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

Volume III,  Number 44               December 7 - 13, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Four Years of Treaty Violations
Erring U.S. troops are scot-free while critics get the axe

If it is serious enough, the Macapagal-Arroyo government has ample evidence to prosecute U.S. soldiers for violating the Visiting Forces Agreement, which was ratified by the Philippine Senate in 1999. However, not one U.S. soldier has been prosecuted and officials who reported on such cases have found themselves sacked from their posts instead.

By Aubrey Makilan

Government authorities may say that the continuing presence of U.S. forces in the country is in accordance with the 1951 U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Pact and the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). However, Bulatlat.com has been receiving reports from the provinces, concerned people's organizations as well as government sources that the U.S. forces may be conducting operations far more than what was contemplated in both treaties and definitely in violation of the country’s criminal laws.

Among other cases, violations have included conducting unilateral – instead of joint – training exercises; killing and beating up of civilians; as well as destruction of livelihood and environment.

Groups of Americans may even be engaged in covert operations under dubious circumstances.

Recently, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance)-Camarines Norte revealed the presence of a group of U.S. soldiers, escorted by Filipino authorities, in Barangays (villages) Baya and Laguio in Ragay, and South Villazar and Salvacion, in the province of Camarines Sur, southern Luzon. The report was based on a fact-finding mission that Bayan, along with 12 other organizations and two journalists, held on Nov. 17.

Released by Erick Torrecampo, secretary general of Bayan-Camarines Sur, the fact-finding report showed that on Oct. 28 four American soldiers in plainclothes arrived in the four Camarines Sur villages. Villagers said the “visitors” registered in the barangay’s logbooks “site assessment” as their mission and asked about the conditions of water, schools, peace and order and even the New People’s Army (NPA).

Local executives and military officials who escorted the Americans introduced themselves as part of “Kabisig” (or Kapit Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan), said to be psywar unit of the region’s military command.

JUSMAG mission

The fact-finding mission, Torrecampo said, was able to identify the Americans as U.S. Capt. Gina Ritcher (with given address at the “U.S. Embassy, 1201 Roxas Boulevard, Manila”), U.S. Sgt. Sergio Nuñez, a U.S. Spc. Ramirez and another U.S. captain - all members of the Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG).

The report also revealed that over the past two years, U.S. forces were cited in the same Camarines Norte villages as well as parts of Sipocot, Sorsogon and Masbate province – also in the Bicol region.

Considering that no Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) war exercises have been conducted in Bicol, the U.S. visits were in violation of the VFA and “terms of reference” for joint military activities, the mission report also said.

Aside from denouncing in their petitions the intimidating presence of U.S. soldiers in their communities, barangay residents have asked their local governments as well as Congress to investigate.

VFA Commission reports

The government’s own Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) Commission, a watchdog attached to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) which was tasked by the Senate that ratified the agreement in May 1999 to monitor particularly the movement of U.S. troops in the country, has issued controversial reports regarding U.S. compliance with the VFA.

Last year, Vice President Teofisto Guingona, then concurrent foreign affairs secretary, submitted a memorandum to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo listing down several cases of U.S. violations of the VFA. Among the violations cited were unilateral training operations by U.S. troops at the former Clark airbase in Angeles City, Pampanga, north Metro Manila; unilateral flights and pollution of Subic Bay off Olongapo City, former site of a major U.S. naval base.

Under the VFA, all training missions should be bilateral, i.e., there should be both Filipino and American participants in joint exercises. Yet earlier reports said VFA officials observed the absence of Filipinos on board a C-130 when it landed at Clark in April 2001and only Americans were conducting parachute jump training.

In January 2002, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane on a flying mission had no Filipino pilot or airman on board. Several U.S. airplanes were also sighted flying during war exercises in “no fly zones” including the upland areas of Kalinga-Apayao, Sierra Madre and Caraballo mountains in Luzon.

Combat missions

Last year, contrary to government pronouncements that U.S. troops were in the country only for joint military exercises and to conduct special operations training, Philippine military commanders later admitted that the foreign forces participated in combat missions including the rescue mission of American couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf bandits in Basilan island, southern Philippines.

In July also last year, lawyers, educators and human rights advocates grouped under the International Solidarity Mission (ISM) looked into the impact of the Balikatan war exercises and reports of human rights abuses by U.S. servicemen in Basilan, Zamboanga and General Santos City, all in southern Philippines.

ISM confirmed reports of serious human rights abuses from victims and their families—from the shooting of a child, to the arbitrary arrests, torture and illegal imprisonment of dozens of civilians, including Filipino Muslims.

The mission members documented villagers’ accounts of “U.S. spy planes circling overhead for hours, just before Philippine military raided their homes to arrest the residents without any charges.” Reports said spy planes provided the information that led to the massacre of three fisherfolk in Lantawan, Basilan.

Witnesses also said U.S. planes dropped what appeared to be “barrels of toxic waste in the coastal waters of Basilan and the islands of Sulu.”

One witness recalled the pain of her 11-year old child’s death after Filipino soldiers reportedly abducted him, along with three other suspected Abu Sayyaf members, on March 19, 2002 in the village of Makiri, also in Lantawan.

The mission also reported political repression cases like the arrest and detention of three Muslim activists in a raid on a clinic known to be part of the network of Bayan and Bayan Muna on April 24 last year.  ISM members who visited the detainees in the General Santos City Jail learned that they were accused of being members of the ASG, and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the NPA - the former being linked to revolutionary movements to instill fear among the people, said the ISM.

Massive military operations and aerial bombings have already led to mass evacuations with hundreds of houses destroyed and burned, the report said.


What shocked the ISM delegates even more was the reported involvement of U.S. soldiers in the shooting of Buyong-buyong Isnijal, a civilian living in Tuburan, Basilan. The news caught national and international attention. The U.S. soldiers involved in the incident including Sgt. Reggie Lane, were immediately whisked away from the Philippines.

Reacting to the incident, former Senate President Jovito Salonga said the presence of U.S. troops in Basilan was "clearly" unconstitutional and accused the President of "somersaulting” on her no-to-U.S.-ground-troops policy

Since war exercises were resumed following the VFA ratification, many cases of violations involved the killing and wounding of children in Cebu and other places, the beating up of civilians by U.S. servicemen and other cases. Yet until today not one U.S. soldier has been prosecuted.

An executive agreement signed last May between the Philippine and U.S. governments granting immunity to U.S. forces from prosecution – although in relation to the International Criminal Court Treaty – may forever undermine legal efforts to prosecute erring American soldiers now and in the future.


But what is disturbing is the way alleged culprits escape prosecution while those who, publicly or otherwise, have criticized U.S. participation in the VFA and war exercises have been treated unfairly.

For opposing his superior’s support for the VFA and increasing U.S. military presence in the country, Guingona was forced to leave his post as foreign secretary last year.

Elmer Cato, director of the VFA Commission, had submitted a report to Macapagal-Arroyo regarding "the deviations of the visiting U.S. forces.” In 2000, Cato reportedly had a spat with a senior official of the U.S. Embassy in Manila for refusing to allow the flight of a U.S. Marines F-18 jet from Clark to Cebu unless accompanied by a Philippine aircraft. He was also blamed for issuing a report about the disappearance of a U.S. lieutenant on Mt. Pinatubo, central Luzon also in 2000.

Cato was unceremoniously removed from the VFA Commission and is now reportedly with the consular service in Angeles City.

Foreign Undersecretary and VFA Commissioner Amado Valdez suffered a similar fate. Valdez, who figured as a private prosecutor in the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada in early 2001, also reported U.S. troop violations of the VFA including a drunk-driving accident involving U.S. soldiers in Zamboanga City.

Valdez instead found himself reprimanded by Foreign Secretary Blas Ople. Last Oct. 26, he was sacked. Bulatlat.com

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