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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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