Washington's military intervention deepens -
in the Philippines

by Eduardo R.C. Capulong

International Socialist Review, May-June 2003


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 (NPA).

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 troops.

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 the memo.

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 with us.

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 Mindanao:

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 region.

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.

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