Rodrigo Duterte and Ronald dela Rosa
President Rodrigo Duterte and then Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa chat on the sidelines of the oath-taking ceremony for newly appointed chairs of the different Regional Peace and Order Councils in the country at the Heroes Hall of Malacañan Palace on January 19, 2017. (King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo)

President Rodrigo Duterte’s making the cancellation of the US visa of the former enforcer of his murderous “war on drugs” the basis for the revocation of the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States may be as absurd and as mindless as the rest of his so-called policies. But among its unintended consequences is the opportunity it provides for the country to seriously look into its foreign relations as a domestic concern. The public attention Mr. Duterte’s unashamed decision to make the interest of one person the basis of the Philippines’ dealings with another country will hopefully also knock some sense into his stubborn constituency and encourage the engagement in the debate over public issues of some of the uninformed millions who make up the majority in this benighted land.

Ratified by the Philippine Senate as a treaty in May, 1999, but regarded by the United States Senate as only an executive agreement, the VFA allows US troops to come to the Philippines so they can hold joint military exercises with their local counterparts and help train them. Among its implications is the possibility of US involvement in the ongoing political and armed conflicts in this country, while the “temporary” deployment of its troops here mocks the Constitutional provision prohibiting the presence of foreign military personnel in Philippine territory.  In 2014 the Aquino III administration ratified the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to supplement the VFA. EDCA allows US forces the use of Philippine military bases to house them and their equipment, which is a roundabout way of turning these bases into their own facilities. 

The Constitutionality of both agreements has been challenged for, among others, their once more allowing the basing of foreign troops on Philippine soil a scant nine years after the Senate rejected in 1990 the treaty that would have extended the lease of US military bases. The VFA restores US extra-territorial rights by giving it jurisdiction over its troops who commit crimes while in the country, thus exempting them from being tried by Philippine courts unless those crimes are “of particular importance” to the Philippines. The agreement also exempts US troops from Philippine visa and passport requirements.

In at least two instances did the behavior of US troops while in the Philippines demonstrate how problematic these agreements can be. In 2006, a Filipina complained that she was raped by a US Marine during a night out in Subic. Although found guilty by a Philippine court, in addition to being clandestinely taken out of prison and into the US Embassy with the connivance of Philippine authorities, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was also eventually spirited out of the country. 

Enraged by the discovery that Jennifer Laude, a Filipina he had sex with, was a transsexual, in 2014 US Marine Joseph Pemberton beat and strangled her in an Olongapo motel. Pemberton was found guilty of homicide rather than murder by a Philippine court, which cited as mitigating circumstance his outrage when he discovered that Laude was a transgender. The ruling in effect justified Pemberton’s committing the hate crime, and provoked protests from the gay, lesbian and transgender community.

Evident in the first instance is that despite a provision in the VFA that enables the Philippine government to declare that it wants custody of US troopers accused of committing crimes, it was the collaboration of Philippine officials with US authorities that prevented it. Both agreements are also a reminder that the rights of this country and its people have historically been compromised, as in the present instance, by the colonial mindset, treachery and double standards (one for foreigners, another for Filipinos) of its own officials. In any case, it has been argued that abrogating both agreements would better serve Philippine interests as well as its relations with the US by once more removing the irritants that such agreements have historically troubled those relations. Rapes and other crimes for which US military personnel were not tried in Philippine courts were among such irritants when the US controlled several military bases in the Philippines.

Early into his term, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the Philippines’ “separation” from the United States. If he was serious, the country’s “separation” from its former colonizer would necessarily put an end not only to the two agreements but also to the decades-old Mutual Defense Treaty. But it soon became clear that Mr. Duterte did not really mean what he said and would do nothing of the sort. What was even worse, he was also allowing his Chinese patrons to undermine Philippine sovereignty over its Exclusive Economic Zone, militarize the West Philippine Sea, harass, steal from, and harm Filipino fisher folk, and turn the country into China’s offshore haven for its shadier citizens. A tidal wave of such ne’er-do-wells has thus engulfed these isles as overstaying tourists and overpaid online gaming workers while Filipinos fly to other countries in search of jobs.

After months and months of this state of affairs — and the holding of the joint US-Philippine military exercises that he had earlier said he would put an end to — Mr. Duterte threatened last week to revoke the VFA. But it was not because it is detrimental to Philippine interests but because of the US’ cancellation of the visa of former Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General, now Senator Ronald “Bato” De la Rosa. 

De la Rosa has apparently made the US State Department list of Filipino officials barred from entering the US because of their role in the arrest and continuing detention of the opposition’s Senator Leila de Lima. Mr. Duterte had earlier barred from the Philippines US Senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy, who were mostly responsible for including in the US 2020 budget act instructions to the State Department not only to prevent human rights violators and the likes of De la Rosa from entering the US but also to freeze their assets there.

Messers. Duterte and De la Rosa’s reaction to the cancellation of the latter’s US visa invites the suspicion that it’s not just because they won’t be able to watch the future fights of Manny Pacquiao. It’s certainly not because both are thinking of Philippine interests and sovereignty despite their loud claims to that effect. More likely could it be because, like many of their fellow bureaucrat capitalists, they’ve stashed part, some, or most of their assets in the US, hence their alarm over being included in the US State Department list.

That distinct possibility invites the making of investigative journalism reports to establish whether or not it is indeed the case, and to sustain the discussion. Beyond that challenge to Filipino journalists, however, is the need to add to the current attention on the VFA and other agreements rational public discourse on the state of US-Philippine relations, the country’s foreign policy as a whole, and the imperative of making the defense and enhancement of its sovereignty its core principle.

Foreign relations cannot be based on personal interests or on pique and tantrums over one’s accomplices’ visa problems, but on their impact on the lives and wellbeing of the people of this unfortunate country. It is in this sense that the international is local. In the face of the current absurdity, the making of a truly independent foreign policy should be part of media and citizen discourse together with such other domestic issues as human rights, press freedom and free expression, the culture of impunity, disaster mitigation and government accountability.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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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