Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume 2, Number 32              September 15 - 21,  2002            Quezon City, Philippines

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September 16, 1991: 
The Day the Impossible Happened

American GIs are back in the Philippines. This time, for joint military exercises which critics claim is an alibi for heightened U.S. military presence in the country, America’s “second front” in its war against terror.  This situation brings to mind the time when American soldiers could come and go, and the day, Sept. 16, 1991, when things changed for the U.S. military bases.

By Rowena Carranza

In a country where the word America is equivalent to all good things in life and where the United States is perceived as the “big brother” who gave Filipinos democracy, Star Wars and hamburger, the impossible became possible on Sept. 16, 1991.

Equally amazing is the fact that the “impossible” was performed by the Philippine Senate, traditionally conservative and pro-U.S., a training ground for future presidents (U.S. support is crucial in Philippine elections and senators are generally friendly to the U.S).

Indeed, nobody thought that the Senate, in a 12-11 vote, would reject a proposed bases treaty that would have given the U.S. another 10 years to maintain one of its most strategic bases, the Subic Naval Base (Clark Air Base had become inoperable the year before because of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption). 

The historic vote ended a century of U.S. military presence in the Philippines and proved that America’s neo-colony in Asia could stand up to the mighty Uncle Sam.

Bases of rejection

The old bases treaty was forged after World War II and covered the Clark Air Base, Subic Naval Base and several other smaller ones. U.S. military presence in the Philippines however started at the turn of the century when the U.S. forcibly occupied the archipelago and military tactics developed during its Indian “pacification” campaigns were applied against Filipinos.

It was well documented how important the military bases in the Philippines were for U.S. defense and military strategy in the Asia Pacific. They served as refueling stations of U.S. warships, launching pads for attacks in the Middle East and other areas of the world, training centers for American troops and storage facilities for its weapons of mass destruction, even possibly nuclear weapons.

On Sept. 16, 1966, in what was called the Ramos-Rusk Exchange of Notes, a review of the old bases treaty was made and the remaining duration of the bases was reduced from 99 to 25 years. The old bases agreement was thus scheduled to expire on Sept. 16, 1991.

But in 1987, a new Philippine Constitution, also called the Freedom Constitution, was ratified and Section 24, Article XVIII reads: 

"After the expiration in 1991 of the agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning Military Bases, 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.”

For U.S. troops to say on beyond Sept. 16, 1991, a new treaty was needed. Accordingly, negotiating panels of the then Aquino government and the U.S. began meeting in 1990 to draw up a new treaty before the expiration. The result was a proposed treaty titled “RP-U.S. Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security” which gave the U.S. a 10-year withdrawal period.

At first, resistance to a continued U.S. military presence was confined to leftist groups and a few nationalist individuals who have long opposed any sign of U.S. control in the Philippines. The arrogance however of American negotiators, led by Richard Armitage, pushed even those who were agreeable to an extension into firm anti-bases position.

American bully

Dr. Alfredo Bengzon, then Aquino’s health secretary and pointman in the bases treaty negotiations, revealed in a book how the U.S. “bullied and bamboozled” the Philippine government panel.

Bengzon said the Philippine panel's original position in the negotiation was for a seven-year phase out of the bases. Had the U.S. panel accepted this, it might have resulted in the removal of the U.S. bases only in 1998. The Philippine panel thought it would be a dramatic way of commemorating the centennial of Philippine independence. But as expected, the U.S. got the most concessions, particularly on the contentious issues of duration and compensation.

Noted Prof. Roland Simbulan, well-known anti-bases advocate, “By being too greedy, the U.S. lost precisely what it sought to gain: the retention of its military bases.”

“It thought that resistance to U.S. pressure merely consisted of opportunistic and vacillating Filipino politicians who would ultimately give way to its wishes. In the end, the Americans had the greatest shock of their lives when the Senate rejected the draft treaty,” said Simbulan.

More American than the Americans

President Corazon Aquino, catapulted to power through the popular uprising that toppled Ferdinand Marcos, chose to take the American side and campaigned for the ratification of the treaty ¾ hard. She was the first Philippine president to march and lead a rally in support of foreign military troops and bases.

Aquino even threatened to invoke Republic Act 6735, also known as the Initiatives and Referendum Law. This act empowers the people to directly oppose, enact, approve or reject any law passed by any legislative body through a referendum if 10% of the country’s registered voters petitioned to do so.

Her brother, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, who was also head of the ruling party Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP), reportedly threatened to expel anti-bases senators from LDP.

Among the rabid pro-bases officials were former Sen. Raul Manglapus who said the treaty would boost efforts to achieve political and economic stability. (Manglapus served as Aquino’s foreign secretary during the bases talks.) Vice President Salvador Laurel on the other hand warned that the rejection of the treaty would lead to “economic collapse for the country while creating a dangerous security vacuum in Asia.” 

Sen. Franklin Drilon, the present head of the Senate, stated that rejecting the treaty would “send a strong but wrong signal to the U.S.”

Other senators sought to go around the constitutional provision that requires a treaty for U.S. military bases to continue. Sen. Joey Lina filed a resolution asking the Senate to conduct a deeper study on whether it was possible for the Senate to abstain from deciding on the treaty and let the people make the decision through a referendum.  

Despite all these, resistance to continued U.S. military presence grew day by day, as the day of the voting neared. The original eight senators who were against the bases from the start – Senate President Jovito Salonga, Sens. Wigberto Tanada, Teofisto Guingona, Rene Saguisag, Victor Ziga, Sotero Laurel, Ernesto Maceda, and Agapito Aquino – stood firm, signing a resolution calling for the rejection of the treaty on Sept. 8.

Four others – Sens. Juan Ponce Enrile, Joseph Estrada, Orlando Mercado, and Aquilino Pimentel – declared their intention to vote against the treaty the following day.

Herrera on the other hand was denounced by fellow senators for voting in favor of the new agreement in exchange for a U.S. pledge to give his Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) a grant of $13.7 million.

Meanwhile, the underground revolutionary group National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) declared on Sept. 12 a unilateral nationwide ceasefire in the face of a “clear trend” in the Senate to reject the new agreement.

Said Simbulan, “The growth of the resistance mobilized against the proposed bases treaty is reflected in the fact that on Sept. 10, 1991, about 50,000 people marched against it as the Senate vote drew near. But six days after, on September 16, 1991, the number of protesters had swelled to 170,000 outside the Senate despite a heavy downpour.”

And so it came to pass that on Sept. 16, 1991, the impossible happened. Twelve senators, dubbed by the media as the “Magnificent 12,” voted down the new treaty. After the result of the voting was officially proclaimed and the senate gavel banged, the thousands of anti-bases rallyists in front of the Senate sang and danced, the rain mixing with tears.

Eleven years later, in the face of renewed escalation of U.S. military presence in the country and Asia, it is worthwhile to look back at the anti-bases struggle and learn from history. Bulatlat.com

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