International conference decries U.S. military presence in Asia
Leaders from organizations in Asia and around the world met in July united in their opposition to the increasing US military presence in Asia in the first international conference of its kind since the US announced its “strategic pivot” to the region.
Delegates from 13 countries attended the conference called “Engaging Peace and Sovereignty, Building People’s’ Solidarity: A Conference on US Strategic Pivot to Asia-Pacific, Militarism and Intervention.” The conference was held at the Orchid Gardens hotel in Malate, Manila on July 16-18, 2013.
The conference was hosted by organizations such as Ban the Bases!, Peace for Life, Asia-Pacific Anti-US Bases Network, the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS) and Bayan (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or New Patriotic Alliance). Each of the 57 delegates from countries such as South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and the Philippines had a history of US military intervention, which the delegates saw as a violation of their countries’ sovereignty.
“It’s high time that the people of Asia be able to determine their own course and to chart their own direction and their own foreign policy free from any dictates of the United States,” said the Secretary General of Bayan, Renato Reyes Jr. in an interview with The Philippine Reporter. Reyes also spoke at the conference.
Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in an article she wrote for Foreign Policy magazine in November 2011. In the same month, US President Barrack Obama addressed the Australian Parliament and said, “Here is what this region must know. As we end today’s wars, I have directed my national security team to make our presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific a top priority.”
Many see the shift of US military forces from Iraq and Afghanistan to Asia as a counter to China’s rise as a military, political and economic world power. Threats from North Korea have also been touted as another justification for the US pivot to Asia. The US plans include sending 70,000 troops to the Asia-Pacific region and 60 percent of the US Navy. The US has deals with countries such as Australia, Japan and South Korea to build and/or maintain US bases on their soil. For example, 2500 US troops are now based in Darwin, Australia.
The conference materials outlined that one of the goals was to “provide a venue for the sharing of experiences of struggling peoples in the region, derive lessons and inspiration, and foster solidarity.”
The experiences of the Philippines with the US military include a long sordid history, with recent incidences that had the Filipino delegates crying out against their ongoing presence. For instance, the US military has consistently dodged investigation and prosecution for alleged crimes committed in the Philippines. “It’s very hard to make them accountable for any violation committed on local territory,” Reyes said in an interview.
“So what we’ve seen in the past, we had a rape victim back in 2006 where the main suspect was not even put in a Philippine jail despite having been convicted by a local court. Eventually they were able to reverse the ruling and spirited him away back to the United States,” he said referring to the rape of a Filipina known as a Nicole and the conviction and eventual acquittal of US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith.
In April 2012, a Filipino fisherman was killed when a US Navy vessel rammed into his fishing boat off the coast of Mindanao. “Nobody was held accountable for that because the US merely settled with the family and gave some sort of undisclosed amount,” Reyes said.
Reyes also talked about the death of Gregan Cardeño, a Filipino who was working as a translator for US troops in a Philippine Army facility in Lanao del Sur. “Local authorities were saying he committed suicide but there were suspicions that foul play was involved since he committed suicide a day after he started working in the camp, which is very strange,” he said. Cardeño’s family denied that it could be suicide.
Afterwards, Capt. Javier Ignacio, the Filipino solider who recruited Cardeño and who was assisting in the investigation was gunned down while on his way to meet with a human rights group. “We have always believed that there was a cover-up in this incident, but no one has been prosecuted or thoroughly investigated,” he said, “It’s very hard to hold American soldiers accountable.”
In the past year, the US Navy has also been responsible for considerable environmental destruction. In January 2013, a minesweeper called the USS Guardian was grounded on a protected marine park, the Tubbataha Reef, severely damaging part of the World Heritage site located southeast of Palawan. In November 2012, the US Navy was involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Subic Bay near the decommissioned American base.
The US military is allowed to participate in joint training exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines under the 1999 Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The agreement was established after the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down US bases in the Philippines, namely the Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Complex.
The Visiting Forces Agreement permits US troops to be in the Philippines on a rotational basis, but many Filipinos who spoke at the conference said that this translates into a permanent presence. “Since it is rotation, it becomes year-round, it becomes permanent actually,” said former three-time Philippine Congressman for the progressive Bayan-Muna Party and the party’s current President, Satur Ocampo, in an interview. Ocampo was the keynote speaker at the conference.
Ocampo continued to say the US does not have to spend for maintaining the bases and yet gains “the military presence and hands-on capabilities to respond to any emergency action that requires them to do. So on this basis, the Philippines gets the shorter end of this negotiation,” he said.
Being home to major US military bases for many years, the Philippines knows all to well how the presence of soldiers impacts women in nearby communities. “This used to be the rest and relaxation center for the American soldiers,” said Sister Mary John, former chairperson of a women’s rights organization, Gabriela, and current chairperson of the BOT Women Crisis “We have seen a lot of prostitution happening, and of course rape, and of course a lot of single mothers left afterwards,” she said. She sees the past and continued presence of the US military as always threatening. “These soldiers are coming to a certain place like after some tense anything and they just let go… and not have any controls. And that’s really exactly what happens.”
What the Armed Forces of the Philippines do with the training they get from the US troops was also a huge concern for the Filipino delegates in the conference. The organization Human Rights Watch says that since 2001, Philippine military personnel have been involved in hundreds of cases of targeted killings and disappearances of community organizers and activists.
This was discussed at an adjoining conference on human rights abuses in the Philippines, the International Conference for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (ICHRPP) on July 19-21, 2013 held in Quezon City. The President of the US National Lawyers Guild, Azadeh Shahshahani, wants Americans to consider that their tax dollars are being spent “on US military personnel here, collaborating with the Philippine military in joint military exercises.”
She said she learned at the conference about the “grave human rights violations that are being committed to this day including torture, disappearances, extra-judicial executions, and it seems that’s there’s complete impunity for the military.”
The Philippines is currently negotiating with the US for an expanded presence of the US military. A press release by the Office of the Philippine President, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III published on August 12, 2013 said, “The negotiations will enable the Philippines and US to conduct activities such as bilateral exercises, including the prepositioning of equipment for disaster response and development of Philippine facilities, among others.”
Many Filipinos support the continued US military presence and the recent negotiations for more troops in the Philippines because of China’s claim over an area west of the Philippines that is an important trade route. Many believe that if tensions over the disputed waters and islands escalate, the US will be on the side of the Philippines– a notion Reyes dismisses.
“The US is not likely to go to war over a bunch of islands that the Philippines is claiming. The US has long stated its position that it is not taking sides in any of the territorial disputes. Yet the US seems to be enjoying the fact that there’s tension in the region so that they can insert themselves and justify their continued presence,” Reyes said.
“We know for a fact that the US has tremendous economic interests in China, the US has a big investments in China, the US has a big debt– owes a lot of debt– to the tune of $1.2 trillion to China. So it’s not really likely their going to war with China in the near future, but since the tension is there, they kind of have exploited that situation for their own interests,” Reyes said.
Every Philippine administration has been beholden to the US and permits their military presence, despite a provision in the 1987 Constitution that prohibits foreign troops, bases, and facilities. The Filipino history and current path is very much intertwined with US military intervention, as early as the US defeat of Spain in 1898, when the Philippines became a territory of the US along with Puerto Rico, Guam and Cuba.
In the uprising that followed, the Philippine-American War, which lasted three years, an estimated 20,000 Filipino combatants died fighting against the US soldiers. The casualties of Filipino civilians were much worse, especially in the guerilla warfare that followed the war.
“Millions of Filipinos died,” said a speaker at the conference, Professor Dante Simbulan, in an interview. “It was a genocide because it was a guerilla war,” he said. The US troops would kill civilians in retaliation of the deaths of American soldiers, which totaled close to 5,000 during the conflicts. For example, in the island of Samar, “because they lost one company of soldiers by the guerrillas, [American General Schmidt] said, ‘I don’t want anyone living here 10 years and above,’ Even boys. There was a massacre.”
“When World War II broke out, we were not yet independent,” Simbulan said, “As a colony of the US, naturally we were a target of the Japanese.” The Philippines was a critical base for the US in WWII and the battle ground between the US and Japan. There were over a million Filipino casualties in WWII.
Filipinos are not the only ones rising up to oppose their government’s supporting the US military pivot to Asia. Delegates from throughout the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere with a past history of US military interference called out against the US pivot.
“We want to unite with everyone across the region to oppose military bases,” said Denis Doherty from the Australian Anti-bases Campaign. “In Australia, we have been fighting against US bases since the ‘60’s,” he said at the Press Conference.
A key organizer within the resistance movement against the building of a US naval base on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea near China, Sung-Hee Choi, gave an impassioned speech to the delegates. She said the US base would pave over a delicate and rare volcanic beachfront in Jeju’s Gangjeong Village. It would also endanger local marine life and part of a stream that holds 70 percent of drinking water of the southern half of the island. “So how critical it would be if this war base is built in this small island! It totally destroys people’s lives there, not only environment!” Choi told the delegates, her voice cracking.
She said Jeju island residents cannot forget the atrocities committed by the US on the island and elsewhere in the country during the Korean War. Protestors have been actively fighting construction since 2002, at times lying down on the construction site to prevent bulldozers from coming through.
The Executive Director of the Asia Multicultural Communication Center in South Korea, Reverend Changweon Jang, spoke briefly at the conference in broken English, but received a lot of cheers from the delegates when he shouted with a fist raised, “We don’t want no war. Yankee go home! Yankee go home!”