The injection of U.S. combat troops into the Philippines, ostensibly to train the Philippine army in a minor conflict with a small rebel Muslim group, is meeting with broad opposition from Filipino people.
They condemn it as part of an attempt to restore U.S. military bases that were forced out of the Philippines over a decade ago.
Initially over 600 U.S. troops, including commando-type special forces, have been airlifted to Zamboanga and Basilan Island in the western part of Mindanao where Filipino Muslims, who number less than five percent of the Philippine population, are concentrated. The target is the Abu Sayyaf, an extremist armed group of about 1,000 in number, which has resorted to armed struggle in a demand for independence for the region and has fended off suppression campaigns by the Philippine army for the past two years.
The excuse for U.S. intervention is the claim that Abu Sayyaf is part of Osama bin-Laden’s al-Queda network. Actually, the conflict in Mindanao is centuries old, dating back to Spain’s colonial rule when Muslims resisted and held out against the Catholic Spanish conquest. They held out longest against U.S. colonial seizure. After Philippine independence in 1946 conflict erupted intermittently in open civil warfare, especially over grabbing of Muslim lands by Filipino settlers from other islands.
In the 1970s, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was formed with an armed force and, after prolonged fighting and negotiation, compelled the Philippine government to establish an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in September 1996.
However, a militant section, calling itself the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), had resumed armed struggle for full independence. The Abu Sayyaf is a split-off from the MILF, with a more fundamentalist character.
The MNLF and the MILF have had an open, legal link with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), the umbrella body of Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim states and organizations, and acknowledge receiving funds from the OIC for building Mosques, clinics and schools for poor Muslim provinces.
The MILF has been engaged since last year in negotiations with the Philippine government for a settlement, held in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian President Mahathir’s assistance, but in November U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft listed the MILF as a U.S. terrorist target.
Philippine left and other democratic organizations have opposed the use of military means by the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against the Abu Sayyaf and have called for peaceful negotiations for a settlement of the conflict.
President Arroyo, who is on the far right of Philippine politics, had termed Abu Sayyaf “bandits,” but after Sept. 11 and President Bush’s proclamation of a world-wide war on terrorism, she called it “terrorist,” opening the door for U.S. intervention.
For over a decade the U.S. military has chafed over the rejection by the Philippine Senate in 1991 to extend a military bases treaty, forcing Clark Field and Subic Bay air and naval bases to pack up and leave. Coincident with this was a new post-Morcos constitution that bans foreign military bases and foreign armies from Philippine soil.
U.S. maneuvering and pressures immediately began for new military ties. In 1998 a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was pushed through, against opposition from Philippine left and nationalist forces. It provided for U.S. air, naval and ground forces to “visit” the Philippines to hold joint exercises with Philippine troops.
This still didn’t satisfy U.S. military ambitions. (Last July the pro-nationalist Philippine vice-president and foreign affair secretary, Teofisto Guingona, submitted to President Arroyo a list of numerous violations by the U.S. military of the Visiting Forces Agreement in which U.S. troops conducted simulated combat exercises without any participation or presence of Filipino troops.)
In November President Arroyo, who as a senator had voted in favor of extending the former military bases treaty, hastened to Washington after announcing her support for the U.S. war on Afghanistan and made a military deal with President Bush that goes far beyond the VFA, literally handing Philippine overeignty over to the U.S. military.
In return for military equipment aid and promises of trade concessions for Philippine exports, Arroyo conceded to a new Mutual Logistic Support Agreement (MLSA), under which the U.S. military would get “logistic support, supplies and services” from the Philippines.
The U.S. definition of logistics, support and services is extremely elastic. It refers to construction of base operations support, storage services for U.S. military equipment and weapons, the use of Philippine facilities, and ammunition stockpiling.
For that support, the U.S. would get food, billeting of troops, transportation, oils, lubricants, clothing, communication services, medical services, training services, spare parts and components, repair and maintenance, and airport and seaport services from the Philippines. These are presented as a kind of mutual defense program, but it is nothing less than a U.S. military base system.
In view of the strong anti-bases sentiment among the Filipino people, full details of the deal have been withheld.
Even the signing of the MLSA was evasive: it was not circulated to the pro-nationalists in the foreign affairs department, but signed by the Philippine armed forces chief of staff, General Diomedio Villanueva and the commander in chief of the U.S. pacific Command, Admiral Dennis Blair.
The MLSA is being classed as an “arrangement” not an agreement, because an agreement has the status of a treaty which would require approval by two-thirds of the Philippine Senate, which has a number of nationalist-inclined members.
MLSA is reportedly a 10-year arrangement, far exceeding the sideshow in Mindanao against Abu Sayyaf, but even that has been shrouded in secrecy. Arroyo first said she drew a line on U.S. troops being involved in combat, but this was amended by Washington officials who said that U.S. would engage in joint patrols with Filipino troops in combat areas on Basilan Island under “rules of engagement” in which U.S. troops could fire back if fired upon which is likely to be inevitable.
The reaction to MLSA in the Philippines has resulted in formation of a broad anti-war, anti-bases movement backed by all left and nationalist parties, trade unions and civic organizations which say it “transforms the whole country into a de facto military base for the U.S. global war machine.” President Arroyo is charged with ignoring the constitution in her desire to line up with Bush.
There is a more ominous aspect to the new U.S. intervention in the Philippines under the guise of fighting terrorism.
On the Ashcroft list of terrorist organizations targeted by the U.S., besides the Muslim MILF, is the New People’s Army (NPA) which is the armed force of the Filipino Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – which needs to be distinguished from the authentic Partido Komunista ng Philipinas or PKP, from which it split away).
The NPA has been conducting an unsuccessful armed struggle since 1969, and still has pockets of activity around the Philippines. At the end of January the CPP organization in Mindanao announced that if any U.S. troops entered NPA “territory” they would be made targets and fired upon.
On February a U.S. special forces aircraft on a low-level “training exercise” in northern Luzon was hit by small arms fire, which it claimed was by the NPS although Filipino sources believed it to have come from local tribesmen using a home-made rifle.
Any employment of U.S. troops against the NPA, which has a reputation for provocative behavior, would bring a highly dangerous situation, in the light of President Bush’s vow to exterminate “terrorism” in every corner of the globe.