American Piggery -Howlin’ Mad Jake Smith is back!

January 30, 2008

Up in arms
The presence of US troops is causing tensions in the south of the country
Raissa Robles
Updated on Jan 30, 2008

On a quiet afternoon in December, the staff at Panamao District Hospital in the southern Philippine province of Sulu were startled to receive an ultimatum from an armed American soldier.
The officer, who identified himself as Master Sergeant Ron Berg, was one of eight US officers stationed with Philippine troops in a camp just behind the hospital. He allegedly told hospital staff that once the sun had set, nobody was allowed to go out to the back of the hospital, which contained the kitchen and the generator. Otherwise, the officer warned, “we will shoot”.

Sergeant Berg allegedly said he had nearly shot one of them that morning but had luckily recognised the person before pulling the trigger. That night, one of his men called and ordered them to turn off the generator.

The drama surrounding the incident last year has since triggered calls for Manila to review its Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Washington. It also made Filipinos aware of the US soldiers’ deepening and intrusive presence in the south, which has started to create friction among locals.

Hospital chief Silak Lakkian said she asked the soldier, “How will I send my staff outside? You might shoot them.” She said he replied, “Send two of them with their left hands on their heads.”

“It was humiliating,” she recalled. “This was my place and they were dictating the terms.”

Not wanting to put lives at risk, Dr Lakkian said she caved in to the order of a nightly shutdown. It lasted a month until January 2 because the Americans repeatedly said they could not open at night as there was still a security threat.

The matter was resolved when Sulu Governor Sakur Tan returned from overseas and summoned US and Filipino military officials. In the meeting, Philippine Army General Ruperto Pabustan told US Major Eric Walker that his men should have told the hospital as early as December 4 that the threat alert had been lifted.

General Pabustan also told Dr Lakkian that Sergeant Berg’s action constituted “grave threats”, she recalled.

In an interview, Governor Tan said that Major Walker insisted it was all a “misunderstanding” and a “miscommunication” based on a language barrier, and that the US soldiers’ intention was to protect the locals. But Nabil Tan, a deputy presidential adviser on the peace process, defended Dr Lakkian’s English proficiency, saying she studied at the country’s top medical school. Armed Forces chief of staff General Hermogenes Esperon said the affair was a non-incident.

Hospital staff have not seen Sergeant Berg since the event, but the Americans are still in the area. No US officer could be reached for comment.

US embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Thompson said: “There is no report [on the incident] because [the US Forces] were not involved. US forces did not and would not issue any orders to anyone in the Philippines regarding hospital hours. They had nothing to do with the opening or closing hours of the Panamao hospital.”

Governor Tan said the incident made relations “grow better because at least the American forces now understand the cultural sensitivities of our people”.

But the matter seems to have eroded the goodwill the Americans had built up in the Muslim south. “Many patients complained,” Dr Lakkian said. “Some parents who brought their children were heard weeping outside the hospital by nearby residents.”

The experience shocked Dr Lakkian into realising that “the Americans were there not just for humanitarian reasons”.

Santanina Rasul, a former senator from Sulu, urged Congress to review the VFA to prevent similar incidents and because “we do not want to give the impression that the Philippines is not a sovereign country”.

Larry Niksch, an American specialist in Asian security, cautioned last year that such incidents could set back America’s war on terrorism. “Incidents involving US military personnel and Filipino civilians have the potential to turn Filipino opinion negative towards the US,” he warned in his report on Abu Sayyaf for the Congressional Research Service.

Despite the backlash, military chiefs of both nations have not seen the need to provide a grievance mechanism. Last week, a US soldier was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Zamboanga City. News reports said police were trying to identify the offender, while a Philippine army general announced the incident had been resolved amicably.

Sixteen years after the US closed two huge military bases in the Philippines, US troops are returning in growing numbers. But this time Filipinos don’t know where they are. From 50 to 300 US soldiers are continuously stationed in rotation in various Philippine camps in Mindanao, wrote Colonel Gregory Wilson in the US Army’s Military Review. The number spikes upwards to the thousands during a Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) military training exercise, like the one scheduled for next month when General Esperon said they expected from 5,000 to 6,000 US soldiers.

“They’re all over the place” in the Muslim south, said Eid Kabalu, a spokesman for the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The Philippine military estimated their number at about 170.

This is close to half the estimated 370 members of the al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf terrorists that both armies are trying to crush. “US forces are in the Philippines solely at the invitation of the government of the Philippines,” Ms Thompson said. Initially, US troops were made to operate under strict rules of engagement. They were confined to Zamboanga City and Basilan island and, except for a handful, all left at the close of a Balikatan exercise.

Quietly, the US military was allowed to maintain a year-round presence and the rules of engagement were relaxed. A Military Logistics and Support Agreement with the US was peddled to the Filipino public as a “boring … low-level accounting agreement” for offsetting supplies and materials used by both armies during joint exercises.

Asian specialist Dr Niksch said it was more than that, allowing “the US to use the Philippines as a supply base for military operations throughout the region”.

Last week, the government disclosed that two months ago it had renewed the supply agreement. Philippine Senator Richard Gordon, a member of the VFA oversight commission, said the VFA agreement did not allow US forces to conduct operations themselves.

“They are there for training our armed forces but they can fire if fired upon,” he said. If Philippine military officials gave their US counterparts more leeway, “that is consistent with the agreement because, to me, either I have an ally or I don’t”, Senator Gordon said. He added that if Sergeant Berg did what it was claimed he had done, “that is completely out of line”.

Analysts say the US has a dual purpose in the Philippines: to fight terrorism and to counterbalance any possible future threat in the region, such as China.

Dr Niksch said it was the Chinese build-up on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in 1995 that made Manila invite the US back to sign a VFA.

Observers noted that Manila invited US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher to a guided tour of the Spratlys, after which he named the Philippines “a frontline nation against the growing designs of China to militarily control the Pacific in the 21st century”.

Lawmakers from Mindanao then lobbied to give US warships and planes “landing rights” to counter China’s threat. Senator Gordon said the US definitely saw China as one of its potential threats.

Last Friday, Zamboanga City mayor and former congressman Celso Lobregat jokingly told two visiting US senators: “You can have your bases here.”

Those opposed to the US bases insist the Americans already have a foothold. Last year, the US military spent US$14.4 million building structures at the military’s regional headquarters in Zamboanga. These developments are controversial since the constitution bars “foreign military bases, troops or facilities” without a newly ratified bases treaty.

Embassy deputy spokeswoman Karen Schinnerer said the structures were for the soldiers’ “medical, logistical and administrative services … definitely not permanent US bases”.

Many Mindanao officials seem unconcerned that their towns and cities may now form part of the US Pacific defence. They welcome these structures and the aid that goes with them. “It does not really matter provided it does not affect our peace and order,” said Governor Tan.

His province – one of the poorest – this year stands to gain US$15 million worth of infrastructure and US soldiers’ spending on local goods and services. This includes a US$3.7 million airport runway upgrade and drinking water system, which would provide jobs. But it might also provide Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah with a potential membership pool from disgruntled residents.

Even the separatist MILF is not overly concerned. With prior co-ordination, “they can even come to our camp”, said spokesman Eid Kabalu last week.

The US Agency for International Development (USAid) promised to give the rebels US$4 million in aid the moment they sign a peace deal. USAid has funded infrastructure projects way beyond the capacity needed for commerce. These have made anti-US groups suspect potential military use. A US$48.6 million upgrade of General Santos City airport, for instance, allows for planes bigger than an Airbus 300, even though daily normal traffic hardly fills up one Airbus.

A minority of Filipinos are voicing opposition to the US presence.

“I just don’t like it,” said Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s special adviser on law and order.

Six years ago, a bomb exploded in a Davao hotel room, wounding an American guest. The man was whisked out of the hospital by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents without permission from Mayor Duterte or the police. That was “an affront to Philippine sovereignty”, he said.

Copyright © 2008 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All right reserved
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