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    Southeast Asia
     May 8, 2012


As anti-Americanism rises ...
By Noel Tarrazona

ZAMBOANGA CITY - While United States troops mounted joint military exercises with their Filipino counterparts in an annual show of force in the Philippines held as part of the two sides' Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), civil society groups staged the largest anti-American protest here in nearly a decade.

Grassroots Filipino suspicions are rising about America's ultimate intentions for the country, a former US colony and major military outpost, as Manila and Washington forge closer strategic ties to counterbalance China's expanding regional influence and growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. Local groups have

 
accused US troops of abuses against civilians in pursuit of its global war on terror, while politicians warn the Philippines risks becoming a proxy theater in the intensifying competition between the US and China for regional preeminence.

There are now more than 650 US troops stationed in the Philippines, serving in supposed advisory roles to the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their campaigns against Muslim rebel groups in the country's southern Mindanao island, including the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf. Philippine law bars foreign military bases in the country, but the VFA and 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty allows for US troops to be stationed on a rotational basis. The Philippines closed US bases at Subic and Clark in 1992.

Opponents to the US military presence note that the number of bases where US troops are stationed has grown in recent years. While only 200 US troops were based in the country in 2002, a decade later that number has tripled. While legally confined to advisory roles, US troops are known to have engaged in combat against Abu Sayyaf guerillas in the remote Sulu archipelago. Most recently, US drones have helped the Philippine air force target and assassinate alleged terrorist leaders.

Certain legislators have challenged the US military's growing presence, calling for the abolishment of the VFA and a more neutral foreign policy towards China, though the latter calls have been overtaken in recent weeks by the standoff between Chinese and Philippine boats over the Scarborough Shoal, a contested maritime territory in the South China Sea.

China characterized the recent US-Philippine joint military exercises as "provocative", while its state media has repeatedly called for a "small scale war" against the Philippines. The same media outlets and pro-government blogs have whipped up anti-Philippines xenophobia coincident with the Scarborough Shoal standoff.

Amid the rising tensions, senior Philippine officials traveled to Washington last week to reaffirm the US's commitment to their mutual defense treaty and to lobby for the acquisition of new naval assets. Philippine President Benigno Aquino, meanwhile, has hinted his government may allow for US troops to expand and deepen their rotating deployments to the Philippines.

Despite the rising threat from China, anti-Americanism is firmly on the rise in many areas of Mindanao. Since 2000, the steady arrival and increased presence of US troops here has been a strongly divisive issue among local residents and political leaders.

Many grassroots politicians support the US military presence, arguing it has bolstered the effectiveness of the government's campaign to subdue armed rebel groups and through official aid has improved infrastructure and contributed to badly needed economic development.

Grassroots groups, however, have argued that the security situation in Mindanao has not substantially improved, witnessed in continued bombings and other attacks that continue to displace civilian populations, since the arrival of US troops and that the majority of the population is still mired in poverty.

The recent anti-US rally coincided with the inauguration of a new bilateral civil development center, an office designed to provide humanitarian services to indigent communities in Mindanao.

The protest was symbolically staged in Zamboanga, the former seat of government in Mindanao during US colonial rule, and attempted to march on facilities where US troops were known to be stationed, before the demonstrators were stopped by local police. US officials declined to comment on specific grievances aired at the rally.

Protest leaders aired various complaints - and conspiracy theories - about perceived abuses related to the US military's revolving presence. Adopting a "US troops out now" slogan, protesters echoed of some nationalistic politicians' opposition to the US troop presence and called for the termination of both the VFA and mutual defense treaty.

Amirah Lidasan, leader of Patriotiko Mindanao (Patriotic Mindanao), said that her group had recently submitted a report to the Philippine Senate documenting alleged cases of US troop abuses against Filipino civilians and the US destruction of a mosque in Sulu province.

She said her group has also received reports from its local network that claim US oil company Exxon-Mobil is using US military cover to explore for oil and gas resources in the waters surrounding the remote, restive province.

Lidasan has argued that the US government's main interest in the ongoing peace talks between Aquino's government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is to gain access to a huge reservoir of untapped natural gas at Liguasan Marsh, a 220,000 hectare area in the Mindanao River Basin along the provinces of North Cotabato and Maguindanao.

(Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front - MNLF- and a former professor at the University of the Philippines, has claimed that American oil engineers once told him that the estimated total earnings from Liguasan Marsh could be as high as US$580 billion.)

Other protest leaders raised concerns about what the US's new strategic "pivot" towards Asia could mean for Philippine sovereignty. Satur Ocampo, another rally leader and president of the Bayan Muna (Our Country First) group, said that the US troop presence was never meant to combat terrorism and instead aimed from the start to counterbalance China.

He cited passages from a recent document published by the US White House entitled "Sustaining Global Power and Assessment of US Defense Policy and the Emergence of China as Economic and Military Power" to back his conspiratorial arguments. Ocampo also noted that the US will soon withdraw some 2,500 military special forces from Iraq and Afghanistan to redeploy them to the Asia Pacific region, including to the Philippines.

As more troops are rotated through the Philippines, they can expected to be met with more and possibly more broad-based protests against their revolving presence and uncertain intentions.

"Like his predecessors, this Aquino's administration has allowed the continued exploitation of our country by the US by [agreeing] to unequal treaties," said the League of Filipino Students in a statement not directly related to the protest, but indicative apparently of rising anti-American sentiment among Filipino youth. "Not only did these arrangements allow for the easy intrusion of big foreign companies into the Philippines, but also grant US troops entry into the country and [allow for] their stay for an indefinite time."

Noel Tarrazona, a permanent resident of Canada, is a journalist and humanitarian worker now based in Mindanao. He may be reached at noelcanada36@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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