Sunday, August 23, 2009

'US troops' stay didn't help solve insurgency in South': Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said yesterday the decision of the United States government to keep an elite 600-soldier counterinsurgency group in the Philippines could indicate an unsuccessful anti-Muslim insurgency campaign.

Santiago stressed that with US forces deployed in Mindanao for almost seven years now, Philippine officials should be able to prove that they had been successful in at least weakening, if not eradicating, the Abu Sayyaf and other rebel groups in the area.

“But the (rebel movements are still there) and they seem to be strong and vibrant. So the question is whether they succeeded or not,” Santiago said.

“If they succeeded, they should not be staying, isn’t that so? It’s an indication that they are failing, so they are asking for extension,” she said.

“But for how long?” she asked.

“Up to now, the military is saying that there are still many Filipinos being killed and the civilian collateral damage remains high,” she added.

There are reportedly pressures to reassign members of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines to more urgent missions elsewhere such as in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Santiago said although there was no overt violation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the US, she would like to call a hearing before the congressional break in October regarding the benefits of the accord.

She said the temporary nature of US troops’ stay in the Philippines, as stipulated in the Constitution, might already be circumvented by the nature of the VFA.

Santiago, who chairs the Senate committee on foreign relations, said that in the campaign against Muslim rebels, Filipinos must be told how long the US intends to stay in the country.

Santiago said the military exercises have become open-ended and US soldiers are being sent to the Philippines on a changing basis.

“I am really troubled, this is for me a cause for serious concern. It’s because they have been here for so long,” Santiago said.

She said if the US forces would be here for more than 10 years, it would already be a permanent presence rather than temporary.

“It might create a culture of dependency. They are not in combat but training, but how come the Filipino soldiers could still not stand on their own after all these years?” she added.

Santiago said she would like to get all sides in a hearing and help President Arroyo make proper judgment as to what should be done, depending on the sentiments of the people.

“They (US) cannot dictate so it will be up to us Filipinos if we still want this. So maybe I should really conduct a hearing. I should find a venue to study this,” she said.

Santiago said there was nothing wrong with being friends with the US but that a survey may have to be conducted to determine if Filipinos still want the Americans in Mindanao.

“We invited them for cooperation but they should not engage in combat operations because it will diminish our sovereignty,” she said. “There might also be a culture of military dependency on foreign powers already.”

Santiago said she would ask anti-VFA forces to present an alternative to the accord as the inherent flaws of the agreement had become obvious.

She added that while the Philippines should be grateful for US aid, it had been getting only obsolete weaponry and junk from the American defense department.

US stay gets backing

Meanwhile, Speaker Prospero Nograles and opposition Rep. Roilo Golez supported the stay of 600 Americans on counterterrorism mission in Mindanao, citing mutual benefits to both countries.

“Mindanao needs all the help because of terrorist atrocities. And we are part of the international community against terrorism,” said Nograles, a congressman from Davao City, one of the highly urbanized cities in Mindanao.

“Any place in the Philippines that will breed or train terrorists will be a threat to the world and we need all the help and sophisticated equipment we can get hold of from any country, including the US,” he said.

Nograles issued the statement following the decision of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to keep an elite contingent of 600 counterterrorism troops in the Philippines.

He said the country needs US expertise in battling terrorists in war-torn Mindanao.

For his part, Golez – who was the first national security adviser of President Arroyo – also welcomed the continued stay of US troops belonging to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, saying they can stay “for as long as they don’t engage in actual combat.”

“International terrorism requires transnational and international cooperation. The US task force provides us training in modern counterterrorism tactics and equipment. This is allowed as long as they don’t engage in combat,” he said.

He pointed out that the continued presence of the US troops here is mutually beneficial.

“They (US troops) also benefit from interacting with battle-hardened Filipino troops, especially in dealing with rugged terrain like that in Jolo and Basilan,” he said.

Golez belongs to the opposition bloc and is designated as House deputy minority leader.

A left-leaning lawmaker, however, branded the stay of American soldiers as “illegal.”

Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares called on the government to immediately expel the US troops. This is one of the reasons why the VFA should be scrapped, he said.

“Firstly, the entry of foreign troops is prohibited under the (1987) Constitution in the absence of an enforceable treaty. Participation in counterinsurgency operations is erstwhile prohibited,” he said.

“US intervention, in the manner of stationing troops for counterinsurgency operations against the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, is therefore not allowed by the Constitution and even in the VFA,” he added.

According to the party-list lawmaker, “foreign participation in counterinsurgency operations is illegal and an intervention that is detrimental to Philippine sovereignty, human rights and the peace process.”

“Even the MILF must immediately condemn this intervention, considering that the US admitted to lumping them with the Abu Sayaff and terrorism and that US troops have participated in operations against the MILF,” he said.

Meantime, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) urged yesterday the Senate to investigate what it perceived as the prolonged stay of US forces in Mindanao, citing it as a possible violation of the VFA.

In a statement, Renato Reyes, Bayan secretary general, said US troops have been based in the Philippines since 2002 without any basing treaty, in violation of the Philippine Constitution.

“They have been engaged in other activities that go against the Constitution. Eighteen years after the Philippine Senate rejected a new bases treaty with the US, the American forces are again well entrenched in the country,” Reyes said

“The retention of US troops in the Philippines is an affront to our sovereignty, disguised as some questionable humanitarian mission. They have based themselves in the Philippines, particularly in Camp Navarro in Zamboanga since 2002, without any basing treaty. There’s not even a time frame for the deployment. It’s open-ended. It could be forever,” Reyes said.

Bayan said that the continued presence of foreign troops, even if only 600, sets a dangerous precedent.

“The US troops might decide to stay longer. They might decide to deploy more troops, maybe thousands. What’s to stop them from doing that? What’s to stop them from setting up de facto bases in Mindanao?” Reyes said.

The militant group said it would raise before the Supreme Court these new developments as part of their petition to declare the VFA unconstitutional.

Bayan, along with Gabriela and Bayan Muna, were among the petitioners questioning the validity of the VFA.

“What we know is that 1) the American troops have overstayed beyond the period supposedly contemplated by the VFA, 2) they have set up de facto bases and permanent structures in Mindanao, and 3) they are engaged in combat functions,” Reyes said.

“All these violate the Constitution and are an insult to our sovereignty. They have managed to get basing rights even without a treaty concurred in by the Senate. If the US and the Philippines invoke the VFA as the basis of the prolonged stay, then the Senate has been duped when it ratified the VFA. The Senate should then seek the termination of the VFA,” he said. (Aurea Calica, Delon Porcalla and Perseus Echeminada / Philippine Star)


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