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.

Kim

  • I really love to read this post and I am glad to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Thanks and Regards

  • Felicity

    @Joe —

    Hmm maybe we share different view on that, I was in the States when this happened and nobody followed up. The New York Times dedicated a paragraph to this, and it was certainly not on TV News. So I will defer to you on the Nicole/Smith issue.

    On to America the globocop. I have had the fortune of knowing some of our troops who have gone/have returned from Iraq/Afghanistan and they are well-meaning peopel (although I have also had the misfortune of meeting a few cowboys who went to the M.E. to “show them who’s boss.)

    That said, certainly confusion over responsibility, especially for young men in an army of unlimited might, is a logical consequence. However, the consequences of the weight of this responsibility, albeit understandable and I do sympathize, does not excuse much less justify the actions of many soldiers and some higher-ranking officials on the ground. Abu Ghraib is a stark example, but many horrible things happen every day that don’t quite make the headlines, especially in America and in states that have troops on the ground. It’s bad for public support. You know what happened in Vietnam.

    • Felicity,

      You make a lot of sense here. Dang, I thought we might get into an argument. It is fun to argue with bright, aware people, but I have a feeling we would have to hunt hard to find anything to argue about.

      Yes, I know what happened in Vietnam. I spent my year there . . . surreal in the extreme. Then joined the protest crowd back in Los Angeles.

  • Felicity

    Im just worried that this VFA thing might turn out to be like Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of Americans feeling they are doing the right thing, yet have come to abuse local hospitality/trust (Nicole/Smith), and find it hard to “pull out” of the area because of the “war on terror.” If I remember correctly, that war on terror was made up by Bush/Cheney, and now the rest of the world is trying to undo what they had done. The consequences have been terrible, even Americans who don’t watch Fox News will admit that.

    But I am offended that the Nicole/Smith thing is simply an obsession with rockstars and Hollywood. Sorry Joe Am, a woman was raped and the man was treated like a king in prison and sent back to the Land of the Free, operative word Free. That is very Hollywood, come to think of it.

    • The war on terror was started by those who orchestrated the flying of two jets into the World Trade Center towers, one into the Pentagon, and one into a field in Pennsylvania, thanks to some real heroes. “The war on terror was made up by Bush/Cheney.” This is what I mean when Filipinos seem to want to make the US the enemy.

      Nicole was not raped, she was drunk, along with idiot Smith, and they both behaved badly. She got the worst of the deal, no doubt, and made it worse by making up stories for her mama, and then everyone else, at the expense of idiot Smith. Neither person is worth a spit of your time or mine, much less three years of front-page sensationalism.

      • Mike H

        JoeAm: You want Pilipinos in Pilipinas to think like you about the war on terror but they don’t. Don’t you even remember Manuel BuencaminoCan’t you at least accept Felicity’s sincerity when she expresses her outrage about Smith and about the special treatment — Smith enjoying the comforts of the US embassy while the trials were going on? Don’t you remember Manuel Buencamino

        Now, this —- Filipinos think different than you, you should be respectful of that, really, don’t you think it is time for you to understand that?

        Now be consistent with your own words. Filipinos will not conform to your thinking about the war on terrorism. Time for you to write your congressman to pull out the US troops out of Mindanao and to send them to Afghanistan instead.

        • Mike H,

          I agree that I don’t think like most Filipinos. I’ll be respectful of what I think is deserving of respect and screw the cultural nuances. I also don’t think like most Americans, so there you go now.

          There is a reason Smith lounged at the embassy instead of in a Filipino jail, and I would suggest you consider the role Filipinos played in leading up to that conclusion.

        • Mike H,

          Afterthought,

          You hold to the view that I cannot comprehend Filipino thinking, which I concede is true. And you appear to be arguing that a false accusations (“rape”) should be allowed to stand as truth because it is spoken by a Filipina.

          That is curious thinking indeed, and is a part of the Filipino thinking style that I have a hard time grasping: that all things Filipino are pure and innocent and good, or at least have excuses “over there”, and any outside perspective is arrogant and wrong-headed. Is this what is meant by “onion skin”? I have never totally understood that term.

          And why do you make me the issue here instead of advancing your own argument on President Aquino’s silence regarding the VFA? It is an issue worth debating. JoeAm’s personality quirks are not.

      • Kim

        Filipinos do not make the US the enemy. Filipinos just want to make sure that they are not duped by the US in arrangements, situations, and even personal relations. As a country, we have had a long history of bing duped by America, starting with the how America duped Aguinaldo and his minions in 1898 and stole Philippine independence. Commonwealth President Quezon was duped by President Roosevelt in promising aid to the country after the Japanese landed in Dagupan. Then the country was again duped in the Parity Amendment in the post war years.The country was also duped on several occasions with the provisions of the Bases agreements. How then can you earn the trust of people you have cheated since the first time you met them?

        If there’s one thing which will make Filipinos comfortable with arrangements with Americans it should be respect. So long as the US maintains the condescending view on the Philippines in terms of military arrangements, trade agreements, and even in political relations between the two countries then the distrust of Filipinos fostered by the years of US deception will always be alive and shall govern the relationship between the two countries and its peoples.

        • I think there is such a thing as mutual condescension.

          I would be interested in how you think Aguinaldo was “duped”. I think he duped himself and was fundamentally ignored by the US, which, indeed, pursued its self-interest. I refer you to my own examination of this period at: http://thesocietyofhonor.blogspot.com/p/you-may-fire-when-you-are-ready-gridley.html

          • Kim

            Maybe there is. But I don’t think it exist between Americans and Filipinos. The average Filipino is in awe of Americans, and the average American looks at the Filipino as a little brown brother.

            Thanks for the link, will read it. Aside from Simbulan’s book which I cited above, I would like to suggest a book on Philippine history, which is a very good read, in case you have not read it. Try Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes.

          • Will do. Onward . . .

  • Mike H

    to joeAm: You say that US troops should leave Mindanao. Kim says that US troops should leave Mindanao. You and and Kim are in agreement.

    Barack Obama says that US troops should be in Mindanao; you/JoeAm should write your congressman to oppose the funding for US troops’ presence in Mindanao.

    • My view is conditional on Philippine commitment to fighting terrorism. If the commitment is instead on the emotionalism demonstrated by Senator Santiago (“the humiliation, the humiliation”), the same emotionalism that influences the courts and prevents justice from being law-bound instead of subject to influence, I would pull US troops. I also agree to review of the VFA, but not to change the language of the imprisonment clause. To secure a commitment from the new administration to fight terrorism. The US ought not allow its troops to be scapegoats for Philippine civic dysfunctions and Wowowee-style emotionalism that sees Americans tried on ABS-CBN.

      • Kim

        What more commitment does the US need to see from the Philippines in terms of fighting terrorism? We have always been fighting it ever since. What the war on terror now is purely the result of policies made by heads in Washington and how they have failed to truly appreciate the situation. Oplan Bojinka was planned here and the authorities were able to put a lid on. The US agencies were given materials on it and that was years before 9/11. But did the US do something?

        Smith was not a scapegoat for Philippine civic dystunctions and Wowowee-style emotionalism. His actions made him the epitome of The Ugly American, which was in essence, supposed to have been gone when the VFA came into existence. It was the incident involving him and the consequent actions of his government that resurrected the feelings of Filipinos against US troops during the Bases years.

        • What part of two collapsed New York office buildings do you not see as contributing to the “purely” Washington political gamesmanship?

          There are ugly Americans and ugly Filipinos. The trick is to build on the common interests, not allow the uglies to shade perspectives in a way designed to say one is more culpable than the other in the relationship. You try to wrap up about a century of history in one word, “ugly”, and say that is truth. It isn’t . . . entirely. All people are ugly if looked at from the wrong perspective . . . The question is, what do you want to build.

          Going back to the point of your artile, I agree with President Aquino’s decision to remain silent on the VFA for the following reasons:

          (1)VFA is an emotional issue and President Aquino doesn’t need more emotion in his infant administration. He needs calm and practical progress. He needs to go forward on his primary mission, corruption, and get a handle on the wobbly financial condition of the nation.

          (2)VFA isn’t a strategy or initiative; it is a tool. You can’t address the tool until you have developed and explained the strategy, and it is too soon to do that.

          The VFA should be addressed as an issue subordinate to consideration of engagement of the US as a partner of the Philippines for defense of both the Philippines and US. The defense strategies ought not be addressed as issues subordinate to a wayward evening by two drunk and irresponsible people.

          • Kim

            Thank you also for the responses. I have to say though that we both know US intelligence agencies and the Bush administration failed to appreciate the threats that were posed against the country in the months before 9/11. I think that as early as 1997, they have fixed their eyes on China with a conventional strategic confrontation in mind. And this view ignored the other threats posed by non-state powers and figures who have always pronouncements against the US.

            True, there are ugly Filipinos and ugly Americans, but the disparity lies in how both are handled when they become ugly. While in the case of Filipinos they are simply arrested, tried, and penalized, and in some countries in the Middle East, with death; the American is seldom arrested, tried, and penalized. I know though that the value of an American life has become such because foreign governments would not risk confronting the military might of the US of A. History has shown that the US does not hesitate to use its military to uphold its prestige.

            True, the Aquino government doesn’t need more emotion in his first few days in power, but the issue of the VFA is important to professing his faith in the Filipinos and not to US military interests. This is an issue which will always rear its head in the months to come, especially if another incident regarding a Filipino and an American happens again.

            How I wish your words were true that the US were merely a partner of the Philippines for defense. The problem is it is not. While the Philippine government is lathered with sweet promises of ODA, military aid, and praises for its efforts against terror; the government halls in the US are full of papers on how the defense establishment can use the Philippines, particularly Mindanao, as a base for, at the moment efforts against the extremist organizations, and in the future, China.

            That is where the difference, I think, lies.

          • Fascinating. I certainly find nothing to argue with here, and appreciate your point of view.

  • The article makes the mistake of viewing the VFA as a core issue. It is simply an agreement between two countries as to how the US military will be treated to make the engagement of troops work. The apparently unbalanced imprisonment sections are certainly no basis for determining the strategic relationship between the US and Philippines. And the write-up is silent as to the benefits the Philippines gets under the agreement, the most significant of which are training side-by-side with the most capable “warmongering” state in the world, and also the training of Filipinos at US military academies. It is always best to discuss pros along with cons.

    The core issues are deeper: (1) terrorism, and (2) China.

    The following statement is key:

    “With this, the country became another front in the Bush’s administration’s Global War on Terror.”

    Is it America’s war, really, or the Philippines’?

    I agree the VFA should be reviewed, because, as an American, I believe Filipinos do not fully understand or respect the world situation and many are not committed to anything but excuse-making and issue-avoidance. They make the US the enemy and are thankless about what they receive. The US should be engaged in the Philippines only if there is determination by the Philippines to master a global perspective and the determined role the country ought to be playing to help win that very nasty global war. Otherwise, drones from Guam would work fine, thanks . . .

    Nicole and Smith are a symbol more of Filipino obsession about rock stars and Wowowee than global issues.

    • Kim

      First off, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read the article. But I disagree with you that the VFA is not a core issue since it is only an agreement. That is basically the problem. While treaties were signed in earlier arrangements between the US and the Philippines, the VFA was crafted as such to skirt the legislative chambers of the Philippines which have been known to be critical of American military activities in the country since the end of the Marcos Era. There have been a lot of horror stories of the days and nights of Subic and Clark. I suggest you look for Roland Simbulan’s the Bases of Our Insecurity.

      According to you, the write up is silent as to the benefits that the Philippines receives from the US, and yes it is because if you check the US defense allocations for military assistance since the start of the War on Terror, the Philippines has been under supported compared to countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. If you try to check, Colombia, which is fighting an anti-drug war, has been receiving more military aid than the Philippines.

      And on the training of Filipinos in US academies, I would like to point out that the program is open to all the military organizations of all US allies. And this program has been going on since the American colonial times. It is not a result of the VFA.

      True, the core issues are terrorism and China. And that is why I ended the article with a line on China with a link the QDR which was published this February. And since the Abu Sayyaf is actually hanging by its nails after Oplan Ultimatum in 2006-2007, the Philippines will be another launching pad for surveillance and intelligence activities not against local terrorists in the years to come, but against China. The reviews by the US defense establishments both before 9/11 and even until now have never lost sight of China as a future contender in influence in Asia as well as in the international scene.

      The war on Terror is the Bush administration’s creation. While the Philippine government has been fighting the Abu Sayyaf long before the Americans came into town, the conflict took another character after the inclusion of Western Mindanao in GWOT. The efforts of the AFP have been further reduced to mere footnotes with the presence and involvement of US troops. If we are to continue as a sovereign nation, it is important that we have confidence and faith in the abilities of our own soldiers and not in GI Joes.

      We do understand the world situation and how America would always like to use us in maintaining its presence in the important sea lanes of Southeast Asia. That was the premise for invading us in 1898; the premise for maintaining bases after 1946; and the premise for having a VFA and MLSA. The presence of US troops in the country, much more in the frontlines, has deep political and social implications on the credibility of the Philippine government and the support of its people. And yes, maybe drones will work fine for the US defense establishment, but I don’t think it will make the US look good in the international community, especially when journalists find out that the drone attacks also killed civilians.

      Nicole and Smith are symbols more of Filipino obsession with rock stars and Wowowee? I don’t see the connection. My apologies but not all Filipinos are obsessed with rock stars. And just to update you, Wowowee exists no more.

      • I appreciate the thoughtful response, and the reference to Simbulan’s book. There is no question the US pushes its way about the globe like the gorilla it’s resources and self-interest allow it to be. I object to one-sided criticisms that lay the blame for the global war on terror on the US and (again) stand silent as to the role Muslim extremism plays in things. I agree with Mike H’s comment below, that Filipinos view these things through their eyes, and I cannot comprehend their views at times. Likewise, though he is a Filipino in the US, he suffers from the same handicap in grasping American perspectives.

        The US became the world’s gorilla when, after WW II, no country was left but the US to counter Soviet and Chinese ambitions. The essential questions is it a kind and decent gorilla, at the core, or a thug.

        My comment on rock stars missed its mark, I guess. I see a certain emotionalism to responses here, and a failure to “look within” Filipino society for the reasons for some of the conflicts, such as a court system subject to “influence” and essentially not trusted by the US. One of the influences is public outcry. Also, there is a certain failure to accept that Filipinos were in the room when the VFA was crafted, and even today former President Estrada holds that the agreement was not unbalanced. The anger ought to be directed at Filipinos, as well as America if it is believed that gorilla-like behavior is offensive.

        As to Felicity’s view below, she adheres to the story that Nicole told her mother to keep from getting in trouble, thereby laying all the blame for the incident on Smith and holding herself up as innocent. As a result, Smith is forced to bear the entire burden of a nation “scorned”. Nicole was not innocent simply because she was Filipina. She was treated horrendously, and in the end, acknowledged her part in the mistreatment. And as to painting Smith as “free” of any burden, I would suggest Felicity sit down in a room alone with Smith’s mother and work that out.

        Thanks for your thoughful response. We still are apart on our views, but the gap has closed, and I appreciate the tenor of your response.

        • Kim

          Thank you also for sharing your thoughts. I must say though that Felicity’s comments are valid considering that Nicole really felt violated with happened between her, Smith and Smith’s buddies. And where I come from, whenever a woman feels violated, even if the perpetrator is her husband or boyfriend, it constitutes rape. The legal definitions in both our countries, dictated by social, cultural, and in our case even religious distinctions have made the interpretation and perception of the act of violation different.

          While some Americans considered what happened to Nicole as the usual one night stand thing, most Filipinos considered it rape. The truth though only lies between the Smith and Nicole. And the legal system, you, me and Felicity, will never know if it was really done with consent or she just passed out.

          • Interesting perspective in paragraph 1. Thanks. I agree with the last two sentences.