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The cloakroom of hegemony can be a heavily stocked one. There are variations in style, dress and material – but at the end of the day, the accent is unmistakable. Imperial wear remains just that, an ominous warning to those who taste it, and those who would love it. In the context of Washington’s move into the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), cloaked hegemony is again giving its ugly strut in the country.
Activists who campaigned for years to remove the US military presence from the country now face a reversal of those gains under President Benigno Aquino. That it should be the son turning back the legacy of the mother, Corazón Aquino, would seem to make it a suitable topic for tragic drama. In a more concrete sense, the agreement would tend to constitute a glaring breach of the Philippines constitution of 1987, which disallows the presence of foreign military bases and troops. In 1992, US military bases were dismantled, less to do with Washington’s embrace of peaceful demobilisation than the Philippine Senate’s resolution of 1991 to end Washington’s leases on the bases.
EDCA is the spawn of several agreements that effectively enable the bypassing of constitutional safeguards against foreign occupation. These were made as products of the Cold War chess game in the Pacific. As Jose Maria Sison of the International League of People’s Struggle explains, the 1947 US-RP Military Assistance Agreement and the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty have remained, while the US-RP Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) was passed in 1998 to cover annual joint US-RP exercises. The latter stopped short of reconstructing American bases.
When any doubt about the legitimacy of the US presence has been raised, the language of equality and “partnership” has been stressed. This is the approach of the Philippine defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who seems to treat the relationship as one of sovereign equals rather than bullies and the bullied. “[As this] partnership develops, let us all work together in ensuring that this agreement works for the benefit of the alliance.” In truth, EDCA actually facilitates the building of US military outposts and stations, taking it far beyond the original VFA.
Bagong Alyansan Makabayan (Bayan) and other organisations have been unimpressed, seeing the EDCA as an open invitation to a molester to offer protection against a touted bully. “The oft repeated rationale,” explained Bayan’s secretary Renato M. Reyes, Jr. is that we need this agreement with the US to protect ourselves from Chinese incursions. So what Aquino is basically saying is, to protect Filipinos from the neighbourhood bully, we’re inviting a rapist inside our house to do as he pleases.”
Bayan Muna Reps. Neri Javier Colmenares and Carlos Isagani Zarate have suggested that the agreement be given the judicial treatment. According to Colmenares, “we are already studying the option of questioning the EDCA at the Supreme Court because it is a clear violation of our Constitution, particularly Sections 3 and 7 and possibly Section 8 of Article II. We are also of the position that this is not a mere executive agreement but a treaty and should be scrutinized by the Senate and the House of Representatives.”
The US presence in the Philippines has been brutal and long lasting, beginning with the transfer of sovereignty from Spain to the United States under the Treaty of Paris (1898). The fact that the entire archipelago was, in fact, under the control of Filipino troops at that point did not seem to bother the signatories. A rigorous guerrilla campaign, waged by Emilio Aguinaldo and other commanders such as Simeón Ola, continued, though such an insurgency was simply regarded by US authorities as the ill-executed work of bandits ignorant of international law.
The memory of General Jacob H. Smith’s exploits on the island of Samar in 1902 in response to a guerrilla massacre of US troops in the town of Balangiga on September 28, 1901 remains strong. His infamous order to “Kill Everyone Over Ten” featured prominently in the New York Journal illustration in May 1902. He had, after all, little respect for the native population, whom he regarded as analogue Indians and civilizational detritus.
While Smith was court martialled for his zealous orders, his treatment by authorities was meek – a verbal slap on the wrist and retirement from the armed forces. A surprised New York Times (Jul 16, 1902) would note that the General, at most, was sentenced to be “admonished by the reviewing authority”. Attitudes to Smith within the army tended to see him as “an eccentric man, who in conversation delights in blood-curdling epigrams and fantastic oaths.”
The review of the case by President Theodore Roosevelt, which was published in the same paper, shed some light on dispositions towards both the US armed presence, and their foes. While he was not glowing at Smith’s conduct, Roosevelt acknowledged the conditions he was labouring other. The US forces in the Philippines had faced “well-nigh intolerable provocations” from the “cruelty, treachery and total disregard of the rules and customs of civilized warfare on the part of its foes.” With such attitudes, it is little surprise that the death toll proved high – some 10 per cent of the Philippine population, or 700,000 people – perished between 1899 and 1902 alone.
Modern attitudes have been given a mild spring clean at best. For Reyes, the list of US offences is long and bloody. The ignominious establishment of US bases for the duration of the Cold War, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and persistent violations of domestic laws by US personnel have not endeared them. “Everywhere in the world where US troops are stationed, whether as an occupation force, or through foreign bases or military exercises, the problems are the same.”
The imperial wheels return. Gone are the Spanish and the Japanese. But the raison d’etre of US involvement in the Philippines has not changed: stiff, military presence, against a rising or rival power in the region. Obama has gone out of his way to stress that, “Our goal is not to counter China.” Few genuinely believe him. “Hell Roaring Jake”, a far more honest, if bloody proposition set the trend in both idea and conduct, and the Obama administration is doing his not so dearly departed soul proud.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org