Philippine Reaction to the Return of U.S. Troops

'Welcome Back, GI Joe'

U.S. troops practice fighting Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines
U.S. special forces secure the perimeter of the Philippine army base at Basilan, Feb. 17, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

U.S. forces returning to the Philippines in late January to aid the Philippine military in hunting down Abu Sayyaf rebels were met with mixed reactions. "Welcome back, GI Joe," read one placard at a gathering in Zamboanga, southern Philippines, when the first U.S. troops arrived. At the subsequent daily demonstrations facing the U.S. Embassy in Manila, many protesters carried signs reading, "Yankee, Go Home!"

Such diverse feelings are hardly surprising, given the historic love-hate relationship between the Philippines and its former colonizer, the United States. In September 1991, the Philippine Senate voted against renewing an agreement allowing the United States to maintain military bases in the country, ending nearly a century of American military presence in the Philippines. The decision, many nationalists believed, symbolized "the slaying of the American father image." The United States had occupied the Philippines in 1898, shortly after Spanish authorities agreed to "surrender" Manila for US$30 million. Filipino guerrillas resisted, leading to the Philippine-American War, one of the bloodiest wars of colonization in history. An estimated 1 million Filipino soldiers and civilians, as well as thousands of U.S. soldiers, died in that war. A period of pacification followed, in which Americans introduced American-style education and democracy. The United States propped up a string of Philippine governments shortly after granting the islands independence in 1946, and was the staunchest supporter of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted from power by a popular uprising in 1986.

Philippine-American relations soured after the Philippine Senate refused to renew its welcome to U.S. troops in 1991, only warming up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was the first Asian leader to express support for the U.S. war on terror; she also offered the use of Philippine air space for any reprisal. In return, she secured a promise of aid and military equipment. It turned out that Arroyo got more than she bargained for.

On Jan. 10, Filipinos were jolted with the news that 660 US troops would join 1,200 Filipino troops in Mindanao, southern Philippines. U.S. defense officials have called it the largest deployment of U.S. troops outside Afghanistan.

Philippine and American officials insist that U.S. forces will be in Mindanao only for "military exercises," not combat operations against the Abu Sayyaf, which the United States has linked to Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network. The Philippine military estimates the strength of Abu Sayyaf at less than 1,000 troops, but they are heavily armed and enjoy some support from the local Muslim population. Founded in the 1990s by the late Khadaffy Janjalani, a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist who fought and trained with the mujahedin in Afghanistan, Abu Sayyaf has managed to build up its arsenal largely through million-dollar ransom payments collected from kidnapping local and foreign civilians.

Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes said 160 members of the U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific would merely train Filipino troops hunting down Abu Sayyaf militants. But, he said, some U.S. troops would accompany Filipino soldiers in their combat missions, "to evaluate their performance." What critics find worrisome is Reyes' statement that U.S. troops will be allowed to carry weapons for self-protection and will be allowed to engage Abu Sayyaf rebels "in self-defense." That, according to Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a former chief of staff in the armed forces, "is another name for combat."

Critics have also found it unusual for such war games, called "Balikatan 02-1," (shoulder-to-shoulder) to be conducted close to conflict areas, and to involve live ammunition that can be used against live targets. The United States has likewise sent no less than the elite Joint Task Force 510, dubbed its "crisis-response, rapid-deployment task force."

Map Philippines
Map: Hammond Atlas

Unusual, too, that the war games are expected to last for six months or longer, since past exercises normally lasted no longer than two weeks. Reyes has also insisted that U.S. forces "will have no control over operations at any level," a statement that was contradicted by U.S. defense officials, who say that U.S. troops will be under U.S. command. Such exercises would also involve the recovery of a kidnapped American missionary couple being held by the Abu Sayyaf. Brig. Gen. Donald Wurster, Special Operations chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the United States was prepared to take casualties.

The exercises, slated to begin Jan. 31, 2002, were eventually postponed to Feb. 17, following disagreements over the "terms of reference" (TOR) or the rules that would circumscribe the actions of the U.S. troops in the Philippines.

Constitutionalists—including former Senator Jovito Salonga, who was Senate president at the time it rejected an agreement that would have allowed the United States to maintain military bases in the Philippines—decry the exercises as "a violation of the constitution that bans foreign troops and foreign facilities in the Philippines."

"After our Senate ended decades of foreign military presence in the Phillipines, we are now back to the worst kind of military intervention," says Salonga.

Arroyo, however, insisted the public supports the presence of U.S. troops, citing an October 2001 nationwide poll conducted by private Manila pollster Social Weather Station (SWS) that found 84 percent of Filipinos approved of the idea. SWS has since clarified that it did not directly ask whether Filipinos were in favor of the presence of U.S. troops in Mindanao, only if respondents would welcome foreign assistance to break Abu Sayyaf.

Arroyo has some justification for her contention that Filipinos support U.S. military help. Even as anti-U.S. demonstrators rally in front of the American Embassy in Manila, there is also palpable support for U.S. troops, especially in Zamboanga City, where they are stationed.

Residents of this predominantly Catholic town have taken to wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the English words, "Welcome Joe."

"We were afraid of the Abu Sayyaf, but now at least there is hope that the problem will be solved," sales clerk Grace Lopez told Agence France-Presse on Feb. 17. "We believe that the presence of American forces and the help they can give to our military will really help solve the local terrorism problem," Zamboanga journalist José Marie Bue, who himself had been taken hostage in November by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told the news agency.

Arroyo's legal advisers argue that the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) signed in 1999 covers the exercises. Justice Undersecretary Manuel Teehankee maintained that while the government has no treaty allowing the United States to set up bases here, the VFA covers the entry, stay, and exit of U.S. soldiers in the country. He said the war games are also justified under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States. Salonga, however, says the VFA only allows for training, while the MDT involves cooperation in times of "external armed attack," and not for crushing internal rebellions.

Filipino analysts have questioned why the United States first extended its military operations in the war on terrorism to the Philippines. Randy David, a journalist for Manila's independent Philippine Daily Inquirer, sees the presence of U.S. troops as an unwelcome intervention: "This is a local war, and the Abu Sayyaf are local bandits," he says. "That Americans and other foreigners have been among their victims does not make them global terrorists. This is an internal problem that is being given an international dimension. Why?"

The arrival of the troops has put other armed insurgents on edge as well, raising fears of a regional conflict extending beyond the Abu Sayyaf. The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), believes it will be the next target. The CPP's armed component, the New People's Army (NPA), is among the groups on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Already, CPP chairman-in-exile José Ma. Sison has issued a directive for the 8,000-strong NPA "to teach American soldiers a lesson."

Other movements, including the MILF, which counterterrorism experts consider the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, have also expressed alarm, citing a recent incident where MILF fighters were killed after being mistaken for Abu Sayyaf members. "[The military] is confused as to who are Abu Sayyafs and who are MILFs," MILF spokesperson Ed Kabalu told the English-language Manila newspaper Today on Feb.10. "They are running blind out there, and it's dangerous for us Muslims." He said the MILF, though participating in ongoing peace talks with the Arroyo government, would not hesitate to fight back if attacked, raising fears of a possible conflagration in Basilan and other areas in Mindanao.

Moreover, some political analysts here believe that what the United States really wants is greater access to monitor developments in the region's hostile spots—more specifically, in Indonesia.

According to reports in the independent weekly Manila newsmagazine Newsbreak, the Bush administration offered to train an elite group of the Philippine Armed Forces, the Light Reaction Company, in counterterrorism during Arroyo's November 2001 visit to Washington. According to Newsbreak, the only stipulation the Bush administration made was that the training should take place on a base in Mindanao.

"I believe that the United States wants access in the guise of training and exercises," a Filipino diplomat told Newsbreak, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The Philippines' strategic location makes it a suitable staging area for contingencies in Southeast Asia. The United States has a long-term security interest in the region, particularly the stability and security in Indonesia."

The diplomat said the United States was also after Al-Qaeda terrorist cells that it says exist not just in the Philippines, but also in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Returning to the Philippines may have been easy for the United States. The next question is whether the alliance will last this time around.

Observers from a cross-section of Filipino society have expressed concern over the return of U.S. troops. Human-rights activists recall the abuses of military and paramilitary units trained and funded by the United States in the 1980s and worry that the TOR do not provide enough safeguards for civilians. Environmentalists point to the toxic waste the United States left behind at its former bases in Subic and Clark, in the northern Philippines, and worry that the same fate could befall areas in Mindanao where live ammunition will be used and new military technology will be tested.

Others in the region, particularly observers in Indonesia and Malaysia, have expressed alarm at the expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region. "The dispatch of troops is part of the larger U.S. agenda of demonstrating its military power and imposing its hegemonic will upon other nations," Chandra Muzaffar, president of the Penang, Malaysia-based International Movement for a Just World, told Rome's Inter Press Service in a Feb. 10 interview.

But Muslim Filipinos themselves will prove the most resistant to the presence of U.S. troops. Primary school history textbooks here record that no colonial power—not the Spaniards who colonized the islands in 1521, nor the Americans who arrived three centuries later—has managed to subjugate them. This is a point of pride for the country's Muslim population.

On the eve of the U.S. troops' arrival in Basilan, bomb blasts ripped through the towns of Jolo and Zamboanga, killing five and wounding 45 others. The blasts set the tone for the troops' stay here. "The Americans may have succeeded in quashing Afghanistan. Let them try to do the same in the Philippines. They could be in for a surprise," says Mohamad Abbas, 21, who makes a business selling pirated DVDs at the Muslim enclave in Quiapo.