Filipinos Toss a Hot Potato: Letting US GIs Back

A pact signed Feb. 10 may play into election for president. At stake: Who prosecutes GIs?

America's ability to project its military in the Far East without offending friendly nations has never been easy. Now, the latest tussle is in the Philippines, a former colony that may again play host to visiting US soldiers and nuclear-tipped warships.

That prospect pleases US global strategists and may boost the woeful Philippine military, which needs US weaponry and was caught short when China recently invaded small islands claimed by Manila.

But it has sent many Filipinos back to old barricades in protest and could play into the election of a new president this May.

Ironically, such a move would come on the 100th anniversary of the United States takeover of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. Letting in American troops again would evoke old love-hate emotions among Filipinos.

The two nations still hold fast to a 1951 mutual-defense treaty, despite the Philippines having booted the Americans out of a large, strategic naval base at Subic Bay in 1992.

The current fuss is over a tentative pact that would govern who prosecutes the crimes of visiting US military personnel.

Critics say the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), if approved by the Philippine Senate, would enable American soldiers who commit crimes while on "official duty" in the Philippines to evade prosecution in local courts.

"It is not in our nation's interests to surrender the authority of our laws and our Constitution in favor of foreigners," says Maria Diokno, secretary-general of the Free Legal Assistance Group in Manila.

Aside from social problems like prostitution that were exacerbated by the presence of US troops, many Filipinos recall how US soldiers charged with crimes were often whisked away before being tried by local courts.

The pact was demanded by the US after it ended joint military exercises in 1996 for lack of a so-called "status of forces agreement." After almost two years of tense negotiations, the VFA was signed Feb. 10.

The lame-duck president, Fidel Ramos, wants to wait until after the May election before submitting it to the Senate for ratification to avoid the pact becoming a political hot potato. Its chances of becoming law are uncertain. Senate majority leader Francisco Tatad has called for a review, saying some provisions appear "onerous and one-sided."

The VFA grants the Philippines sole jurisdiction only in cases violating its laws. In cases against both Philippine and US laws, jurisdiction will be shared. In such cases the Philippines will exercise primary jurisdiction except when the crimes are committed by US troops on duty.

Even the Armed Forces vice chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ismael Villareal, has criticized the agreement for not awarding the Philippines sole jurisdiction over criminal cases.

However, Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon says the US has displayed a greater understanding of potential problems after three GIs were jailed for raping a girl in Okinawa, Japan, in 1995.

"We are now in a new era where the probability of an event or crime occurring is much lower than it used to be," he adds.

Critics say the pact will allow US warships with nuclear weapons to enter Philippine waters, which, they claim, violates a constitutional ban. It does not require the US to declare whether its vessels are carrying nuclear warheads. In effect, the Philippine authorities will have to simply trust their ally not to violate their laws.

The agreement is important to the Armed Forces of the Philippines as it is undergoing a modernization drive.

The US military might will also provide added security to the Philippines in case China again tries to claim some of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. As one military intelligence officer said: "Our neighbors will not take us lightly - if they bully us, we can call upon a bigger bully."

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