President Benigno Simeon Aquino III delivered his first State of the Nation Address on July 26, 2010. In his speech, he spoke of what little money the country has left; the irregularities in the previous administration; the need for more classrooms, cash transfers, ad social services; and the poor investments his predecessor made in several sectors which were actually not returning any profit. He also called upon Congress to support him in passing measures on fiscal rationalization; land use; witness protection; break-up of monopolies; and the often talked about, but also often forgotten, armed forces modernization. But there was no VFA.
The VFA or Visiting Forces Agreement, a remnant of the Estrada administration’s national security policy and the license given by the Arroyo administration for the, albeit prolonged, visit of US forces in the country remains a burning issue of national sovereignty for most of the country’s nationalists.
Just seven years after the Magnificent 12 of the Philippine Senate voted to reject a news treaty which would allow American forces to stay in the country, the GI Joes were once again, allowed to return to the country for military exercises. The first of these exercises were held in June of 2001. But 9/11 attacks changed the character of the exercises, the troops participating in them, and also the duration of the stay of American forces in the country.
By January of 2002, elements of the Joint Task Force 510 of Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC) headed by Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster arrived in the country and were deployed to Western Mindanao. Later, JTF 510 would be de-activated after the formation of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines or JSOTF-P. With this, the country became another front in the Bush’s administration’s Global War on Terror. In fact, the presence of the US troops in the country and their activities are collectively part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.
In November 2002, the country signed another agreement with the United States, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, which allowed US forces to select locations and build upon these locations, support facilities for their activities in the country. While the agreement was supposedly to be in effect for only five years, it was extended in 2009, after the both Philippine and American negotiators concluded that the arrangement benefitted both parties. The agreement has been viewed by several sectors as “virtual basing” and in violation of the constitutional ban on foreign bases.
But the VFA would be put to test when Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was accused by a Filipino woman under the name Nicole, of rape. The incident, later to be called the Subic Rape Case, served as a litmus paper for the provisions of the agreement which has always been believed by many to serve only the interest of the American government. While the lower court convicted Smith on the charges, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision and set him free. The case though, has become another rallying cry for review of the VFA, so much so that Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has waged a personal battle for a review of the agreement.
While protests and criticism of the VFA have become staple activities of progressive groups in the capital, locals in Zamboanga City, Basilan, and Sulu are ambivalent.
In a 2006 report made by David Santos of ABS-CBN Zamboanga on the anniversary of 9/11 a local was asked on what he feels with the presence of American troops, he answered that he felt safe and that the end is near for the Abu Sayyaf. It would be important to point out that the report was made at the height of Oplan Ultimatum or the intensive military operations of the armed forces against the Abu Sayyaf that resulted to the deaths of several of its leaders.
The interviewee’s thoughts are not isolated. There are some in Mindanao who actually think that the presence of American troops is actually needed. The reasons for this feeling vary. Some adhere to this because they lack faith in the integrity of the AFP in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf, especially after the controversial Lamitan siege; others think that the American forces are more sufficiently equipped to conduct more demanding operations against the bandits; and then there are also those who think that the US presence guarantees the creation of a Bangsa Moro state a.k.a. the BJE or the Bangsa Moro Juridical Entity. Of course, the last one is the result of centuries of enmity between Muslims and Christians in this country which can best be understood by reading Samuel K. Tan’s A Critical Decade.
At its 12th year, the Visiting Forces Agreement remains a heated issue of sovereignty, national security, and justice from the halls of power in Metro Manila to the barangays of Basilan and Sulu. It is still one of the rallying cries of the progressive groups whenever they hold protests whether infront of US Embassy, the Congress, or President Aquino’s house on Times Street. Yet the agreement has largely remained in effect and unquestioned. Since it was declared constitutional early this year, not much has been heard from political scientists, the academe, and the policy-makers. And it was not even mentioned in the recent State of the Nation Address.
Aquino should make a definite stand on the VFA. And he should call for its review If it has achieved or failed its purpose then it should be abrogated. If it has not, then it should be revised and formalized as a treaty with the concurrence of the Senate and the House of representatives. Otherwise, if it remains a treaty, it will always be a bone of contention against the policy of the United States in the Philippines.
With the on-going withdrawal of US troops in Iraq, and the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by next year, it is not a remote possibility that there would be a reduction, if not full withdrawal of US troops from the country. The problem is if the US maintains its posture against China. Now that would be an entirely different matter.