The Philippine Left — all fragments of it — rallied behind President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, capping an interesting week when Malacañang showed that it is determined to break the 20-year military partnership.
The President could not be more decisive when, on Friday, he ordered Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to transmit the official termination notice to the US government.
It will be the job of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), whose Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had many times been called an “American Boy” by the Left and some others from the right side of the Philippine political spectrum.
Tough task, it seems, for Locsin, who, just a day before he was supposed to receive the order from Medialdea, had told the Senate that the transmittal for VFA termination had been put on hold by Malacañang.
It was a different Duterte talking the following day. And he was one who received cheers from the Left, with no less that his friend/foe/friend/foe Jose Maria “Joma” Sison massaging his back for a job well done.
The VFA’s termination, of course, remains just words until the notice is transmitted.
The agreement remains 180 days from the date of notice in writing that either party desires to terminate the agreement.
It is going to be a long wait, all of six shaky months when possibilities of pushing and pulling, lobbying, intense pressure and maybe enlightenment could happen on either or both parties.
Mr. Duterte should not be the one to cave in.
This is not the first time the VFA had come under fire. Twice before, the constitutionality of the agreement was challenged before the Supreme Court. But the SC ruled in favor of the agreement. Twice, also.
In one of those losses, President Duterte’s former spokesman Harry Roque, then acting as a lawyer for petitioner Jovito Salonga, vowed to appeal.
Salonga, of course, was the Senate President when the Philippines abrogated a treaty that allowed the US to keep military bases in the country. It was a treaty born out of the country’s colonial past.
In 1992, he led 12 heroic senators who broke that long chain that kept the Philippines at the hands of the Americans who supplanted the Spaniards as Philippine colonizers until 1946. The presence of the US bases, with the two major installations located in Subic, Zambales and Clark, Pampanga, had extended that bondage to nearly five decades more.
It would have been a century more as the 1947 Military Bases Agreement gave the US a 99-year lease on a number of Philippine military and naval bases with the Americans enjoying virtual territorial rights.
But the two countries reduced the terms eventually and gave the American forces rights to stay at Clark Air Base until November 1991 and at Subic Bay Naval Complex and several small subsidiary installations in the Philippines until November 1992. They were never to get full access to both installations after that.
The Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 played a big part on the Americans’ reluctance to stay in Clark and Subic, too.
But Filipinos were unaware that their lives had also been put in danger for so long by the presence of nuclear warheads underneath the two bases despite the ban on nuclear weapons in the Philippine territory under the 1987 Constitution.
Declassified documents released by the US military long after they have left the Philippines have confirmed this.
An old article that reviewed the impact of the treaty’s abrogation to the US said: “Without the bases in the Philippines, I don’t think there is any question that US influence in Asia will decline.”
It was from Masashi Nishihara, a professor at Japan’s top military institute and an analyst of security policy in the Pacific.
“If events occur in the South China Sea — a conflict between China and Taiwan, for example, or Hong Kong — the United States may have very little ability to change events,” he said. “As we learned in the Persian Gulf war, effective diplomacy has the backup of an effective military.”
The US hovered over Philippine leaders’ heads for many years after that.
On 27 May 1999, a different set of the Philippine Senate ratified what is now known as the PH–US Visiting Forces Agreement. On 28 April 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) supplemental to the previous VFA was signed between the two countries.
In between these, the US showed superiority to what seemed to be a “minor” partner in the Philippines when it denied its hosts access to and possession of four troops accused of rape while visiting Subic Bay during their trial by a Philippine court in 2016. Then there was the murder of Jennifer Laude by a US Marine.
President Duterte does not mention these in his statements calling for the VFA’s termination, though. He has different reasons for wanting to end the Philippines’ military attachment to the US.
His camp says the Philippines is taking a more independent foreign policy this time.
Or is he just exposing the US’s weakness sans its presence in the region?
As Filipinos, we have long taken pride in our being warmly hospitable. As we like to say in local parlance, “Ilatag ang kutson para sa bisita kahit sa banig na lang tayo matulog (Lay out the mattress for our guests, we can sleep on the mat).”
While it is nice to welcome visitors with such special treatment, we now realize that we should not put our own comfort aside.
It must have been during the Spanish colonial years when this Filipino trait was born and cultivated, for it encourages self-sacrifice for others — a Catholic teaching as well, if you think about it.
During those times, however, Filipinos were treated like second-class citizens on their own soil. They were made to feel inadequate and incompetent, unable to forge their own destiny. This, of course, was to ensure that the colonizers retained full control.
For 300 years, we let them.
We shaped our own culture by adjusting to this sort of treatment, and only a few — the ones we now call national heroes — struggled against it, and paid for it with their lives.
Indeed, with our tendency to go overboard, we forget a very basic fact: you cannot give to others if there is nothing of you left.
The reason we treat our guests with such generosity, I believe, is we desire the same kind of treatment from others.
It is written in religious teachings the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you want others to do unto you.
And yet, with enduring self-sacrifice, we practice immense forbearance when they do not return the same favor we give them. We tend to grin and bear it, as another cliche goes — a confusion many undergo when they are faced with blatant abuse.
This is why we now debate about the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a topic still making it to headlines after that latest trigger — the cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa’s US visa — caused the President to rail against the VFA.
At first glance, it appears that Rodrigo Duterte is acting on impulse, a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived bullying.
Some even say his threat to abrogate the long-standing military pact between America and the Philippines is a blind act of friendship — one that puts an entire country’s welfare for the sake of one man and his pride.
Then again, in fact, the President had been bringing up the subject of the VFA long before “Bato” got thrown out of some US senators’ favor.
Duterte had, from the start of his presidency, expressed his sentiments about the Unites States. His “Filipino first” policy had shocked many at first because, in true Dutz fashion, the opinion was roughly expressed.
He cursed and dismissed those he felt were taking the Philippines and Filipinos for granted. His words — Remember that little incident with Obama? — were sometimes offensive, and no one but a few of his closest men knew if he was joking or not.
Many times, it felt like the joke was on us, really.
Also, the idea of “offending” the US used to be unthinkable. America has been our ally for so long that Filipinos strove for the “American dream” like it was all that mattered.
Then here came someone who scoffed at this idea, advocating Filipinos first instead.
This confused us when it appeared that rather than the US, we were courting favor from China and Russia instead.
This, as well, boggled the minds of even Filipinos themselves, who did not believe we were worth it.
But Malacañang said this administration was going for a different foreign policy, and it said the Philippines deserves more than it had been getting.
Especially in pacts like the VFA, it seems.
So, apparently, the “last straw” was Bato’s visa cancellation following some US senators’ decision to bar those deemed responsible for Sen. Leila de Lima’s detention.
The order for VFA termination was then supposedly given, but soon after this news broke, others came saying that it was not true, “fake news.”
Some said no order had yet been given. As of this writing, the issue remains nebulous.
Meanwhile, some senators had appealed to the President to “tread carefully” on this matter.
They want, in a sense, for us to treat our visitors with care.
They want us to serve the best dishes, use the best china and lay out the mattress so they can lay their heads in comfort.
But why lay out the cushion when it should be more “caution” instead?