS Peleliu docked in Subic bay to a US facility of the Joint US Military Action Group (Jusmag) inside Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City. Inside the facility of the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB), a container van was converted into an air-conditioned room where Pemberton was supposedly detained.
President Aquino quickly defended the agreements with the US, saying that one crime should not reflect on the relationship of the two countries, specially since the Philippines need the US, for modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, disaster response, communication, etc.
Anti-US bases activists condemned the agreement, which would legalize the year-round presence of hundreds of US troops inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga del Sur, and would create more Camp Navarros around the country.
Twenty-three years after the US troops were booted out of the country, they would be making a comeback in rent-free and tax-exempt “agreed locations” provided under the Edca.
Solicitor general Florin Hilbay, in the oral arguments before the Supreme Court, saw nothing wrong with allowing the US to “build runways and barracks” in the agreed locations, which, under Edca, will be turned over to the AFP when the US troops leave. That is, if, they will ever leave.
Southern Tagalog activists are already up in arms at the start of the reconstruction of the Philippine Naval base in Ulugay Bay, Palawan, which has been the site of joint PH-US military exercises, and eyed as one of the agreed locations. Some residences were demolished and fishing was restricted around the area. The Ulugan Bay, rich in diverse flora and fauna, strategically faces the West Philippine Sea and the disputed Spratlys islands.
One of the biggest risk under Edca is that it gives “operational and security control” to the US. Article 6, section 3 of the Edca provides that:
“US forces are authorized to exercise all rights and authorities within agreed locations that are necessary for their operational control or defense, including taking appropriate measures to protect US forces and contractors. The US should coordinate such measures with appropriate authorities of the Philippines.”
Although the last sentence says the US “should coordinate” with Philippine authorities, it is doubtful if the latter could actually stop a US commander from “taking appropriate measures” when he thinks the agreed location is under attack. Measures “necessary for their operational control or defense” means they could restrict access to these facilities and could, unilaterlally, order shooting at a perceived threat, and, worse, ordering the launching of say, a nuclear-powered weapon.
The US has a policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear arms, which is banned under the Philippine constitution.
Activists and former senators who rejected the renewal of RP-US bases treaty in 1991 petitioned the Supreme Court to declare the Edca unconstitutional. Technically, the Edca requires senate ratification because it involves foreign troops basing. But more than that, it violates Philippine sovereignty by giving free access and control on national territory to the military troops of another country. A country, which, in Philippine history, massacred, raped, pillaged the population, and has always kept the upper hand in the deal.
At the House of Representatives, the Edca was the basis for the third impeachment case against Aquino, who “betrayed his oath of office” with the agreement. The impeachment complaints were all dismissed by the dominantly Aquino-allied lawmakers.
Amid the stirring of dormant anti-US bases sentiments, a section of the population became visibly, albeit unexpectedly, vocal in the call to scrap onerous defense agreements with the US. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual/transgender (LGBT) community joined the demand to abrogate the VFA and Edca as it called for justice for Laude.
The LGBTs have long been silent victims of hate crimes, and raising their voices was just and been long awaited. Jennifer Laude’s death highlighted both the hate crimes, and the unequal relations between the Philippines and the US.
Meanwhile, at the Supreme Court of the Philippines, some justices expressed that Edca is a political question, and wanted to pass the ball to another court, the senate.
At the senate, the foreign relations committee led by its chair Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago has held two hearings in connection with the Edca and Jennifer Laude’s brutal slay. In the past years, Santiago had called for the review, or even termination of the VFA.
The year almost ended on a hopeful note, when on Dec. 15 state prosecutors filed murder charges against Pemberton, who turned out to have even been promoted to lance corporal in spite of being implicated in the brutal slay. He remained in detention under US custody in Camp Aguinaldo.
Alas, the arraignment of the US Marine suspect was quickly followed with the refusal of the US to turn him over to Philippine jurisdiction, and the Dec. 23 decision of the Olongapo city judge Roline Ginez-Jabalde to suspend the trial for 60 days.
Under the VFA, cases filed in court will have only one year to resolve, otherwise, the charges will take no effect.
Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Carlos Zarate said on the continued US custody overPemberton: “This is yet another insult on the country’s sovereignty, courtesy of the unequal and neo-colonial VFA. It is a slap on the Aquino administration’s misguided and lackey-like foreign policy that takes the pronouncements of the US government as final word from the real ‘boss.’ It is now time to put an end to this barefaced and outright insult by abrogating the VFA and all the other unequal security agreements and treaties with the US, like the MDT and the Edca.”
Will 2015 find Pemberton getting acquitted? Or will justice be attained for Jennifer Laude with his conviction and sentencing to jail at the New Bilibid Penitentiary? Or, will it end up like in the case of “Nicole” who eventually withdrew her rape charges against US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith?