By Maurice Malanes
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
MANILA, PhilippinesTop Philippine officials are defending the presence of hundreds of newly arrived U.S troops, but critics from both the left and the right are raising legal and constitutional questions and warn about local backlash. Some fear another Vietnam in the making.
"Just an on-the-job training," said National Security Adviser Roilo Golez when describing the controversial military exercise between Filipino and American troops including U.S. special forces that began Jan. 15 in Zamboanga City and now includes Basilan Island.
Zamboanga and Basilan are in the Mindanao region of the southern Philippines. While most of the country is Christian, this is majority Muslim territory. The 690 American troops, according to Golez, will "train" and "advise" some 5,000 Filipino soldiers before and during combat. He said at least 12 U.S. soldiers will be assigned to each Filipino battalion training under a "war-games" effort dubbed "Kala-yaan-Agila (Freedom Eagle) 2002."
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo said the exercises were meant to be "more responsive and attuned to the times," apparently referring to the U.S.-led global war against terrorism.
Basilan's jungle is the turf of the Abu Sayyaf, a kidnap-for-ransom group that Washington says is linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
The group seized American missionary couple Martin and Gracia Burnham and Filipino nurse Deborah Yap in a resort in Palawan Island last May, and has been holding them hostage.
Other militant groups in the area have charged that the Abu Sayyaf was created by Philippine and U.S. intelligence operatives in early 1992 in a bid to undermine the secessionist struggle of the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim rebel group which has since signed a peace treaty with the government.
Presidential spokesman Rig-oberto Tiglao called the joint military activity a "more realistic training exercise" for Filipino soldiers. The exercise, he said, is expected to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf, which he said has created an image of the Philippines as "another Afghanistan."
Tiglao said the U.S. soldiers would not engage in combat and would be supervised by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "(But) if all of a sudden there will be an Abu Sayyaf attack on the soldiers' camp, then they will have to act in self-defense," he said.
Golez insisted the military exercise, expected to last from six months to one year, is within the framework of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.
But Danilo Vizmanoz, a retired Philippine Navy captain turned left-wing activist, said there were no provisions in either the MDT and VFA allowing U.S. forces to engage in actual combat during military exercises.
Other political opposition and nationalist groups also strongly objected to the use of American soldiers in rescuing the Burnham couple and Yap from the Abu Sayyaf.
Ex-senator and conservative former defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile warned of the "Vietnamization" of the Philippines. The current scenario, he said, points to "the potentiality of a Vietnam conflict," which began with U.S. "advisors" and ended only after years of full-scale war that decimated the country.
Enrile said the presence of a large number of American troops in the Philippines may be tantamount to "stationing troops," which violates the both VFA and the Philippine Constitution.
The Philippine Constitution bans foreign troops and nuclear weapons in the country. Direct U.S. military presence ended in l992 with the closure of U.S. military bases.
Nationalist economist and critic Alejandro Lichauco also warned of the repercussions of U.S. military involvement in Mindanao. "Consider the implications of an American military adviser being felled by a sniper's bullet," he said. "That would be just the excuse needed by the American militarists to bomb the hell out of Mindanao, plant their bases there and stay for good as they apparently plan to do in Afghanistan and Central Asia."
Another cause of public concern is the possibility of civilian casualties and popular resentment against foreign intrusion in the largely Muslim territories.
"They (U.S. and Filipino soldiers involved in the joint war games) must be extra-careful not to make the mistake of shooting civilians, particularly Muslims who are wont to cry `jihad' if they become victims of this war exercise," warned Bukidnon Governor Juan Mi-guel Zubiri.
Sanlakas, a militant leftist group, doubts that the U.S. advisers and trainers would help bring peace and order in Mindanao, saying the Muslims would resent foreign intrusion in their homeland.
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Federation), another militant group, likewise lamented that the Philippine armed forces' failure to solve the Abu Sayyaf problem has become "a convenient excuse" for the Americans to come in and violate the Philippine Constitution.
Maurice Malanes is a free-lance journalist who frequently writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer.