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“Junk VFA!” Filipino-Americans cry as thousands more US troops make their way to Bicol

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Contact: Berna Ellorin
Secretary-General, BAYAN USA

The US Chapter of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, or BAYAN USA, an alliance of 14 Filipino organizations across the United States, condemns the arrogant and costly continuance of the so-called “joint military exercises” between US and Philippine troops known as Balikatan under the auspices of the controversial Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), despite widespread opposition from the Filipino people. In April 2009, over 6,000 US troops will be deployed to the Bicol region of the Philippines to join 2500 Philippine troops to launch the Balikatan 2, the continuation of military exercises and practices as a so-called “counter-terrorism” measure for the region.

It is utterly disappointing that while the world had reason to celebrate the voting out of George W. Bush in favor of “change we can all believe in”, the Obama administration has decided to NOT CHANGE Bush’s foreign policy in the Philippines. This includes upholding the rotten and unequal character of the VFA.

The terms of the 1999 RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement– consisting of two principal documents, VFA 1 and VFA 2, though on paper a joint military agreement between two countries– has been poorly implemented and abused by both governments. The result has been a large wielding of heavy favor and privilege to the US government while grossly minimizing, if not diminishing, the Philippines’ right to national sovereignty in military and judicial affairs. One such example is stipulations on the “right to jurisdiction” in cases of crimes committed by military personnel in both countries.

VFA 1 stipulates that the US government retain jurisdiction over US military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless said crimes are “of particular importance” to the Philippines. Throughout the history of the VFA, many have accused both government of using the agreement to grant immunity from prosecution to all US military personnel who commit crimes against Filipinos. Since the advent of US military presence in the Philippines in 1899, no single US military personnel has been tried and convicted for a crime committed on the Philippines UNTIL 2006, when a historical guilty verdict convicted Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, one of four US marines stationed in the Philippines, accused of gang raping a 22-year old Filipina woman in 2005.

While undergoing trial for nearly a year, the four remained under US custody, despite growing unrest in the country to hand them over to Philippine jurisdiction. Characteristically subservient and treasonous, the Arroyo government bowed down in loyalty its foreign master and pushed for the overtly-lopsided handling in favor of the US military during the Subic Rape Trial. While three out of the four were eventually acquitted, Smith was convicted. Shortly after conviction, Philippine authorities turned-over Smith to the US Embassy in Manila, where he supposedly remains, against the outrage of the majority of Filipinos who protested for him to serve his time in a Philippine jail.

In stark contrast, VFA 2 stipulates that “confinement imposed by a United States federal or state court upon a Republic of the Philippines personnel shall be served in penal institutions in the United States suitable for the custody level of the prisoners, chosen after consultation between the two governments.”

While historically abused and defended by Malacanang, we applaud the patriotic and human rights-conscious elements in the Philippine Legislature who are rising up to call for the termination of the VFA and pointing out Malacanang’s betrayal. House Resolution 458, calling for the abrogation of the VFA, was filed last year mainly by representatives in BAYAN MUNA and Gabriela Women’s Party. But now the lingering question over Smith’s detention in the US Embassy has resulted in a number of Philippine Senators, including Francis Pangilinan, Rodolfo Biazon, Pia Cayetano, and Francis Escudero to support the abrogation the VFA on the basis of it being utterly in opposition to the national interests and dignity of the Philippine people. Senate Resolution 892, filed by Pangilinan last week, deems the VFA violates the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which prohibits the permanent presence of foreign troops in Philippine territory.

While the pact stipulates US military basing in the Philippines to be “temporary”, the truth is US military presence in the Philippines has no genuine intention of leaving. In fact, under Bush-Arroyo framework of the Philippines as the “Second Front” to the Global War on Terror, Balikatan not only increased the number of US troops in the Philippines to the thousands and paved the way for the construction of US military bases in Mindanao, it paved the way for an increase in millions of US tax dollars as US military aid to the country, a package that has been linked to the proliferation of human rights violations committed by the Philippine military. The presence of the so-called “temporary” US military bases and economic aid has been largely hidden by both the US and Philippine governments, but the concrete effects have been adversely felt by all Filipinos in some way, shape, or form.

Just this week, the recent preparatory exercises of Philippine military’s 901st Brigade for the coming of the US troops in Ligao, Albay that resulted in the death of 16-month old Rafaella Polvorido and injuries to at least six other small children and three women who were left traumatized. This proves that the VFA not only sows military atrocities against civilian Filipinos, it kills the most innocent as well. Polvorido’s case is just the latest in a long history of senseless civilian deaths that have resulted in joint military agreements between the US and Philippine governments since 1946, right after the US government “granted” the country nominal independence.

At the same time, it is shameful that the Obama administration continues to pay for the costliness of the Balikatan exercises at a time of acute economic crisis. As more and more people in the US lose jobs, homes, education opportunities, and access to quality healthcare, it is unconscionable that the US government sends millions to the corrupt and tyrannical Arroyo government who funnels the aid to Philippine death squads.

Clearly, the VFA has historically sown not only human rights violations, senseless killings, sexual terrorism against Filipino women and children, aggressive armed conflict, and the trampling of Philippine national sovereignty, it has advanced the Arroyo government’s traditional employment of deceit, betrayal, and secrecy at the expense of the Filipino people’s national interests. It also an unnecessary economic burden the people of the US.

The VFA can not be reformed or suspended as a resolution.  Only total and complete termination of the VFA and assurance that no such agreement will ever be entered into again can truly satisfy the yearning of the Filipino people for genuine national sovereignty and human rights.