Filipinos grow divided over return of US military

After a week of joint military exercises, US presence continues to stir debate in Filipino Senate, streets.

Ever since the Bush Administration opened a new front in its war on terror in the southern Philippines, this gray city wedged between a former US airbase and the volcanic Mt. Pinatubo has been a hive of activity.

Downtown, citizens are mobilizing against what they claim is a US effort to reestablish a permanent military presence in its former colony. Last Saturday, 200 people packed into a sweltering hall to hear speakers denounce the "neo-imperialist" United States.

"This is an attack on our sovereignty - the Americans don't really intend to leave," says a woman who identifies herself as Dr. Madrid.

Across town near a dusty stretch of low-slung bars and brothels, near what used to be Clark Airforce Base, some people are sprucing up - and banking on a US return. "It would be great for business," says Shawn Reyes, manager of the Kitten Club. "We've struggled since the base closed."

Somewhere between those two women lies a debate that is gripping not only Filipino society, but much of Southeast Asia. The war on terror has boosted the US military presence in a region from which it was waning just a few years ago, stirring up both pleasant and bitter memories, ranging from US colonialism to the US role as a bulwark against China in the cold war.

This week, the US military began a joint exercise with the Philippines that will see about 660 US soldiers deployed in the south, about 150 them will be special forces officers on patrol with local soldiers hunting the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf.

But Philippine officials said yesterday that US military advisers will stay at the field camps and provide advice, with little chance of coming under fire."My guidance is that they will not join combat operations," Philippine Chief of Staff Diomedio Villanueva told the Senate, which is probing allegations that the joint exercise violates the Constitution.

Throughout the region, the US is viewed with a mixture of admiration and fear: A source of investment in good times that can instantly turn into a bully when times go bad.

Indonesian politicians worry that the US may take unilateral action against alleged terrorists there and also in Malaysia. There are concerns that the US will act without regional consultation. In fact, the US and the Philippines armies have added training exercises for this year, and the two governments are currently negotiating an agreement that will give US forces easier access to Philippines bases.

Senator Rodolfo Biazon has been a leading critic of the combat role of US troops. "Indonesia, Malaysia, even Thailand must be watching what's going on here with some concern,'' says Senator Biazon. "We're being used as case study for the creation of the rules that will be used in pursuit of global terror."

Biazon and his allies say a US combat role may violate the Philippines Constitution. But he also worries that the US presence could complicate peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist group on the island of Mindanao, near Basilan, which has about 10,000 men under arms.

"We have to be careful about the possibility of escalation with the other armed groups, particularly the MILF,'' says Biazon, a former chief of staff of the Philippines Armed Forces. The MILF has warned that it will kill US soldiers if provoked, as has the communist New People's Army, which is centered on the main island of Luzon.

Senate President Franklin Drillon, an Arroyo ally, dismisses Biazon's position: "Public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of the US presence in the southern Philippines. In this day and age national territories get blurred, and the reality of the thing is that terrorism and the problems of Mindanao must be resolved - and it's clear that our military needs help."

Senator Drillon says having US troops in combat here is a small price to pay for the training and goods that are being transferred to the military. "It is an emotional issue when it comes to US troops, but it's never an emotional issue when it comes to US helicopters and equipment,'' says Drillon.

NEVERTHELESS, he says the US troops should probably leave as soon as possible. "They should probably get out by six months. You never know how the reaction of the public will go."

The protests against the US presence have remained small.

Eighty-four percent of Filipinos are supportive of the US assistance, according to local pollsters. But the exercise continues to stir passions. Some 2,000 students at the University of the Philippines burned an American flag during a protest yesterday.

Nowhere are there as many mixed emotions as in the Philippines, which has closer cultural ties to the US than any other Asian nation.

English is the language of commerce, the favorite sport is basketball, and many senior military officers graduated from US service academies such as West Point. Yet the two US bases here were closed in 1992 because of nationalist opposition in the Senate and complaints from citizens' groups about the raunchy neighborhoods that sprang up around them. "Sometimes we dislike ourselves for how much we like the US,'' says Jose Almonte, a former national security adviser.

That forces the US to tread carefully in the Philippines, balancing the desire to act toward perceived terrorist threats against the political damage that could be done to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.Ms. Arroyo's Senate opponents are already lining up to use her cooperation with the US against her.

"The president was the most supportive Asian leader of Bush. She opened our skies and our bases as staging grounds, and is taking a huge political risk to do it,'' says Mr. Almonte. "It's her calculation that the people will support her, and she has been right so far. But if this drags on, or something goes wrong, that can change."

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