Building US-Philippine Ties On More Than Military Bases

By , Marites Danguilan-Vitug is the executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila. Polly Parks is the program associate on the Philippines with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Cambridge, Mass.

THE end of the nearly century-old American military presence in the Philippines began on Sept. 16, 1991. The Philippine Senate rejected the "Treaty of Friendship, Security and Cooperation" for the American lease of Subic Naval Base. For many Filipinos, the treaty's rejection is a victory. As Sen. Rene Saguisag, one of 12 senators who voted down the treaty, said, "The issue is a question of respect, not of money."What went wrong for the United States, which expected automatic approval of a new 10-year lease? Complacency, bred during decades of Philippine deference to US interests, blinded American policymakers. The US continues to hide behind a Philippine head of state to accomplish its own strategic interests. President Corazon Aquino, searching for a way to let the US remain, first believed that the majority of Filipinos would vote to keep the bases - either in a referendum or as the primary issue in the upcoming national elections. The Senate's anti-base majority believed Mrs. Aquino's proposals were unconstitutional. After hard negotiating, the two sides may have agreed on a compromise - to negotiate with the US for a three-year withdrawal of US forces. The US is relieved that departure has been delayed. De spite pre-treaty vote rhetoric, it did not want to go. It should be clear now that the military presence has not been useful to the Philipinnes. The bases have defined US-Philippine relations since World War II. Even after granting the Philippines independence in 1946, the US profoundly influenced domestic politics to keep its hold on the bases. Many Filipinos are still angry about US support for dictator Ferdinand Marcos. And while the public flyover by US Air Force jets during the December 1989 coup attempt salvaged the Aquino government, many saw it as un due interference. There is apprehension over what steps might be taken to ensure continued access to the bases. Apparently, US policymakers hoped Aquino's call for a referendum would let the US stay until after the May 1992 elections, when a new Senate will take over. Then pressure could have been brought to bear for a new vote. With an effort at negotiation, the elections may still play a part. But hoping that new elections will alter the Senate's stance on sovereignty may be a simplistic assumption. Several factors have begun to change popular thinking. A number of treaty advocates no longer argue for retention of the bases per se but have won time to prepare for US withdrawal. They question the security relationship between the US and the Philippines, which includes violation of the Philippine Constitution by US obstinacy that it be allowed to store nuclear weapons at Subic. Mounting economic problems have increased polarization in the country. Despite the economic benefits derived from the bases, a few senators voted against the treaty because they felt the compensation package - $203 million annually, less than a quarter of what Aquino's government requested - was "piddling" compared to what the country needs. THE Mount Pinatubo disaster also influenced popular opinion. Before the mid-June eruption, polls indicated a decline in anti-bases sentiment. This reversed as Filipinos charged the US with concern only for its own bases and personnel when the disaster struck. They also complain that US relief efforts appear less than forthcoming. Most significantly, the speedy US removal from Clark Air Base shocked many Filipinos out of their colonial complacency that the US would always be there to pick up the pieces. I t is now time for the Philippines to chart its own course. With the country battling dislocation from the Pinatubo disaster, an increasingly fragile economy, and the rigors of democratically producing a new national leadership, a legal and political battle to retain Subic Naval Base is the last thing the Philippines needs. Instead of acquiescing to US demands that it be allowed to keep the bases, Aquino bowed to political realities. She would do well to begin healing this divided nation by helping to alleviate the plight of workers who will be displaced and deve loping alternative uses to Subic - a moral obligation for the US, as well. US policy architects thought the glitter of dollars would inspire senators to ratify the treaty - particularly with elections only eight months away. In past elections, US support was vital. But sovereignty has no dollar value. Politicians on both sides of the Pacific must build a new - and real - friendship between the Philippines and the US. No longer should ties be anchored to an expanse of military base land. A century-old habit is hard to break. The tragedy is that there are still those who can't imagine life without the US bases. History can be a harsh judge of such individuals. It will show Aquino as a leader brought to power by a popular uprising against a hated dictator supported by the US. But will she stand behind this compromise? Or will she be remembered as a leader who fought at the end - not for the ouster of foreign troops - but for their continued influence within in a sovereign country?

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