Washington's military intervention
in the Philippines
by Eduardo R.C. Capulong
International Socialist Review,
The Philippines and the United States
resumed joint combat operations in mid-April, renewing their ~
"Balikatan 03-1" (shoulder-to-shoulder) offensive against
Muslim rebels in the southern region of Mindanao. Unlike last
year's "exercises," which were confined-at least formally'-to
Mindanao and lasted six months (see ISR 22, March-April 2002),
U.S. and Philippine officials now say that Balikatan 03-1 will
be open-ended. Operations will include points north, and target
not only the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf, but also the
Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Maoist New People's Army
Balikatan 03-1 will encompass "many
places," said President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, among them
the southern Sulu and Mindanao islands, middle Visayas region,
and northern provinces of Cavite, Quezon, Nueva Ecija, Tarlac
and Pampanga. Backed by $100 million in U.S. military aid, it
will involve as many as 2,000 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Filipino
The resumption of joint operations comes
amid a sharp escalation of hostilities between government and
rebel forces, particularly in the south. Already reeling from
decades of war, the Philippine military staged another major offensive
in February in Mindanao against the MILF. Torpedoing peace negotiations
that were underway, government forces attacked MILF bases in the
resource-rich Liguasan Marsh. Thus far, the operations have killed
more than 200 and displaced 200,000 people.
It also triggered a deadly spate of bombings.
In March, an explosion killed 23 at the Davao International Airport,
including an American missionary. Sixteen were killed in a ferry
terminal explosion shortly thereafter and another 16 in a bombing
of three mosques in April. Arroyo blames the MILF for the bombings.
Declaring a "state of lawless violence," she has declared
"total war" against the organization.
For its part, the MILF-as well as the
NPA, with which it is in tactical military alliance-speculates
that the bombings are the handiwork of the Philippine military
or the United States itself to justify greater military intervention.
There is evidence to that effect. Last May, Michael Meiring, a
British citizen with a California address, was rushed to a Davao
hospital following a blast in his hotel room. Philippine authorities
charged him with illegal possession of explosives. But before
he could be arrested, FBI agents reportedly went past Philippine
National Police guards at the hospital and whisked him away to
the United States. News reports say that he was taken aboard a
chartered plane accompanied by U.S. immigration officials and
agents of the U.S. National Security Agency. U.S. Vice-Consul
Michael Newbill reportedly settled his hospital bills.
Similarly, witnesses to the bombing of
three mosques say that the suspects sped off to a downtown area
where police and military forces had set up checkpoints following
the earlier bombings, implying collusion between the terrorists
and government forces. Finally, a leaked high-level memorandum
apparently penned by Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process
Eduardo Ermita described an "Oplan Greenbase," "which
is supposedly being orchestrated by Malacanang [the presidential
palace], to capture MILF chairman Hashim Salamat dead or alive
to clear the way for the entry of foreign investors interested
in petroleum exploration, and a psywar [psychological] operation
to justify Balikatan 03-1." Ermita denies the existence of
Regardless of who is behind the bombings,
the U.S. and Philippine governments and the interests they represent
are their clear beneficiaries. The U.S. has made no secret of
its designs in Southeast Asia. In a May 2001 report, for example,
the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) counseled the Bush administration
to "focus on a region that too often in the past has fallen
off our radar screens, always to our peril." Chiding the
Clinton administration for lacking a "clear and coherent
strategy," it argued:
Even putting aside the tragedy of the
Vietnam War, it is difficult to acknowledge that such a large
area, with nearly 525 million people and a $700 billion GNP, that
is our fifth largest trading partner, could somehow be an afterthought
of U.S. policy. This should not be the case, particularly in a
part of the world where the United States has fought three major
wars over the past six decades, and where the 1997-98 currency
crisis threatened to destabilize the entire world financial system.
Most of the Fortune 500 multinationals
have significant interests in Southeast Asia, the report noted,
and U.S.-based firms are second only to Japanese companies as
investors in the region. Four countries-Thailand, Singapore, the
Philippines and Malaysia-together received more than $35 billion
in investment in 1998.
Of special note are oil and gas reserves
and production levels in Indonesia and Brunei. Indonesia, the
only Asian member of OPEC, accounts for 20 percent of the world's
liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, and its reserves are still
not fully known. New oil and gas fields are being discovered there,
in Malaysia, in Vietnam and the Philippines.
The CFR report observed that the region
is "a place of great geopolitical consequence that sits aside
some of the world's most critical sea-lanes." More than $1.3
trillion in trade passed through the Strait of Malacca and Lombok
in 1999-nearly half the world's trade-including crucial oil supplies
from the Persian Gulf to Japan, South Korea and China. "As
a result, any disruption of energy supplies would have an immediate
and devastating impact on the economies of East Asia and would
have significant secondary effects on the U.S. economy, as well."
Therefore, "The highest American priority should still be
assigned to maintaining regional security through the prevention
of intraregional conflict and domination by an outside power or
coalition. The administration should preserve a credible military
presence and a viable regional training and support infrastructure."
The RAND Corporation drew similar conclusions
in 2000. In a study entitled The Rok of Southeast Asia in U.S.
Strategy Toward China, the conservative think tank named China
as that regional threat:
China's emergence as a major regional
power over the next 10 years to 15 years could intensify United
States-People's Republic of China (PRC) competition in Southeast
Asia and increase the potential for armed conflict. The United
States is currently the dominant extraregional power in Southeast
Asia.... Economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region, which is
important to the economic security and well-being of the United
States and other powers, depends on preserving American presence
and influence in the region and unrestricted access to sea lanes.
This strategic goal-the preemption of
a global economic and military competitor to the United States-has
since been adopted as a major plank of the Bush Doctrine. Balikatan
03-1 is one of the "high-priority efforts" in "joint
and combined military training exercises" and "individual
and small group exchanges and training" that the Council
on Foreign Relations specifies as key to the success of this aim.
But that's just one goal. By targeting
the MILF and NPA, Washington and Manila are pushing at least three
others: the elimination of two powerful armed movements, seizure
of resource-rich territory and the re-establishment of U.S. military
bases in the country-and with it increased U.S. aid. Unlike the
bandit Abu Sayyaf, the MILF and NPA are political organizations
with long histories of principled opposition to U.S. imperialism
and to the current and past Philippine administrations. They have
a mass base and thousands of armed fighters-combined, some reports
say, between 30,000 and 50,000. Unlike the Abu Sayyaf, their goal
is political power.
The MILF and NPA also control huge swaths
of fertile land. Indeed, the area the Philippine military chose
to attack in February, the Liguasan Marsh, is rich in oil and
natural gas deposits. Arroyo in fact announced that an oil palm
plantation will soon rise in that area -a collusion between the
military and big business that has a long history in the Philippines.
Before a previous offensive in August 2000, for example, then
Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio Morales told reporters that
the Moro lands, including those ravaged by the war, were being
considered for development into cash crop plantations through
joint-venture agreements with foreign companies. Morales said
investors from Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Singapore,
Malaysia, China and Thailand had expressed interest in setting
up plantations for oil, palm, sugar, citrus, abaca and other exportable
crops. Similarly, in July 2001, a fact-finding mission found that
combat operations in another province were actually part of "maneuvers
for clearing the area of opposition, paving the way for the entry
of new tree plantations." Communities strongly opposed to
the Industrial Forest Plantation Management Agreement contracts
approved by then-Environmental Secretary Heherson Alvarez and
other resource-extractive projects like mining and large-scale
commercial logging operations, the report noted, were the target
of military operations. As a military spokesman admitted, the
military's duty was to "clear" the area of "problems"
to allow the smooth entry of development projects. Seizure of
lands controlled by the MILF and NPA would provide profitable
ventures for local and international capitalists.
Finally, the countries' joint "war
on terror" has provided the best excuse for greater U.S.
military presence in its former colony-something it has been seeking
since a nationalist movement and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo
kicked out two U.S. military bases in 1992. The two countries
signed the controversial Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA)
last November, which, a reporter observed, "completed the
chain of logistics hubs the American military has built over the
years. The supply chain now extends from Japan and South Korea
in the northeast Asian region down to Australia and from Hawaii
in the west to Singapore and tiny Diego Garcia island in the Indian
Ocean to the east." The MLSA joins the 1951 Mutual Defense
Treaty, 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and Military Assistance
Agreement in strengthening the U.S. military foothold.
"We share many things in common,"
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Victoriano Lecaros
recently said of the Philippines' relationship with the United
States. "So it's really just a matter of us safeguarding
our interests just as they're safeguarding their interest in interacting
Arroyo has proven to be an eager ally.
The only Southeast Asian leader to support the U.S. war on Iraq,
she is one of the most fervent advocates of the U.S. war on terror,
following the Bush administration's lead down to the passage of
domestic anti-terror legislation. In a March 2003 speech at the
Philippine Military Academy, she rallied graduates to serve in
The Philippines is part of the coalition
of the willing. We are giving political and moral support for
actions to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. We are part
of a long-term security alliance. We are part of the global coalition
against terrorism. These relationships are vital to our national
security. They bear a significance to this war and to our combined
efforts to fight terrorism in the Philippines as well as in the
We shall not be deploying Philippine
combat troops [in Iraq]. So in the days ahead, class 2003 will
not be engaged in the Middle East; rather, many will be engaged
in Mindanao. But the Philippines is committed to extending peacekeeping
and humanitarian assistance in Iraq after the conflict.
Arroyo is so supportive of U.S. interests
that she has even inflamed the long-standing dispute that the
Philippines and Malaysia have over Sabah. In an allusion to Sabah,
where Muslim guerrillas have reportedly sought refuge, she said
recently that "hot pursuit is unimpeded"; the Philippines,
she said, is willing to chase terrorists "across frontiers."
In response, Malaysia deported some 20,000-30,000 Filipinos. And
even as U.S. bombs rained on Iraq, Arroyo, vulture-like, unabashedly
positioned Filipino workers to rebuild post-war Iraq.
But many Filipino workers have something
else in mind. Opposition to the Mindanao war and U.S. military
presence in the country has been a staple slogan in recent demonstrations
against the war in Iraq. An overwhelming majority of the country
had been against the U.S. war. Hundreds of thousands participated
in a series of demonstrations that coincided with global protests.
The continued presence of U.S. forces in the south has also recalled
the Americans' 1906 massacre of Muslims following the Philippine-American
war. In its "huwes de kusilyo" campaign, the U.S. army
killed all males 14 years and older, poisoned wells, and conducted
germ warfare against Muslims in Davao.
Slated for resumption earlier this year,
the protests delayed Balikatan 03-1 and forced the Philippine
government to specify the terms of U.S. involvement. After tactically
changing the wording of the so-called terms of reference for U.S.
forces, U.S. and Philippine officials, emboldened by the U.S.
victory in Iraq, have now gone ahead with the operations. Only
a sustained mass movement will stop the U.S.-Philippine war machine.
As Wilson Fortaleza, president of the left activist coalition
Sanlakas, said in a recent press statement, "The Mindanao
problem is not simply a case of thriving lawlessness in the area
as what the military claims [sic]. The problem is rather a historical
quest for justice-the political and national struggle of the Bangsa
Moro people for self-determination."
Eduardo R C. Capulong is a member of the
International Socialist Organization in San Francisco.