On February 11, the Philippines, through Department of Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, submitted a notice of the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) to the US embassy. The DFA Secretary is also the head of the VFA Commission. In response, US Pres. Donald Trump on February 13 said that he is okay with Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s decision and even thanked him for abrogating VFA which will help save a lot of money for the US.
The VFA is an executive agreement signed in 1999 that signaled the return of US soldiers after the termination of the US Military Bases Agreement in 1991. The VFA fleshed out the broad agreement of the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 and other military agreements that the Philippines signed with the US government.
According to an assessment paper on the VFA, it is “essentially about the treatment of US armed forces and defense personnel who would be visiting the Philippines to take part in activities.” The activities include overt and covert ones such as joint military training and exercises, espionage, consultations, etc.
For Moro activists who opposed and protest US military intervention in the country and their anti-terror operations in Mindanao, our group Suara Bangsamoro and youth group Liga ng Kabataang Moro would have been the first to go to Malacanang and thank President Duterte for his decision.
Is this the start of the divorce that President Duterte promised in the early years of his presidency – that of cutting ties with the US government politically and economically?
I remember this great statement of President Duterte and how we supported his stand against US imperialism. He was the only President who made known to the world the historical atrocities of US soldiers on the Moro people, reminding them of the Bud Dajo massacre where around a thousand of Moro, including women and children, died.
However, these were empty threats as President Duterte and Trump even renewed the US military mission in 2017, dubbed as “Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines,” which replaced the Operation Enduring Freedom that lapsed in 2014, enabling the US and the Philippines to conduct joint military exercises on a large-scale, with increased number of US soldiers and the use of fighter jets, assault ships, and drones.
But it was not about defending the country’s sovereignty and VFA’s unconstitutionality that made Duterte abrogate the VFA. It was not about the VFA being a lopsided and onerous agreement. President Duterte’s abrogated the VFA to avenge Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa against the US government that decided to cancel his tourist visa.
It was not even about the reports of US troops abuses while conducting military exercises in Mindanao since 2002, or the crimes that US soldiers committed that, had it not been for massive protests, were whitewashed and ignored due to the VFA, rendering inutile the Philippine government for having no power to prosecute and imprison the perpetrators.
There have been reports of US soldiers who not only participated in military operations but led these missions which were a violation of the terms of references. US soldiers and their quarters were exempt from investigations, even from the Commission on Human Rights, following reports of torture as the cause of the mysterious death of one of their Filipino employees.
The most popular are the sex crimes committed by US soldiers against “Nicole” and the transgender Jennifer Laude. Nicole was raped by US soldiers, and Laude ended up being killed by Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton. During the trial of the case, the accused US soldiers were held in custody by US personnel and detained in a US government facility. The two were convicted of their crimes, but they will serve their sentences according to US government terms.
Some incidents were passed off as accidents, with victims opting for a settlement in fear of retaliation from the US soldiers. Reports of abuse of authority in remote areas such as in Panamao, Sulu when a US officer threatened to shut down the operation of a hospital in Panamao, Sulu in November 2007 if they did not follow orders.
While apologists of the US-led War on Terror and Filipinos who have drowned in the quagmire of colonial mentality would say that we need the VFA to protect the Filipinos from their “enemies,” we should delve deeper and ask who were the enemies identified by the US government identified to us and how this undermined peace efforts in our country?
When the Philippines was identified as the second front of the US-led War on Terror in 2001, the government justified this by saying that Moro armed groups in Mindanao have ties to Al-Qaeda, including non-government organizations and relief institutions who were beneficiaries of the wealth of the Bin Laden family.
In 2002, the US State Department released a list of foreign terrorist organizations that included small-time kidnap-for-ransom gangs in Mindanao just to justify the number of US soldiers the US government would deploy in the country and the necessity for joint military exercises. It also released a bounty hunt called the Rewards for Justice Program that resulted in massive arrests and detention of innocent Moro civilians to fill up the alias warrant against the Abu Sayyaf.
Internal threats included not only the Abu Sayaff but also the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the National Democratic Front (NDF) — all of which were undergoing a peace process with the Philippine government.
The perennial use of pursuit operations against the Abu Sayyaf has led to many encounters of US soldiers with MILF and MNLF groups in Maguindanao, Lanao del Norte, and Sulu, with US soldiers, identified not only among Filipino troops but leading the military operations.
There were many reports of unmanned aerial vehicles, or now more popularly known as drones, seen being controlled by US soldiers encircling MILF and MNLF areas followed by the bombardment of their camps. As a result, thousands of Moro were forced to evacuate their areas.
How can we forget the Mamamasapano incident that shed light on the corruption that the bounty hunt caused, which sacrificed the lives of those who were pushed into a misencounter and also exposed the government’s deception in holding peace negotiation with the MILF? Investigations in the ground revealed that US soldiers were part of that operations and US drones were used.
In the recent Marawi City Crisis in 2017, several US troops were seen near the battle areas manning drones, not merely confined in the command posts at Camp Ranaw as what military officials claimed. The Philippine government and US officials confirmed that there was an undetermined number of US soldiers, armed for “self-defense,” that were deployed in Marawi City giving “security assistance and training” to their AFP commanders in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Again, serving the warrant for self-declared local ISIS leader Isnilon Hapilon’s arrest on May 23 based on a US$5 million bounty put up by the US State Department sparked the encounter between the ISIS and the AFP. More than 350,000 residents of Marawi City and Lanao del Sur were forced to evacuate as the military launched their aerial and ground assaults against the ISIS that lasted for five months, destroying millions-worth of houses, properties, and cultural and religious sites.
And while pro-VFA forces convince us that the agreement will help thwart China’s military build-up in Philippine territories, we completely forget that our government violated its constitution when it allowed the return of the US bases through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and expanded the areas to build and operate for US military operations down to the level of barangays and local communities, depending on the agreed locations. EDCA also covers and allows the presence of US military facilities in the Philippines.
President Duterte’s decision to abrogate the VFA is weightless with EDCA, MDT and other military agreements still in place, with the military aid continuing to pour in. It is also weightless if our government continues to support their anti-terror and counter-insurgencies strategies, their agenda of military interventions and wars of aggression.