US Embassy officials have denied that the United States is building a military base in Mindanao, but have admitted that their government is constructing “temporary” facilities across the island.
“I can state categorically that the US has no bases in the Philippines and is not building any,” says Lee McClenny, US Embassy counselor for public affairs.
McClenny added that US troops deployed in Zamboanga and Jolo, Sulu use Armed Forces of the Philippines facilities when in Mindanao. That claim seems at odds with the statement of Karen Schinnerer, US Embassy deputy press attaché, who said the US is indeed building facilities in Mindanao, but that these facilities would be used by US soldiers “on a temporary basis for them to eat, sleep, and work in.”
The “temporary” structures being built across Mindanao are worth at least US$14.4 million, or about PhP700 million, and are for “medical, logistical and administrative services” for US soldiers.
That’s a lot of dollars and a lot of facilities for troops that many Filipinos think stopped coming when the US military suspended participation in the Balikatan exercises in retaliation for the conviction for rape of the US Marines’ Lance Corporal Daniel Smith. But as the Bangkok- based research group Focus on the Global South points out in a recent report (Unconventional Warfare: Are US Special Forces Engaged in Offensive Warfare in the Philippines? www.focusweb.org), only those troops involved in Balikatan have stopped coming. The US has had Special Operations Forces (SOFs) in Mindanao since January 2002 who have never left since, which means that the “temporary” facilities are primarily for them.
How temporary the facilities will be will depend on how “temporary” the troops’ presence will be. As for whether these are bases or not, the claim that they’re not rests on a conceptual and semantic sleight of hand. Compared to the giant Subic Naval Base and Clark Airbase the US used to have in Zamboanga and Pampanga, they’re not. But if a military base is any site where troops may rest, recuperate from injuries, keep and maintain their equipment, and be re-supplied, these facilities qualify.
But the more basic question may not be whether the US is building military bases similar to what it used to have in Subic and Clark, but when US troops will leave the Philippines (or if they ever will) ; and whether they’re engaged in offensive operations.
The answers to these questions bear on the question of foreign military bases, which the Philippine Constitution bars. But the closest anyone has ever come to answering the first question (when will they leave?) was former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, who said in 2002 that US troops would leave the country within six months. The SOFs never did, which makes the facilities that have been built and are being built for them more permanent than temporary. US military spokesmen have been more candidly uncandid than Golez: they’ve repeatedly stressed that they will stay for so long as the Philippine government wants them–and the Arroyo government wants them.
On the other hand, only on rare occasions, among them when a Reuters photographer caught a US trooper manning a machine gun during operations against the Abu Sayyaf a few weeks ago, has any answer been suggested to the second question (are US troops engaged in offensive operations?). US government sources, which include officials in the US Embassy in Manila, have made it a career to deny that US troops are engaged in offensive operations in Mindanao. They’re in the Philippines to train Philippine troops. They’re here to advise. They’re around to conduct medical and other humanitarian missions.
But they will fire back if fired at–and it’s likely that, deployed in combat zones, they will be fired at, which means that they’ll fire back. Question: when does firing back morph from self- defense to offense? And is the distinction at all even meaningful?
The Arroyo regime invited US troops back into the Philippines in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the US Department of Defense Pentagon headquarters. They haven’t left since then, and while there is so far no conclusive evidence that they do engage in offensive operations against the Abu Sayyaf, the MILF, or whatever other armed group happens to be the enemy of the moment, their mere presence in combat zones makes US military intervention at least a constant possibility if it’s not yet a fact.
Philippine sovereignty is at issue in terms of the implications of foreign intervention on the fate and welfare of the people in the combat zones in Mindanao. In deploying troops in foreign climes the US is pursuing an anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency agenda focused on defeating terrorism militarily. That has little bearing on the responsibility of governments, such as that of the Philippines, of looking into the roots of the conflicts that have haunted their societies for centuries.
Every piece of evidence ever gathered, every study ever made, has argued for reform and change as the permanent solution to those conflicts. As Focus on the Global South suggests, given what’s at stake, the Philippine Senate can do much worse than to look into whether the US troops in Mindanao are involved in offensive operations– and, what’s even more vital, whether their permanently temporary presence indeed serves this country’s interests.