Their worst enemy

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The US soldiers accused of raping last November 1 a yet unnamed Filipina in the former US naval base now known as Subic Free Port could very well be innocent.

It could also be, as has been suggested mostly by men, that the woman who says she was gang-raped that night could be faulted for at least a “lapse in judgment”.

What was she thinking, after all: that the US Marines she met in a Subic bar and with whom she got into that van had only benevolent thoughts in mind, they being the defenders of liberty and the rights of man (and woman) worldwide? Would she have done the same thing if, say, the soldiers involved were Filipinos?

Like someone else’s “lapse in judgment,” this would be more serious than it seems, suggesting and perhaps concealing a worse failing. Her fault, in this case, would be to believe that US soldiers are what their government describes itself and them to be—decent, law-abiding crusaders for democracy and freedom who haven’t a malevolent thought in their heads. Her worst enemy could have been her own naïve assumptions.

Someone could also argue that like many of her sisters in the country of our shame, this fine example of Filipino womanhood was guilty not only of being an unreformed colonial but also of—who knows?– harboring impure thoughts of marriage and US residency.

All these are speculation and hardly prove the innocence of the US Marines, it being enough for a woman to say “No” for sexual contact to be rape. Nevertheless, it is possible that no rape or gang rape took place as they have declared.

Even US Marines deserve the presumption of innocence. The problem is that in the present circumstances, their guilt or innocence may never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction, and that would be true even if they were eventually tried and found innocent. Like many other issues in the Philippines, this too may never find closure and will continue to fester like an open wound for generations.

The six US Marines are (or were) in the Philippines under the terms of the Visiting Forces Agreement, or the VFA. The VFA was ratified by the Senate in 1999, eight years after the same body, though with a different membership, rejected the extension of the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) of 1947. Among the reasons for the rejection were the “irritants” that from 1947 to 1991 had plagued the MBA. Among these were the abuses committed by US troops, ranging from the shooting of Filipinos at the periphery of Clark Airbase and Subic Naval Base, to rapes in the sleazy towns Angeles and Olongapo had become.

What rankled were the issues of extra-territoriality and US jurisdiction over suspected offenders. In no case were US soldiers accused of crimes ever in Philippine custody, or even tried. Instead they were spirited out of the country beyond the reach of Philippine courts.

The US has been rightly criticized for this arrogance, and its contempt for the laws of a country it describes as an ally. But so has the Philippine government, going back to the administration of Manuel Roxas, been correctly censured for agreeing to the Military Bases Agreement in the first place.

Beyond any agreement or treaty, however, is one factor that can make any formal safeguard no matter how stringent worthless. That factor is every Philippine government’s dog-like subservience to the United States that’s often expressed in the colonial behavior of officials either anxious to curry favor with the United States or simply too accustomed to bowing and scraping before almighty US officials to ever behave differently.

Almost as soon as it came to power the Arroyo government declared its unconditional military re-engagement with the United States. Despite a Constitutional ban on foreign troops, in 2002 it used the VFA to invite US troops to “train” Filipino soldiers in counter-terrorism and to hold joint military exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Like all the governments that have preceded it, the Arroyo regime’s reasons for its attachment to the United States are ideological and class-based as well as personal. The ideological reasons are deeply rooted in the mindset of the Philippine political class, which sees the US as its mentor, patron and protector. In Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s case, the personal lay in the cynical though not original belief that she needs US support to stay in power until 2010.

In these circumstances one can hardly expect the Arroyo regime to stand by and do nothing should the scandal metastasize into a critique and rejection of the VFA. Thus the assurances from Malacanang that the incident will not affect US-Philippine relations, despite the sticky issue, reminiscent of the MBA, of jurisdiction over US soldiers accused of crimes.

On the ground, Palace assurances have found substance in the statements and acts of Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez, who is the lead Arroyo official in the prosecution of the rape suspects. Gonzalez, for example, immediately saw to it that the US soldiers would not spend a single day in a Philippine detention facility by ordering state prosecutors in Olongapo City not to seek custody.

In later statements, Gonzalez declared that custody of the accused belonged to US authorities in the Philippines. Later he argued that the Philippines could not seek custody because its facilities were “inadequate”—implying that they’re adequate for Filipinos but not for US troops. “What,” he asked, and not facetiously either, “if they (the six accused) ask for air-conditioning?”

These are hardly the conditions in which any kind of credible closure could be achieved. Naturally the US government will extract whatever concessions for its personnel it can get, whether through the explicit terms of the VFA already loaded in its favor to begin with, or through such informal means as may be available to it, including influencing key officials. What’s not natural, but has been happening for decades, is a Philippine government and officials only too anxious to oblige. The worst enemy of Filipinos is not themselves, but the government that calls itself their own.

(Business Mirror)

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