What’s in a name?

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In this country, everything.

Only a select few in government–presumably and certainly including President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes and Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Roy Cimatu–have seen the final draft of the proposed Mutual Logistic Support Agreement. Apparently, most of the country’s congressmen have not seen it either, and neither have most of the senators.

“Proposed,” however, may not be the word to accurately describe the MLSA, since it will certainly be signed, as, says the Arroyo administration, an “accounting” instrument to oversee the material support that the United States will be extending to the Philippine military.

The MLSA, says the administration, is not a treaty, and therefore doesn’t require Senate approval. Ergo, only the Commander in Chief of US Forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC) and Cimatu, as AFP chief of staff, will be signing the “agreement.”

The administration claim that the MLSA is a mere accounting instrument–nothing to get really suspicious and riled about–is its justification for not releasing the draft to the public, and even to members of Congress. Mrs. Arroyo has also said that there’s no point releasing it because, in any case, whatever it contains “will always be criticized.”

The intent to keep its contents secret, or at least a matter of speculation for the public at large, is as obvious as it is odd for a mere accounting instrument. If it’s really a trifle, and nothing to get all excited about, and far from the beginning of a more permanent arrangement for the return of US troops to the Philippines, why the effort to keep the public ignorant?

Equally suspicious are the conflicting statements that have come from Arroyo officials themselves. Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said “no US military base, facility or permanent structure shall be constructed, established or allowed” under the agreement.

However, in a moment of unwonted candor, and perhaps not fully appreciating the significance of what he was saying, National Security Adviser Roilo Golez told reporters that the MLSA would indeed allow US troops to build permanent structures anywhere in the country. Those structures can include runways, helipads, barracks and roads.

The structures, said Golez, would be turned over to the Philippine Armed Forces, but would be available for the use of US troops whenever they’re in the country. The Constitution of course bans not only foreign troops but also foreign military facilities unless the presence of the former and the construction of the latter are covered by a treaty approved by the Senate.

Golez’s statements–which he has denied, but which the reporters present when he made it insist he did make–in fact suggest that the MLSA would establish what amount to US military bases. Military bases are what permanent barracks, runways and helipads for US troop use “whenever they’re in the country” amount to.

On the other hand, there is no hindrance to US troops being in the country and occupying these “permanent structures” on a year-round basis for the next five years during which the MLSA will supposedly be in force.

The bulk of the US troops involved in Balikatan 02-1, for example, may have left the country on July 31. Some 160 US troopers, however, are still in Basilan, and will remain in the country until October–when an additional 8,000 troops will be arriving for joint military exercises with the AFP in Luzon and the Visayas.

Following this example, several “exercises” under the Visiting Forces Agreement and Mutual Defense Pact can be held every six months. At the end of each “exercise,” some US troops will be left behind to care for whatever facilities they have erected, constructed or transported to the Philippines until the next batch of troops arrive.

Under the fiction of continuing military exercises, de facto bases and the permanent deployment of foreign (US) troops, despite the constitutional ban, would thus once more be part of the Philippine reality of neocolonial dependence.

This interpretation of the Arroyo government’s intent is virtually inescapable. Despite Golez’s claim that he was misquoted–misquotations are incidentally not as detailed as those attributed to Golez–the statements from the AFP have also alluded to “equipment” which Philippine troops can use.

Any such equipment will have to be housed somewhere, however, and responsibility for their care, operation and maintenance assumed by someone–logically US troops who are likely to have the necessary expertise and who themselves will need to be housed. The stark likelihood is that the MLSA “accounting” process will allow the establishment of permanent facilities–read bases–and the permanent deployment of US troops anywhere in the country.

Equally convincing that the MLSA is not a mere accounting instrument is the Arroyo government’s lifting of the maximum tolerance policy in the police’s dealing with demonstrations. The maximum tolerance policy was itself already misnamed, its application having been mostly limited to the police’s unprovoked use of truncheons against demonstrators. Mrs. Arroyo’s lifting of it provides an official seal of approval to such methods and worse, with the intention of course of preventing various groups from freely expressing their views–in direct and obvious violation of the constitutional guarantee of free assembly.

And yet the “lifting” of the supposed policy–and therefore the police’s public pledge to restrict with the use of force the constitutionally protected rights of citizens–was obviously meant to prevent demonstrations against the MLSA, whether before, during or after US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to the Philippines this weekend.

In short: a fundamental right of the citizenry guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is being compromised for an “accounting” instrument. The violation of this right, together with the violence the police and the military are already committing against such other rights as to be secure in one’s home and to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention, constitutes the creeping authoritarianism, coyly concealed by the fig leaf of “a strong republic,” that Arroyo has set in motion without the benefit of a martial-law declaration, and all for the sake of assuring her US patrons the run of this country.

Whether Arroyo and company call them an “accounting” instrument, or “a strong republic,” the MLSA and the Arroyo government’s effort to concentrate power in the executive and in the police and the military should be known and exposed for what they are. The first is a calculated lie meant to circumvent the constitutional ban on foreign troops and bases in the Philippines; and the second, in support of the first, an authoritarian subterfuge meant to prevent and suppress protest, and to recreate in this country a regime democratic only in name.

(abs-cbnNEWS.com/Today)

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