by Aziz Choudry
Toward Freedom, Spring 2003
Many Filipinos are acutely aware of the
connections between the US-led assault on Iraq and issues much
closer to home.
Aside from the massive troop build-up
in the Middle East, the Philippines has seen the second biggest
US military deployment since Afghanistan, and the largest concentration
of US forces there since the withdrawal of US military bases in
In February, another 1700 US troops arrived.
This follows last year's Operation Balikatan ("shoulder to
shoulder"), which saw 1300 US soldiers "training and
advising" the Philippine armed forces in counter-terrorism,
focusing on Basilan, the island where the Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom
gang had a stronghold. The Philippines had already been declared
the "second front." Bush's recent "wartime supplemental
appropriations request" to Congress specifies the Philippines
as one of the areas for additional funding for the "broader
war on terror."
As I write, a color photo on the front
page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer tells the story. Gun in
hand, a young US marine guards the perimeter of the Southern Command
Headquarters in Zamboanga, Mindanao. There, in the Southern Philippines,
US forces are currently training Filipino commandos in "counterterrorism"
in the so-called Balikatan 03-1. At a March anti-war rally in
Manilas Rizal Park, I heard speakers from across the political
spectrum, Christians and Muslims, oppose the war in Iraq, and,
in the same breath, call for peace in wartorn Mindanao and an
end to US military involvement in the Philippines.
It's not surprising that so many Filipinos
were making the connections. For many, especially in the south,
war isn't something mediated by a TV screen, it's a lived, "hell
on earth" reality.
As the Philippine government wages war
against Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF),
which has been fighting for the self-determination of Muslim Moro
people since 1978, internal displacement of families continues
in Mindanao and the nearby islands of Basilan and Sulu (Jolo).
Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced by war in
Mindanao. Others have fled to neighboring Sabah in Malaysia.
The Armed Forces have razed villages to
the ground, destroyed crops and killed livestock in a campaign
of terror that has left a trail of human rights violations, death,
and destruction. That's what wars tend to do. Although many people
were resettled by the start of last year, 90,000 more were displaced
in 2002 while joint military operations were conducted.
An estimated one and a half million Filipino
migrant workers in the Middle East face an uncertain future. Over
46,000 Filipino workers, many from Muslim communities, were displaced
during the Gulf War. Labor unions and migrant workers' organizations
have struggled for over a decade to obtain compensation for many
of these overseas contract workers. With the government's official
labor export policy, high unemployment, and growing poverty, an
estimated 2000 Filipinos leave the country daily to work elsewhere.
Remittances from Filipinos working overseas are the country's
largest single source of foreign exchange. With so many in the
Middle East, and the effects of the last Gulf War painfully fresh
for workers and their families, these are particularly worrying
The destination of the latest batch of
US forces could not have been more sensitive: the island called
Sulu. The Moro people there were the staunchest enemies of Spanish
colonialism and US imperialism. Less than 100 years ago, during
the US colonial occupation, US soldiers committed horrific atrocities.
Two of the worst massacres happened at Bud Dajo (March, 1906)
and Bud Bagsak (June, 1913), both on Sulu and both under General
John "Black Jack" Pershing. An estimated 2000 Moros,
including many women and children, were slaughtered in the crater
of Bud Bagsak. These shameful crimes have never been forgotten
on the island. Thus, the planned deployment of US troops was met
with anger, and even talk of revenge against US soldiers.
US military and economic aid to the Philippines
has increased sharply since 9/11, and President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
continues to dance to the Bush administration's tune. Elmer Labog,
head of a militant trade union center, recently described Macapagal
Arroyo as "no more than a remote-controlled dummy of the
Bush administration". Her statements justifying the US-led
attacks on Iraq while attempting to link Iraq, Al-Qaeda and her
domestic foes lack credibility. Although fueling considerable
domestic antiMuslim prejudice, they have been met with scorn and
In February, the Arroyo government expelled
the Iraqi Embassy's Second Secretary Husham Hussein, claiming
he had links to Abu Savyaf. A month later, two more Iraqi diplomats,
first secretary Abdul Karim Shwaikh and attaché Karim Nassir
Hamid, were thrown out for "spying." After Hussein's
expulsion, Simon Elegant, asked in a Time Magazine (Asia) article:
"As skeptics suggest, is the Philippine intelligence community
performing a shadow dance of Colin Powell's efforts in the UN
to convince the world that Iraq and al-Qaeda are working together?"
During the same period, a series of power
pylon bombings caused blackouts over most of Mindanao. The government
was quick to blame the MILF. But no one I asked in Manila believed
it; instead, they were concerned about the lengths to which the
government might go to justify its own, and potential US, military
operations. For its part, the MILF denied responsibility for those
bombings, as well as the March 4 bombing at Davao airport, saying
that it does not target civilians and civilian installations.
The latter made it into US media because an American was killed.
While Philippine government officials
held exploratory talks with an MILF peace panel in Kuala Lumpur
in late March, their defense officials met with US Pacific Command
and Embassy staff to discuss further joint military operations.
Just when it seemed as if the Sulu deployment had been cancelled,
it was announced that a modified version of the joint exercise
would begin there in May or June.
Speaking at the Philippine Military Academy
on March 20, President Macapagal Arroyo justified joining the
so-called "coalition of the willing" against Iraq with
the claim that Iraq's alleged "weapons of mass destruction"
might end up in the hands of Abu Sayyaf or the MILF. "Somebody
is saving us from our own terrorists in the Philippines getting
these weapons," she said. The statement is ironic given the
close links between Abu Sayyaf and the Philippine military, which
helped create the group to split and discredit the MILF.
National police chief Hermogenes Ebdane
adds the ludicrous claim that the Iraqi embassy is finding anti-war
protests in Manila that have targeted the US embassy.
The fierce controversy over the arrival
and role of the latest US military deployment has led both US
and Philippine politicians to downplay or deny reports that the
troops could engage in combat operations. The 1999 Visiting Forces
Agreement and Mutual Logistics Supply Agreement, signed last November,
re-established much of what the US lost a decade earlier when
popular pressure forced the Aquino government to oust the US military
The 1987 Constitution clearly forbids
foreign forces from engaging in combat on Philippine soil. In
contrast, Washington has insisted that US forces would actively
participate in combat, although the exact role would be, in Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's cagey words, "consistent with
their Constitution and their circumstance."
Serious problems surround how US and Philippine
authorities characterize US participation. Pentagon officials
speak of combat operations to "disrupt and destroy"
Abu Sayyaf. Manila calls it an exercise to train, advise and assist
Philippine forces. Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes reduces
the issue to a matter of semantics, "groping for the exact
term" to define the US involvement.
Teddy Casino, secretary general for Bayan,
a leftwing alliance of people s organizations, says that Manila
and Washington are trying to find the "correct formulation
to avoid being questioned in court" about troop deployment.
Not only leftists oppose the US-backed
military operations. Last year, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona
resigned from his Foreign Secretary post over the US forces deployment
in Basilan. Afterward, he continued to predict that the US presence
will lead to more conflict in Mindanao. Numerous politicians have
protested the arrangement as an affront to Philippine sovereignty.
Mindanao senator Aquilino Pimentel warns
that allowing foreigners to fight "our war against rebels
and criminals" could get both the Philippines and the rescuing
nation "embroiled in a messy war such as the one in Colombia."
Commenting on the latest US contingent, he told the Bangkok Post
in March, "They want military presence in our country without
the bases. And one way of doing that is to run after the terrorists
because the search for terrorists is a never-ending quest. Nobody
is a terrorist until he commits an act of terrorism. So that is
an endless pursuit."
Randy David, a newspaper columnist and
University of the Philippines sociologist, foresees the country
being turned into a US training camp. "We are offering our
Iraq-bound friends controlled battlefields with live targets and
SEEKING A FOOTHOLD
And of course, there's the oil. The Philippines
is rich in natural gas, oil, and geothermal supplies. Mindanao
has long been exploited for its natural resources by local and
overseas elites. Creating a stable environment for foreign investment,
at any social or environmental cost, has been the aim of successive
Philippine governments. The aspirations of Moro people for self-determination
directly challenge this agenda.
The Philippines is estimated to have 3.7
trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. The Malampaya
offshore field, the largest natural gas development in Philippine
history, was discovered off Palawan by Shell Philippines Exploration.
Many other oil and gas corporations have investments in the country.
The largest deposits of oil and gas in Asia could lie in the region.
Another US objective appears to be containment
of China as a potential regional rival. Thus, Washington has urged
the Philippines to host Team Challenge, umbrella exercises involving
the US Pacific Command and forces from the Philippines, Australia,
Singapore, and Thailand. Last year, an anonymous Philippine government
official claimed that the US was pushing the exercises to counter
the threat allegedly posed by China. Team Challenge involves invasion
scenarios, with China as aggressor, and responses to a strong
Chinese move in the disputed Spratly Islands (which the Philippines
The Pentagon sees the exercises as a strategic
opportunity to reinforce a critical alliance. The Philippines
provides the US with a foothold in Southeast Asia, a launch point
for operations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and wherever else
it has markets, investments or other geopolitical interests to
protect-and can use the "war on terror" to do so. With
sabers being rattled at North Korea, let's not forget the role
of the Philippines as a forward base for the US during the Korean
War, not to mention 1991 Gulf operations. The Philippines lies
next to one of the world's busiest and most strategic trade routes-the
Strait of Malacca.
When "groping for the exact term"
to define US military involvement, Defense Secretary Reyes overlooked
"recolonization" and "strengthening US geopolitical
hegemony in South East Asia." But both are apt. Filipinos
have struggled repeatedly to eject the US military. This time,
they are resisting a new wave of colonial occupation, one with
regional, if not global, consequences.
Aziz Choudry is an activist, researcher
and writer working in anti-colonial and anti-globalization struggle.
Imperialism / Neocolonialism