POSTSCRIPT / September 2, 2007 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Thesaurus holds key to GI Joes' presence

BASES DEBATE: With the connivance of the Philippine government, I said last Thursday, the United States is using semantics to explain its growing military presence in Mindanao.

Denying that the US is building a military base down South, the American embassy said it was just putting up “temporary” structures (worth some $14.4 million) for “medical, logistical and administrative services” for US troops.

“(The) US has no bases in the Philippines and is not building any,” said Lee McClenny, US embassy counselor for public affairs.

Karen Schinnerer, deputy press attaché, said the facilities being built would be used by American servicemen “on a temporary basis for them to eat, sleep, and work in.”

Technically, both of them are right. But they do not tell the whole story.

* * *

POINTERS: To begin to understand what is going on, remember three things:

1. Section 25 of Article XVIII (Transitory Provisions) of the Constitution says: “After the expiration in 1991 of the Agreement between the Republic of the Philippines and the United States of America concerning military bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

2. The US does not want war and terrorism to visit it. It keeps pushing armed conflicts away from continental USofA, sometimes striking overseas to nip a budding threat.

3. Poor Philippines needs security partners – and one of them happens to be Uncle Sam.

* * *

FLASH POINTS: In the context of No. 2 above, the US needs rapidly mobile forces and forward bases, or whatever it wants to call them. It cannot wait till the enemy is right there on Manhattan or in the DC area.

While Russia has declined as an immediate security concern, the Chinese dragon shows potential to break out of the Bamboo Curtain. Already, China’s expansionist claims near Southern Philippines have disturbed the peace in the neighborhood.

Then there are the flash points in the Middle East. While that region can be reached via the Persian Gulf, there must be provisions for an alternate route or staging area.

A Pacific power, the US looks like it needs or wants a service platform, a facility, or some access in its former colony, or near it.

* * *

NAMING GAME: The current debate actually spins around semantics.

Section 25 forbids “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities.” So, call the men and the $14.4-million structures something else. That is easy.

Since “bases” connotes permanency, describe the US troops and their facilities as temporary. After all, nothing in this world is really permanent.

When the onerous RP-US bases pact was being renegotiated in the 1970s, and the term “bases” had become a bad word, they changed the labeling. They called the bases “facilities.” Same bulldog with a new collar.

To show that American bases were gone, they called them “Philippine bases.” To boost the illusion, they let the Philippine flag fly over them and installed a Filipino base commander (with PX privileges but no power to inspect the US facility within the base).

* * *

99 CUT TO 44: After the US returned our independence on July 4, 1946 — and we gave them parity rights — we signed a Military Bases Agreement in 1947 leasing to them base lands in perpetuity (meaning 99 years, with the lease expiring in 2046!).

How could anybody justify a 99-year lease on such valuable real estate as Subic, Clark, John Hay and other prime areas? The MBA was as good as a Torrens title, sweetened with virtual extraterritoriality.

Aside from terms, they also played with numbers. They cut the original 99 years to 44 years – to expire in 1991 instead of 2046. But in all the press releases and documents, they claimed that the original lease was shortened to 25 years (not to 44).

* * *

POKER PLAYERS: When the Cold War thawed in late 1980s and the Soviet Union melted away in 1991, theories sprouted in policy circles that it was time for the US to dismantle its bases. And they did close some bases abroad and on the US mainland.

That was welcome development to American taxpayers since it not only saved them lots of money, but also infused them with a feeling that peace must be dawning.

It also strengthened Washington’s bargaining hand in Manila, which was then seething with nationalist demands that the US base lands be returned and the Yankees sent packing home.

The “we can go home anytime, but you need us” air of the American poker players at the bargaining table dampened the market value of the bases. The Filipino negotiators had to settle for a more modest price.

* * *

RIGHT TERMS: As the 1991 expiry drew near, we were asked to grant the US a 10-year extension. Although most Filipinos, I dare say, favored American presence, the anti-bases noise was just too much to ignore.

The treaty-ratifying Senate rejected the proposed extension.

To cap the despedida, Mt. Pinatubo blew its top, sending the Americans scampering to safety out of the ash-covered bases.

Now the Americans are back under a Visiting Forces Agreement that defines criminal jurisdiction and the status of US servicemen when they are in the country.

Can the VFA justify the prolonged stay of these foreign troops and their base-like facilities? It can, if the American and Filipino collaborators can again find the right terms to disguise their presence.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 2, 2007)

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