|The US is accused of killing civilians in the Philippines while carrying out ‘counter-terrorism’ activities [GALLO/GETTY]|
When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits the Philippines for the second time of her tenure at the head of the State Department on November 15 and 16, she will meet with President Benigno Aquino III, to belatedly celebrate the 60th anniversary of the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty, and to discuss what press reports have called “bilateral and multilateral” matters.
The Mutual Defence Treaty, signed in 1951, calls for common action in the face of a foreign attack on either country. Drafted a decade after the US lost the Philippines as its colonial possession to Japan in WWII, the treaty “still serves as the cornerstone of [the two countries’] relationship and a source of stability in the region”, a US State Department official recently stated.
The Philippines’ experience with stability under the treaty, however, stands in stark contrast to the US statement. Since independence in 1946, the archipelago nation’s army has fought wars in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq, two ongoing 42-year battles against communist guerillas and Muslim separatists and multiple wars against Islamist criminal and terrorist groups. In total, the Philippines has been at war at home and abroad for 50 of the 60 years the Mutual Defence Treaty has been in place.
A century after US authorities fought an anti-colonial insurgency in the Muslim-majority southern Philippine islands of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, US special operations forces are again engaged in counter-insurgency there, this time under the guise of fighting “global terrorism”.
Thus for many Filipinos, the 60th anniversary Mutual Defence Treaty is a sad reminder that the sun has yet to set over the nation’s long colonial history. Nearly seven decades after independence, the country still suffers from US dominance in almost every aspect of society. One US official put it this way in a leaked 2009 diplomatic cable: “No nation has the sort of special relationship with the Philippines that we do. No nation has our degree of access, acceptability or influence” (09MANILA612).
US military presence: A permanent fixture
Since independence, the Philippines has always been the staunchest US ally in southeast Asia, and until almost 20 years ago, home to two of the largest US military bases outside the 50 states.
When the bases were finally dismantled in 1992, it marked the first time since the 16th century that no foreign troops were active in the Philippines. Far from a functional democracy, after nearly 400 years of colonialism and 67 years of American post-colonial domination, “politics in the Philippines remains very much an elite, insider game”, ensuring the “highly stratified, almost feudal societal structure” stays in place, according to the State Department (WikiLeaks 07MANILA1494).
After several years of inactivity following the base closures, the September 11, 2001 attacks presented the US and Philippine President Gloria Arroyo (now facing corruption charges) with an opportunity for a “mutual defence” renaissance. Arroyo came out vociferously in support of Bush’s “Global War on Terror” and even sent a battalion of Philippine troops to Iraq.
In return, the US exponentially increased military aid under her administration and gave Arroyo the green light to carry out wars against the country’s two main insurgencies, southeast Asia’s biggest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the four-decade old communist guerilla movement, the New People’s Army (NPA).
Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, a contentious mutual defence accord signed in 1999, US troops can enter the Philippines without a visa and without informing the Philippine public – or even the government – of the specifics of their activities.
|Many people in the Philippines want leaders to stop supporting US-led wars and remove US troops from the country [GALLO/GETTY]|
The Pentagon used this to its advantage in January 2002 when it deployed 1,200 Special Operation Forces, an elite combat group, to southern Philippines to “assist” the Philippine army in counter-insurgency campaigns – especially against the Abu Sayyaf Group, which had kidnapped Americans and had members with ties to al-Qaeda. The mission was called Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines and formed what Bush called the “second front” in the global military effort to fight terrorism.
Violating the Philippine constitution
The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign troops from participating in combat operations in the country, but the US has repeatedly violated those terms since boots hit the ground in early 2002. US troops are stationed throughout the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao, often in locations unknown to the public.
Although publicly the US military states its activity in the region is restricted to providing support for the Philippine armed forces’ fight against the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group in western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, interviews with armed groups other than Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao revealed that all groups fighting the Philippine government had encountered US troops and most had engaged in direct combat with them.
Commander Taps, head of the MILF’s 105th brigade in the palm tree and rice paddy-laden North Cotabato province of Mindanao, said that, in 2008, his troops came across US soldiers in full combat gear and engaged them in gunfire. He and his foot-soldiers have seen multiple drones over the past three years, he said. Ameril Umbra Kato, the leader of an armed Moro group that recently broke away from the MILF, told Al Jazeera that his men had seen US troops in full combat gear in Maguindanao province, but said they were not engaged in combat. Defiantly, Kato posited that as of now he “cannot consider American troops as a target, but if they enter our area they will be our target”.
An NPA commander in Mindanao who did not give his name for fear of being targeted by the US said that, during the government’s 2008 offensive against the communist guerillas – the largest offensive against the group since US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the early 1980s – he had seen drones in the region and that US troops had engaged in combat with NPA fighters there.
On a separate occasion, villagers saw four US soldiers in full combat gear in Barangay Aliwagwal, Davao Oriental province. They had set up a computer station with four laptops and gave the impression of establishing a tactical command centre, he said. The same NPA commander argued that war with the “imperialists” was inevitable and the NPA has long been preparing for that eventuality.
The American and Philippine militaries often label joint operations in war zones military “exercises”. This is done “to avoid perceived constitutional restrictions against foreign troops participating in internal combat operations”, former Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines commander Gregory Wilson described in Military Review in 2006. “The US government views OEF-P efforts in the Southern Philippines as military operations in a declared hostile-fire area,” he noted.
“I have seen it … I have seen the permanent basing of the US troops.“
– Nancy Gadian, Philippine Navy officer
The Philippine constitution also prohibits foreign troops from establishing permanent bases, a stipulation the US seems to have swept aside. Nancy Gadian, a Philippine Navy officer who has been in hiding since testifying against corruption in a joint US-Philippines military exercise, told Al Jazeera that the Americans “have established a permanent structure” in Zamboanga, Mindanao, where Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines is based.
“I have seen it, I have gone to the different areas already and I have seen the permanent basing of the US troops in Mindanao,” Gadian said.
Although the situation works well for the Philippine defence establishment, a permanent US military presence in the country has not always escaped the wrath of the Philippine public. After then-defence secretary Robert Gates visited the Philippines in June 2009, he stated that US troops were there to stay. The remarks, published in the New York Times, set off a firestorm and a subsequent senate hearing calling into question the Visiting Forces Agreement – the basis for US troop presence. American officials in a WikiLeaks cable later called the article “unfortunate” because it “offered a platform for opponents of the US military presence” (09MANILA1843).
Funding a corrupt and abusive security establishment
The US has financed the Philippine military for decades, but after 9/11, the rules of the game changed. Direct foreign military financing from the US government to the Philippine armed forces in 2002 was more than 18 times that of 2001 and has stayed at heightened levels since then, according to the Center for Defence Information.
Other than a four year lull in the late 1990s, the US has conducted joint military “exercises” with the Philippine army called Balikatan – meaning “shoulder to shoulder” in Tagalog – annually since 1981 and has consistently footed the bill. Since the arrival of American troops in 2002, however, Balikatan has been held more often than not in the most hostile areas in the country. And while Balikatan exercises before 9/11 were rarely more than one month, in 2002 they lasted seven months.
Balikatan has also been the subject of controversy over theft of funds. Nancy Gadian, the Philippine Navy whistleblower, has received multiple death threats from the military. Gadian, supervised the planning of multiple Balikatan exercises over the past decade, told Al Jazeera that “most of the funding for Balikatan gets stuck in the higher headquarters and only a very, very meagre amount is allocated to troops on the ground”.
During Balikatan 2007, Gadian was tasked with organising civil-military operations. She says she was asked by her higher budget officer to claim more expenses to cover up missing funds that amounted to more than 80 per cent of the original budget. “I know that the US knows that there is massive corruption involved in Balikatan exercises,” she said. “I don’t know how the US government addresses these particular activities.”
Corruption in Philippine society does not stop at joint military exercises. Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog group, ranked the country 134 out of 175 countries surveyed, on par with Nigeria. Among the most corrupt institutions are the army and the police. US officials also described the Philippine National Police as “a mess”.
|The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is one of the country’s two main insurgencies [GALLO/GETTY]|
But the Philippine police and army are more than a mess. According to Human Rights Watch, the two institutions have perpetrated hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances against leftist activists who are accused of being members of the NPA. The same US officials also noted that “many cops undertake investigative short cuts that often employ physical abuse, the planting of evidence, and sometimes – allegedly under guidance from local elected officials – the extra-judicial killing of criminal suspects”.
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Philip Alston stated after concluding his fact-finding mission in the Philippines in 2008 that “the military is in a state of denial concerning the numerous extrajudicial executions in which its soldiers are implicated”.
Not a single member of the military has been convicted of crimes related to any extrajudicial killing, yet year after year the US bankrolls joint exercises and gives more than $15m annually in military aid while profiting from weapons sales worth many more millions.
A strategic ally
One thing is clear: If the US were serious about ending the Philippine government, military and police’s grave human rights abuses, it could threaten US funding and sales to these institutions and they would have no immediate choice but to comply.
After all, as the State Department wrote in a WikiLeaks cable from 2005: “The conservative Philippine defence establishment – whose doctrine, equipment and training are all US-based – will be cautious so as not to jeopardise its close relationship with the United States military” (05MANILA2174).
“[The US] wants to use the Philippines as a base for power projection in southeast Asia.“
– Renato Reyes Jr, secretary-general of Bayan
If it is within their power to do so, why don’t the Americans – supposed harbingers of democracy worldwide – do more to end human rights abuses in the Philippines?
“They want advances on economic interests, investments in Mindanao and other parts of the country,” said Renato Reyes Jr, secretary-general of Bayan, a nationalist civil society group. “In the region, they want to use the Philippines as a base for power projection in southeast Asia, including projection of power towards China … it provides the US with a base in advancing its hegemonic interests in the region,” Reyes added.
WikiLeaks has helped confirm these arguments. A 2007 cable revealed that “based on incomplete data and unconfirmed reports, the Philippines may have untapped mineral wealth worth between US $840bn and US $1tn”, adding that “multinational firms are already eyeing areas in Mindanao for possible projects”.
China has overtaken the US as the country’s biggest trading partner in recent years, a development that has not pleased Washington, given the mineral wealth at stake.
Some American lawmakers already see a conflict brewing with China in the South China Sea over the Spratly Islands, a tiny archipelago off the coast of the Philippines and Asia, relatively unimportant – if not for the large quantities of oil and gas thought to be beneath its waters. The islands are claimed by six nations including China and the Philippines, and the US sides with the latter.
In July, Senator Jim Webb of Virginia demanded that the State Department clarify whether the Mutual Defence Treaty covered the South China Sea, arguing that Chinese “aggression” against Philippine fishing vessels had reached an intolerable point. In October the US enraged China by staging joint military exercises with the Filipinos on an island adjacent to the Spratlys.
‘They must stop’
During Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, scores of innocent Muslims have been arrested, tortured and held without charge on suspicion of terrorist activity. The military was also accused of indiscriminate shelling against civilians during its multiple all-out wars against the MILF and the NPA.
Mohaliden Mama, a 27-year-old farmer from Maguindanao province – an area hard-hit by fighting in the past decade – lost more than half his family when, on September 8, 2008, government forces carried out an aerial attack (likely using American weapons and training) on his village, mistaking it for an MILF camp. While fleeing with the remaining six members of his family in a motorboat along a river, soldiers positioned on a bridge, assuming the family were MILF fighters, began shooting at them.
Before bystanders – who were shouting at the soldiers to tell them they were shooting at civilians – could stop the gunfire, Mohaliden’s pregnant wife of seven months was killed, along with four of his cousins. He and his younger brother, Guiamaludin, had dragged most of the bodies to shore in vain. Asked what his message would be if he could speak to the US secretary of state, he did not mince his words.
“If the US government is supporting the Philippine government to kill people, to launch wars against the civilians, then they must stop,” he said plainly.
Joe Penney is an independent journalist.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.