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U.S. Troops in Philippines
Early in October, an American soldier was killed in Zamboanga City in the Philippines outside a karaoke bar popular with U.S. military personnel, when a nail bomb delivered by a local motorcyclist exploded in his face. The soldier, identified by the Pentagon as Sgt. 1st Class Mark Wayne Jackson, is the first American combat casualty in what has been called the second front of the U.S. international war on terror. His death forced the Defense Department to acknowledge that some 260 Special Forces military advisors remain in the predominantly Muslim province of Mindinao, following the conclusion of the six-month Balikitan U.S.- Philippine joint military operation. Many Filipinos and most Americans were not aware that American troops were still in the country.
For many Filipinos, the U.S. presence is a painful reminder of the colonial past the country has struggled to overcome, and may even aggravate local ethnic and religious tensions. The U.S. militarys presence in the Philippines goes far beyond subduing Abu Sayyaf, the Islamist militia blamed for the bombing. In August, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that of Washingtons military aid package, half would go to fight the Maoist-inspired New Peoples Army (NPA), recently added to the U.S. State Departments foreign terrorist organization list.
American soldiers are assisting the Philippine military in their counter-insurgency campaign ag- ainst the NPA, according to an October 8 South China Morning Post story, which says 1,000 U.S. troops are in the northern province of Luzon. Lt. Cmdr. Jensin Sommer of the Pacific Command described the operation as ground-air integration training, and said there were only 600 U.S. troops in the region.
Uncomprehending the Philippines complex set of tensions and power affiliations, the U.S. military is deepening its involvement in the pursuit of its own aims. The Bush administration appears to be in the process of reacquiring the Philippines as a staging and refueling base for its Asian wars, in line with the mandate of its recent National Security Strategy, which states, The United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of U.S. troops.
What the Philippines does really offer is a nice location for other operations in Southeast Asia, said Roger Baker, a military analyst with the Texas-based private intelligence company Stratfor.
Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a key architect of Bushs policy of aggressive uni- lateralism, has acknowledged the risks of a conspicuous U.S. military presence. Theres a certain sensitivity, a quite understandable sensitivity, in a country that was an American colony for more than half a century about the dangers or the fears that the United States might be there to take over, Wolfowitz told the conservative Hoover Institute in June. The United States has a long history of intervention in the Philippines, going back to its bloody 17-year war to crush Filipino aspirations for independence begun in 1899.
At least 800,000 Filipinos perished in that war, along with 4,200 American troops, by some estimates. The conflict in the Philippines has its own local dimensions. In 1995, Abu Sayyaf violently splintered from the mass- based Moro independence movement, pursuing criminal activities and paramilitary services for the local authorities. The Moro independence movement was founded by young, lower-class Muslim men in the late 1960s, who were galvanized by poverty, anti-Muslim discrimination, and displacement by Catholic settlers from the north.
Abu Sayyaf attracted the attention of the Bush administration following the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, when U.S. intelligence agents tied the group to al Qaeda, although most reports indicate these ties ended in 1995. Abu Sayyafs outrageous kidnapping and extortion operations recently targeted a group of local Jehovah Witness Avon saleswomen who were beheaded.
The mainline organizations of the Moro independence movement are the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. These groups, according to John Gershman of the think-tank Foreign Policy in Focus, engage in community-level organization and generally limit their violence to military targets. The centrifugal force of Moro identity politics is strong given that the introduction of Islam to the region dates back to the arrival of Arab merchants and Islamic missionaries nearly 800 years ago. The southern islands of the Philippine archipelago were never fully subordinated by Spanish or American colonialism.
The Bush administration is negotiating with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to develop a Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement, a secretive, euphemistic effort to skirt the countrys 1987 constitution prohibiting foreign military bases. Arroyo has declared her support for the Bush administrations war against Iraq, enraging Islamic and anti-imperialist constituencies.
Evoking Filipino pride in the anti-colonial struggle, Congres- sperson Satur Ocampo of the leftist Bayan Muna Party told an international delegation of peace activists, When we fight U.S. imperialism today, we do so as a sovereign people.
As a 1960s-era activist firmly stamped in the anti-imperialist mold, Ocampo testified that Filipino history is replete with experiences that show U.S. imperialism is a deceitful and brutal enemy of the people. The widespread poverty, social inequity, and deep exploitation we suffer today is in large measure due to its domination of Philippine society.
Ocampo, whose party is a coalition of labor organizations, indigenous groups, and former communist rebels, has voiced steady criticism of U.S. involvement, suggesting that the Philippine government is backing away from ratifying the International Criminal Court for fear of angering the United States and losing economic aid. At the conclusion of the first phase of joint U.S.-Philippines military operations, Ocampo called for a congressional inquiry into the human rights implications of the training given by Special Forces advisors. The sentiments of Bayan Muna and other veterans of the communist guerilla insurgency in the Philippines are not wildly divergent from the outlook of policy analysts in the United States.
Gershman warns that the U.S. approach in Southeast Asia relies on militaries that commit human rights violations with impunity, specifically the Philippines and Indonesia. He adds that the campaign against militant Islamic groups risks legitimizing a broader crackdown on dissent by Southeast Asian leaders eager to do away with inconvenient opposition leaders.
The U.S. State Departments 2001 Human Rights Report on the Philippines confirms this concern. According to the report, Members of the security services were responsible for extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention.
The report noted that Philippine human rights groups charge that violations increased as the government intensified its campaign against Abu Sayyaf and that the governments Commission on Human Rights lists the Philippines National Police as the countrys worst abuser.
Gershman recommends debt relief for the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries faced with violent Islamist groups, to address the economic inequalities that propel people toward fundamentalism.
Jordan Green is a graduate student at Columbia University and an associate researcher for the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies. His work has been published in Color- Lines, CounterPunch, and the Nation, among other publications.
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