MANILA, Philippines — Some politicians, protest groups and a public caught unaware didn’t exactly greet U.S. troops with open arms when they hit the Philippines for the annual Balikatan training exercise last month.
Front page headlines blasted this year’s arrival, with some politicians criticizing the U.S-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty and calling for an end to the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows the U.S. troops to train in the archipelago.
On April 23, halfway into the two-week exercise, a Philippine appeals court overturned the conviction of a U.S. Marine who had been found guilty of raping a Filipina during Balikatan 2005.
The decision, which came a little more than a month after the woman recanted rape allegations, sparked protests and angry responses from women’s rights organizations.
But for all the controversy, U.S. military and State Department officials say the majority of the Philippines government, military and general population are supportive of Balikatan, which translates as “shoulder-to-shoulder.”
The exercise is crucial to maintaining a solid security relationship between the countries, U.S. officials say, and will help ensure a seamless transition to any real-world contingencies that call for their joint work.
A State Department official who spoke to Stripes in Manila last week on the condition of anonymity said there’s a “joint desire” between the countries to continue improving combat capabilities while also working humanitarian projects.
“We believe that the partnership is very productive,” the official said during an interview at the embassy compound.
Balikatan 2009 included a staff-level command post exercise in Manila, humanitarian and civic assistance civil military operations in outlying areas, and a field training exercise.
Because of its size — there were nearly 5,000 U.S. troops scattered at various locations — Balikatan received a lot of media attention.
But the embassy official said it’s just one of dozens of different activities the U.S. military participates in throughout the year in the country.
Army Col. Bill Coultrup, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, said that when U.S. troops travel to the Philippines from locations with restrictive training environments, such as Okinawa, they can conduct live-fire exercises and parachute training.
Although Coultrup’s command is separate from the Balikatan exercise, there can be some overlap. Last year many of the exercise’s civil assistance projects were conducted in the southern Philippines, where his troops are helping train the Philippine military in battling their own insurgents and transnational terror threats.
The embassy official said part of the problem was that the public in that area was "initially not as well informed" as they should have been.
Coultrup said that after media left for the day at one site last year, protesters put down their signs and got in line for the free medical care.
U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Ronald Bailey, deputy commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, commander of 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and co-director of Balikatan 2009, said the humanitarian aspect of the exercise is "just remarkable."
It’s inspiring to see "a community that’s better today than when we started," he said during an interview in Manila. He went on to call the overall exercise a tremendous success.
"It’s all about the relations that you build" when training in the region, Bailey said.
But even with a current climate of cost-cutting and belt-tightening in the military — and with the emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan — continuing a Pacific exercise like Balikatan is important, Bailey said.
Balikatan helps "improve the efficiency and effectiveness" of the U.S. and Philippine troops, "so that we don’t have to start at ground zero" in a real-world situation, Bailey said. "That’s where I see the great value."
The U.S. spent about $340,000 to build two wells, two schools and two roads and another $77,000 medically treating about 22,000 Filipinos. He called it a small investment for the return.
Those who oppose Balikatan — claiming that any U.S. training violates the Philippines’ sovereignty — think their own government should focus on the people.
"It is the job of the Philippine government to address the different problems of its constituents," wrote Ban Balikatan spokeswoman Jocelyn Bisuna in an e-mail response to Stripes’ questions.
"[The government] should concentrate more on alleviating the plight of most Filipinos … by implementing genuine agrarian reform and national industrialization rather than wait for disguised humanitarian measures that are really aimed to gather intelligence on progressive groups in the country."
Philippines’ commodore Ramon Espera Jr., Balikatan co-director, said in an e-mail that the exercise is part of a long-term commitment by both countries to come to each others’ aid, if needed.
As for the protests, Espera said the Philippines is a "free country with various groups expressing opinions and beliefs." But he suggested that those criticizing Balikatan "examine the true objective" of the exercise.
Balikatan "demonstrates cooperation and inter-operability between the Philippines and the United States, consistent with the mutual defense treaty and visiting forces agreement, as we continue our commitment to train, share information and provide support to each other," he wrote.
Gerard Finin, a senior fellow and deputy director of the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Development Program in Hawaii, said Balikatan "tends to be seen by many Filipinos as a neo-colonial institution."
During a phone interview, he said humanitarian assistance would obviously be welcomed by any developing nation.
"The question in my mind is, ‘Could it be done without the other [military exercise] components?’ " he said.
He thinks bringing Philippine troops to U.S. soil — places like Hawaii or Guam — might be a better approach to a continued security relationship.
"It would be a symbolic kind of reciprocity that has never been part of the relationship," he said.
"The sensitivities are still there" from the days when the U.S. military hosted large bases in the Philippines, he said.
"The memories are still there, good and bad." (T.D. Flack, Stars and StripesPacific edition)