I hope the US Navy Seal who’s been shooting stray animals in Sulu doesn’t graduate to shooting wild boar. If he does, he could end up shooting a Filipino who mistakenly assumes that because this is his country he can go anywhere in it, including the periphery of US military camps.

That’s what some Filipinos thought when the US still had its Clark airbase in Pampanga. The sentries at the periphery of the base got into the habit of shooting at people near Clark’s outer fences who couldn’t tell the difference between Philippine territory and “US territory”, and shot some of them for making that mistake.

In at least one instance, the US sentry who fired the fatal shot said he had mistaken the Filipino for a wild boar.

Not that Filipinos go around on all fours, and I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that. Maybe what that particular sentry was saying was that some of these Filipinos, like the Aetas of Central Luzon, are small and dark enough to be mistaken for wild life. (One of the turn of the 20th century adjectives US troops used to describe the populace was “khakiak”—meaning like khaki—in addition to choicer epithets like “pock- marked” and “ladron” [thief].)

But not to worry, says the US Embassy, US “authorities” in the Philippines (are there also Arab, Senegal, Cuban and other foreign “authorities” in these parts?) are investigating the Sulu shooting of stray animals. It seems that a certain Lt. Mike Rice, who arrived with an advanced party of US troops to prepare for the next US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises, had been shooting stray animals that wander into the US camp in Seit, Panamao, Sulu. Rice’s advance party is part of the civic action component of the Balikatan, and, would you believe, offers veterinary services in addition to medical and dental services.

It’s probably safe to assume that the medical and dental services are for people, while the veterinary services Rice and company offer include immunizing pets against rabies, and checking farm animals for foot and mouth disease and other ailments, as part of the “winning hearts and minds” aim of the Balikatan exercises.

It does make some kind of sense to shoot “stray animals,” which in the Philippines would be mostly dogs. There’s the occasional cat, and maybe a chicken or two, but dogs do outnumber stray animals enough for there to be a popular term for such creatures (they’re called “askal” or “asong kalye”—street dogs). Rice must have been shooting dogs mostly. Dogs can after all be rabid. Rabies is endemic in many parts of the Philippines, and who wants to be bitten by a stray rabid dog? Rice could have been, to use a favored US term, “preempting” a rabies outbreak.

So it all makes sense, and I for one am not buying the suggestion that Rice was trying to get in some shooting practice with live targets, or the even more malicious idea that he was venting his rage for being in a strange, presumably hostile environment on dumb animals; that he couldn’t care less what the locals think, and what’s more, knew enough to know who’s the real power in the Balikatan to ignore his Filipino counterparts’ request for him to stop all that shooting.

Philippine military officers from the Marine Battallion Landing Team had argued that Rice and whoever was with him whenever they get into a shooting mood could be undermining the “rapport” the US and Philippine troops had supposedly established with residents.

Those officers could have been thinking that the gunshots could trigger (no pun intended) panic among the residents who might think there was another war on, or that it was just plain decency for guests not to act like the owners of the place by disturbing a community in which women, children and babies, as in most Filipino communities, constitute the majority. But what do they know? Rice must have had his reasons, which is why he ignored the requests for him to stop.

Rice was probably disturbing the community, and might have even terrorized some of its residents. The unkind could even claim that he was displaying the kind of behavior that during the decades when the US maintained military bases in the Philippines and its troops had the run of the place led to shootings, rapes, legions of illegitimate children and the rise of prostitution as a major industry in Angeles and Olongapo.

But we have the assurance of the US Embassy that Rice would be disciplined if found guilty of violating the “strict rules of behavior” US soldiers are supposed to observe. Weren’t the effectivity and severity of those rules recently demonstrated when the US refused to turn over to the Philippines those four Marines who allegedly raped a Filipina while they were on R and R in Subic Bay Free port?

Some Filipinos insist that problems such as the “stray animals episode” and the November 2005 rape are the results of the presence of US troops in the Philippines, and that the Balikatan exercises are only a cover for the virtual restoration of the bases the US lost in 1991.

These problems do echo those the country was having with US troops in the good old days of US military bases, and the fact that the Balikatan exercises are continuing exercises means the permanent presence of US troops on Philippine soil despite a constitutional ban on the presence of foreign soldiery. But think about it this way: without people like Rice and those US Marines accused of raping a Filipina, there would be nothing to stand between us and the terrorists, to fight whom they’re training Philippine troops who do admit their incompetence by saying they can’t fight the Abu Sayyaf—all 60 of them– without US help.

Throwing Rice and company out would also jeopardize US support for Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and God knows she needs all the support she can get, since she’s not getting it from the Filipino people. That means Rice and all other US troops who can’t tell the difference between Sulu and a can of beans and who don’t care to find out will continue to have the run of Panamao, Sulu and similar communities to protect poor folk from terrorists, rabies, foot and mouth disease and dental caries. Let’s pray that one of these days they don’t look at a Filipino and see a wild boar instead.

(Business Mirror)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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