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As the US “Enhances” Military Cooperation in the Philippines, a Complicated Relationship Is Challenged

Opponents of a US-Philippines military agreement say it tramples on Philippine sovereignty.

US forces conduct small boat fundamentals training with Philippine Marine Corps force reconnaissance Marines during Philippine Bilateral Exercise (PHIBLEX) at Philippine Marine Base Ternate, September, 2013. (Photo: Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr. / US Navy)

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Six months into a new defense agreement designed to “enhance” military ties between the United States and the Philippines, the case of Jennifer Laude is putting strain on a long and complicated alliance. Laude, a transgender Filipina, was found dead on October 11 in a motel room in Olangapo City near the former US naval base at Subic Bay while US forces were on a “liberty” (recreational shore leave) visit.

Witnesses say Laude was seen entering the motel with US Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton who was charged with Laude’s murder. Pemberton, for whom Philippine authorities have issued an arrest warrant, remains in US custody inside a Philippine military base. Laude’s death (she was strangled and drowned in a toilet) has stoked resentment and anger against the US military presence in its former colony.

Despite increased tensions stemming from Laude’s death, the US and Philippine governments remain committed to close military ties.

Speaking in April, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III called the United States a “key ally, a strategic partner and a reliable friend of the Philippines” as he marked the signing of a new bilateral executive agreement called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Under the EDCA, the United States gains greater access to Philippine military bases and other “agreed locations” where it can station troops and pre-position aircraft, weapons and other supplies – all without rent or utility fees. According to US Pacific Command (PACOM), the EDCA will facilitate joint training and exercises and help both nations “resist armed attack.”

PACOM spokesman Maj. David Eastburn said in an email that “enhanced cooperation” is intended to “improve the readiness and capabilities of the [Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)]” and address issues like maritime security awareness, counterterrorism, and humanitarian and disaster relief.

According to Eastburn, in 2014, the United States rotated more than 3,700 military personnel through the Philippines as the two nations conducted 425 “signed activities,” the highest number ever for a single year. US forces are stationed in the Philippines on a temporary basis.

How Long Is “Temporary”?

Speaking from Quezon City, Corazon Valdez-Fabros of the Stop the War Coalition Philippines asked how long “temporary” rotations would last. “It could be six months, a year or more,” she said.

In fact, the EDCA includes a provision for its automatic extension at the end of its 10-year term. Unlike the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the EDCA did not require ratification by the US or Philippine Senate.

More than two decades after the Philippine Senate refused to renew agreements that would have allowed the US naval base at Subic Bay and Clark Airbase to remain open, the EDCA grants the United States the most flexibility and access to the Philippines since 1992.

“This is very different from the bases we used to have . . . where you knew where foreign military troops were located. [Now] they can be located anywhere under the ‘agreed location’ provision,” Valdez-Fabros said.

Critics of the US military presence call Laude’s death the latest affront to Philippine sovereignty and human rights, citing past crimes, pollution and environmental impacts as reasons they want to reduce or end US-Philippine military cooperation.

Regional Instability

Proponents of the EDCA, however, insist on the need for greater military cooperation pointing to China’s territorial claims in the disputed Spratly Islands and South China Sea, which is believed to hold significant oil and gas deposits.

In a report for the Center for a New American Security, Richard D. Fisher Jr., a senior fellow on Asian military affairs with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, wrote, “Washington has an interest in making it easier for Manila to acquire excess US fighters, frigates and other weapons systems.”

Fisher added, “the US should continue to encourage deeper Philippine strategic engagement . . . to enhance Manila’s role in securing this region that is so pivotal to East Asian security.”

Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of Bayan, a Manila-based national social justice organization, disagrees, saying that until US forces leave the Philippines, his nation will remain dependent on the United States and “second-hand military hardware.”

“The sooner the US is out of our country, the better for the Philippines,” Reyes said.

In response to PACOM claims that enhanced military cooperation will allow the United States to respond more quickly and effectively in offering disaster relief, Reyes says that after the devastating Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, many countries sent volunteers and assistance. “So why is it that the US is the only country pushing for a military agreement in exchange for so-called humanitarian assistance and disaster response?”

Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher with Human Rights Watch (HRW), says a broad section of Philippine society is ambivalent or supportive of closer US-Philippine military ties. “The thing about the US military is that they are actually quite popular . . . This is probably one of the few places in the world where the US military is welcome with open arms,” Conde said.

But US-Philippine military cooperation is at its murkiest in the restive southern Philippines where both indigenous Muslim groups and Communist insurgencies have battled with the central Philippine government for decades.

Since 2001, the island of Mindanao and surrounding islands have been part of a so-called second front in the war on terror where the US Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines operated a shadowy campaign against Islamist groups Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf for more than a decade.

In 2005, The New York Times reported on suspected US drone strikes in the region, and again in a 2012 article, shortly after a report published by the Brookings Institution alleged the use of weaponized drones in the southern Philippines.

In 2013, Philippine media outlets published reports about US efforts to establish a drone base on Mindanao.

According to PACOM, today the United States has “just under 200 personnel” at Camp Navarro on Mindanao, a number it says will decline further in 2015 as the United States shifts to rotational elements.

Shadow Wars

Over the last dozen years, the US military has focused much of its efforts in Mindanao on anti-terrorism training with the AFP. On this ethnically and religiously diverse island, rich in mineral resources like gold, silver, copper, nickel and zinc, foreign mining and plantation operations are known for using the AFP to protect their interests.

“It’s no secret in the Philippines, particularly in Mindanao, that the Philippine military acts openly as the security forces of these big companies,” HRW’s Conde said. The highly militarized state of Mindanao where the US-trained AFP clashes with paramilitary forces causes further resentment of the US military presence.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, executive director of the Tebtebba Foundation, a global indigenous rights organization, points to more than 100 mining claims nationwide, many of which overlap with indigenous ancestral lands, setting the stage for conflict between native peoples and resource developers.

“It’s so easy to justify the entry of military forces, especially when some indigenous communities are [located] where other armed groups are found,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

Conde says the presence of US troops does not improve the human rights situation in Mindanao and may indirectly make it worse. “The US is behaving like an uncle that plays with his nephew, spoils him with toys, but holds no moral authority over him and looks the other way when there’s bad behavior.”

Zaynab Ampatuan is the executive director of the Moro People’s Community Organization for Reform and Empowerment, a human rights and environmental NGO in central Mindanao that is opposed to any US military presence.

“The effects of the heightened military presence by both the US and Philippines leads to sporadic displacements, particularly of women and children,” Ampatuan said by email.

She fears the EDCA will perpetuate injustice in Mindanao. “We don’t need any military intervention to resolve our local problems here. [It] will mean more evacuations, damage, illiteracy, fear, insecurity and violence . . . not just for Mindanao, but for the entire nation.”

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