American ‘Pivot’ to Asia Divides the Philippines

Recent trouble in the South China Sea has renewed debate as to whether the U.S. is a trusted friend, or an old foe

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Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

Members of a militant women's group hold up placards condemning the joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises during a protest in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila on April 27, 2012

Bai Ali Indayla, a human-rights worker and antimilitary activist, has met just one American soldier. They convened at a picnic table inside a Philippine army camp in Mindanao in 2010 to discuss the alleged suicide of a Filipino who died under mysterious circumstances after starting a job with the U.S. military’s counterterrorism program. Indayla believed the death was suspicious, and she wanted answers, but her first and only interaction with a U.S. soldier earned her none. He was dismissive, she says, as well as arrogant and profane. After a brief and terse exchange, he walked out of the meeting without warning, and she walked away with all of her prejudices soundly affirmed.

The encounter, colored by her mistrust and his apparent indifference, reflects an enduring dynamic at play between two forces in Philippine society: the U.S. military, whose decades-long occupation of the islands eventually gave way to civil unrest, and a small but historically significant network of activists who believe the former’s presence is tantamount to neocolonialism. As China more aggressively asserts its claim over the South China Sea and the U.S. ponders a “pivot” to Asia, the gap between these groups seems to widen, calling fresh attention to the question of U.S.-Philippine ties.

(PHOTOS: The U.S. Military in the Pacific)

The relationship between ordinary Filipinos and U.S. armed forces is a tortured one, dating back to America’s “liberation” of the Philippines from colonial Spain more than a century ago. The U.S. takeover of the Philippines in 1899 kicked off a short, bloody war, during which Filipinos were forced into reconcentrados (a type of concentration camp), massacred in their villages and subjected to a new torture technique now known as waterboarding. When the U.S. finally gave the Philippines its independence in 1945, sprawling American military bases remained — and with them, an exploding sex industry and a legacy of human-rights violations widely publicized by the national press.

A decades-long antimilitary movement culminated in the 1991 closure of American bases and the ousting of U.S. troops. Yet American forces have nevertheless maintained a limited but continuous presence in the country, where they conduct regular joint training exercises and have, in recent years, extended antiterrorism efforts. Dubbed “the second front of the war on terror” in 2002, western Mindanao has played host to 600-strong U.S. troop rotations as they pursue two al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. Though officially base-less, barracks, ports and communications infrastructure emerged within and near the Philippine military camps that host American soldiers. This year, the Aquino administration granted the U.S. Navy permission to use the former U.S. base in Subic Bay for the service of U.S. warships.

The situation is now being complicated by China’s claims to the South China Sea, a large shipping channel that boasts enormous, untapped oil and gas reserves. Some Filipinos, including President Benigno Aquino III, see the disputed territory as essential to both the territorial and economic security of the country. For them, the U.S. stands to be a strategic partner that is uniquely positioned to help them counter Chinese power. The Philippines accepted $11.9 million in military aid last year and another $30 million in 2012. In light of the territorial dispute with China, the U.S. has further committed to help the Philippines build “a minimum credible defense posture” and a coastal monitoring system.

(MORE: U.S. Takes a Pass — for Now — on China Sea Disputes)

To a growing chorus of contemporary critics, however, the prospect of an American “pivot” reads as a warning against an expansive military presence just 20 years since the closure of American bases. For them, the relationship between the U.S. armed forces and Filipinos is defined not by defense, but by a legacy of human-rights violations and the perception that U.S. soldiers are above Philippine law. The China threat, they argue, is a bogeyman used to justify an ongoing U.S. presence and draw the public’s attention away from its societal cost.

Most of those affected by the most recent operations have been Muslims in Mindanao, a historically disenfranchised group that is, in many ways, isolated from Manila and somewhat invisible to the public. The death of Filipino interpreter Gregan Cardeño in 2010 put a national face on the issue of militarization in Mindanao. Cardeño was found hanged in a U.S. Army barrack in Mindanao, two days after beginning a new job with American soldiers. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, but Cardeño’s family continues to cry foul play. “Incidents like the Cardeño case have built up a kind of consciousness and attitude about even a very limited U.S. presence,” says Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines.

(MORE: China’s Territorial Ambitions Give Renewed Impetus to a U.S. Presence on Okinawa)

Indeed, there seems to be growing dissatisfaction with where things are headed. On April 16, U.S. and Philippine troops launched the largest iteration of the Balikatan War Games in the event’s history. More than 4,500 U.S. soldiers participated in the military exercises, with observers from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea present. In response, 50 students in Manila defaced the American seal at the U.S. embassy and burned an American flag. Activist groups and political-party leaders led hundreds of demonstrators on a caravan to Clark Air Base, a former U.S. military outpost. In Mindanao, Indayla and her colleagues organized thousands of protesters in demonstrations that spanned seven cities and 10 days. The death of a fisherman killed after a U.S. Navy vessel collided with his boat on April 18 deepened the tension, sparking sympathy protests in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Hong Kong.

While continued projection of U.S. military force in Southeast Asia seems certain, the hearts and minds of Filipinos are not. Even the Philippine Senate is divided on the issue, with a vocal faction advocating the revocation, or at least the reconsideration, of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). “It’s not a black-and-white battle,” says Philippine Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago. While she has long called for an end to the VFA and the establishment of an “independent foreign policy,” she recognizes that U.S. militarization in the Philippines is an inevitability, given the geopolitical climate. “What is the alternative if we want to kick out the Americans?” she says. “Are we going to fall under the thumb of China?” A better solution would be to amend the VFA to safeguard against military abuses and limit the autonomy of troops on Philippine soil, she says.

Meanwhile, activists’ promotion of cases like Cardeño’s has made protesters of those who once warmly welcomed U.S. troops. Cardeño’s sister, Carivel, remembers being thrilled when her brother landed a job with the Americans — the “good guys.” Now, her family is a fixture at antimilitary rallies. “Before [he died], we didn’t know anything bad about the Americans,” she says. “We didn’t know about these protests. Now we know.”

Produced in association with the Investigative Reporting Program at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism

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54 comments
AntonDulce
AntonDulce

Ever heard of a pro-U.S rally in the Philippines? Not counting the obviously fake Internet accounts, the only Filipinos you hear who are pro-U.S military are the politicians and the generals, both corrupt. And here's something the pro-U.S lobby always conveniently forgets to mention: before the campaign for the removal of the U.S bases under the Cory administration began, surveys showed that only 10 to 15% of Filipinos wanted the Yankees out. But on the eve of the historic Senate vote which terminated the Bases agreement, surveys showed that public opinion was at around 50 each.

AntonDulce
AntonDulce

The only group that really wants a U.S military presence (not counting the obvious loony bins who believe that Elvis and JFK are still alive, and that Jose Rizal was some sort of deity) is our corrupt military. They stand to benefit from increased military activity and military aid in the Philippines in terms of corruption. They make money out of kickbacks for arms purchases, using their own businesses to supply the needs of U.S soldiers, and they often are the owners of the brothels which service the soldiers. That's why they are employing 'sock puppets' to flood these kinds of articles with pro-U.S comments.

AntonDulce
AntonDulce

Hahahahaha. Notice that all the negative comments against anti-U.S activists are created by dummy accounts. Probably one or two people from the Armed Forces trying to control negative public opinion. If they are really 'real' people, why don't they use their social network accounts? That's called 'sock puppeting', ladies and gentlemen. Kudos to the writer of this article!

Myra Omictin
Myra Omictin

oh so true. My brother used to join a rally like this..because the food was free ha ha ha

Myra Omictin
Myra Omictin

The writer seems biased.  Filipinos like Americans. that is the truth. Those militants are free to voice out their dissatisfaction...this is democracy. Gee,  I hope the writer is not a  Filipino and not a communist.:-) I am a proud Pinay and I live in Zamboaga. I am glad the Americans are there.

RhettVincentMinguez
RhettVincentMinguez

The writer got it wrong. Most Filipinos love the United States and would like the US military's presence here. It is a bond sealed by a common sacrifice during WWII. In fact,   there are groups here who even want the Philippines to become a US state. 

The groups that picket the US Embassy are there time and again, and will always find cause to rally against the US (but doesn't do it against China, I wonder why?). 

Filipinos love the US so much, that almost 11 million of them and their descendants are in the US. It is a love born out of gratitude, of common values - respect for human rights, democracy, and freedom.

ImAProudFilipino
ImAProudFilipino

I love this article and in my opinion the writer did a hell of a job too. Everyone has their opinions on whats right. the world isn't going to see eye to eye so maybe some of you people should shift your hate and anger to actually doing something productive instead. Obviously this article was good enough for Time Magazine which is one of the biggest magazines out there. 

Heterotic
Heterotic

The best ship in the navy of the Philippines is a WWII era destroyer. Deal with China on your own, the U.S. needs to deal with its own economic problems.

Jerico Cruz
Jerico Cruz

Those rallying against the US in the Philippines are one of two things, they are either paid to do the rally or joined the rally for free food.

james.relativo
james.relativo

@Jerico Cruz I've never been paid, and food was seldom given, and it's not an incentive. Been an activist for 4 years now.

grapesofwrath
grapesofwrath

"divides the Philippines"? Says who? By how much? 99 to 1 for sure!

Herman G. Morgan III
Herman G. Morgan III

I had the distinct honor of spending many months in the P.I. during the Vietnam War. During my time there I was honored to meet a wide spectrum of people, from bar girls, to college girls, and including a lot of older Filipinos who had grown up during and just after WWII. This was a time when President Marcos and his Wife were still ruling by election, with the President being a Hero to nearly everyone in the Nation.

At that time, we sailors were treated with respect,( if we earned it), and Americans were still viewed as their past saviors and present protectors. Even the opponents of Ferdinand Marcos placed great value on the Friendship of the USA, and flattered us by imitation and appreciation of all things American.

The more educated people I encountered were dismayed that most of the military visitors from America, never got beyond the fleshpots of Olongapo, or Angeles City, the towns outside Subic Bay Naval Station, and Clark Air Force Base, respectively.

Our base was a tiny base right across Manila Bay from Manila, NAS Sangley Point, which was on a little peninsula at Cavite City, Luzon,PI.

Myself and a few Friends enjoyed partying with the Girls in Cavite, but spent a good amount of time in Manila, and eventually were welcome in some homes there, and in the Capitol of Quezon City, where were even invited to attend a reception at the Presidential Palace, where we met, and had some conversations with First Lady Imelda Marcos, who was as gracious as she was beautiful, and was thirty or so years from becoming the shoe-obsessed harpy that most Americans got to know after the Marcos' fall from grace, and into exile.

I learned a good deal about their Culture, History, and their Pride in their modern Society. It broke my heart when America supported Marcos far beyond anything called for, and We lost the Love and Admiration we had enjoyed for so long. The Filipino People are warm, gracious, light-hearted, and just all-around Fun people. It is a Nation where even the poorest among them have a lot of civic and national Pride, and where Traditional Values of Good Manners and Hospitality are held in high esteem. I sincerely hope we are able to re-establish the mutually beneficial Military bases there, and that the Commanders of those bases will educate their troops about the host Country, and that those troops will conduct themselves in a manner that earns again the respect and admiration we once enjoyed.

disqusdamnuserid
disqusdamnuserid

"honor" to meet bar girls? 

You mean you had the honour of DEFLOWERING poor Asians? 

RhettVincentMinguez
RhettVincentMinguez

there are brothels near US bases in Korea, anywhere where there is a very skewed men:female ratio i bet there always will.. prostitution is not the sum of Filipino-US relations, it is but a blip. Our people are bonded by our common values for respect of human rights, democracy, freedom, and the 'American' dream (which also happens to be the Filipino dream).

Christopher Corvino
Christopher Corvino

unless u been in the military and lived with the people there then u better not judge others as you'll sound like and idiot which is what ur doing now.

Jerico Cruz
Jerico Cruz

You clearly have no idea about the friendship between Filipinos and Americans.

RightCowLeftCoast
RightCowLeftCoast

What a bias and one sided article. It's like saying all of America is the occupy movement because the cameras take a tight shot of a small group of people. There is not even a small attempt to depict those in the Philippines that support a renewal of the Filipino American alliance. Rather the article does its best to cast the United States as a villanous nation.

Emma
Emma

Read most of the comments with "communists" and you'll see the danger in the thinking of many Filipinos today. They tend to simplify things with the good guys = US, bad guys = Chinese. What makes them different from the Chinese who think the Filipinos are the bad guys? No evaluation whatsoever of the propaganda that may be hitting them and forming their thoughts.

rory2012
rory2012

It is clear that the  US's intention  is to force China to show hand and engage war with her neighbors.China will not back down because of the US's involvement and war with US is inevitable so as a Chinese around the world be ready and prepared.

retortingjk
retortingjk

Filipinos are facing the undeniable truth that against a giant bully like China, we are powerless. Being a loyal ally of the US for so many years (a colony at one point), most Filipinos hope and expect that the US will be on our side should tensions rise to a critical level. Vice versa, we are also expected to come to the US' side should the need arise.

The US is a global superpower, it is one of very few countries that can stand in way of China's aggressive expansionism.

These people protesting against US intervention do not even register a blip in the overall sentiment of the Filipino people. I am confounded why CNN thinks they are causing a "divide" among us. These China-backed commies should just return to the mountains and continue their decades-long futile attempt to establish a communist government in the Philippines.

许俊锋
许俊锋

Here is the United States of America.?

Miguel Mendez
Miguel Mendez

This is a great idea btw for Sen. Defensor-Santiago, 'A better solution would be to amend the VFA to safeguard against military abuses and limit the autonomy of troops on Philippine soil, she says.'

I'm a Filipino and yes I'm also concerned about this '

but by a legacy of human-rights violations and the perception that U.S. soldiers are above Philippine law'

I do understand that we need the U.S. because China is just bullying us but at the same time I want to have stricter laws against useless human rights violations they do to some of our countrymen. The law for this can be executed, it's just a matter of a strong political with which by the way most of our politicians doesn't have.

Rjel Ruiz
Rjel Ruiz

The only ones who are against America here are the Communists....the so-called "National Democrats". 

Kristian Jacob Lora
Kristian Jacob Lora

For decades, we have never learned to be independent from foreign countries, esp. US.. so, i think it's better to have Philippines become the 53rd State of America!

grapesofwrath
grapesofwrath

Uhm... There are currently 50. So what's the 51st and 52nd?

Also, would you take a problem?

mel santos
mel santos

these militant does not represent us filipinos. they are communist

carlojpf
carlojpf

I am a Filipino I do not agree with most of what you wrote here. It seems like the article came from an activist who is against Democracy(Just my opinion). This is how I see this article because it is one sided. My understanding is that journalist should always look for the Pors and Cons get the 

Tey
Tey

Not the friend you deserve, but the one you need!

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David Stocker
David Stocker

>After a brief and terse exchange, he walked out of the meeting without warning, and she walked away with all of her prejudices soundly affirmed

I am forced to wonder if Bai Ali Indayla’s prejudices were self fulfilling.   The article says nothing of how the soldier found her.  If she walked into the meeting with prejudices, it is quite likely that he found her just as dismissive, she says, as well as arrogant and profane. 

Ivan
Ivan

Be it Vietnam, Phillipines, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia or India, the irritant is just one - China. By finishing off democracy within china, occupying Tibet and other countries illegally, an insecure china is bullying all its neigbours to fend off attention from its own woes...we all need to gang up to teach china a lesson...starting with renaming south china sea...

barnardshaun
barnardshaun

dude,chill out,what do you mean occupying tibet?Have you ever been to you so call Tibet before?Have you notice that your democratic brother also deprived the land from indian people?Why we sort this mess out first?AH?

Gizelle Neuman
Gizelle Neuman

I think the title of the article is very misleading because it doesn't reflect the truth. I think this writer didn't do enough research about this perennial protesters in the Phil.. It's a common knowledge among us Filipinos that this so called militants are nothing more than fronts of the communist in the Phil. (CPP/NDF/NPA).  And they are a very tiny portion of the population. JUST BECAUSE THIS GROUP IS NOISY IT DOESTN'T MEAN THAT THE FILIPINOS ARE DIVIDED!!! BECAUSE AS A FILIPINO I KNOW FOR A FACT THE A VAST MAJORITY OF US HATED THIS COMMUNIST! AND THERFORE SUPPORTS THE PRESENCE OF THE US IN THE PHIL. JUST TO COUNTER THE GROWING BULLYING TACTICS OF THE CHINESE.

By the way, the writer should read the comments on Phil Daily Inquirer, Phil Star or other online Philippine newspaper to see a sample of the real sentiments of the Filipinos withe regards to this perennial protersters (Communist Fronts aka militants). You'll see that almost all comments are disgusted and very against this group of people.

Playnook Games
Playnook Games

You're right.

In the Philippines, it's Silent majority, Noisy minority.

rheddherring
rheddherring

I also agree. What a surprise, CNN/Time picks up an obviously slanted article with little fact checking written by a journalism grad student at Berkeley...

rheddherring
rheddherring

Totally agree. The "writer" is a grad student at Berkeley, so the slant towards led-by-the-nose-by -communist-disinformation is simple. Where is the real information about the suicide, the facts?

Manila_Kid
Manila_Kid

I totally agree. The problem with foreign media is they need to "jazz up" their stories with evidence of their own prejudice.  I can say that a great majority of Filipinos are sick and tired of these so-called militants who see evil in America but are silent when it comes to the bullying of China.  That fact is lost to this writer.  

yaoje
yaoje

it is because this writer may be one of them...

IAF101
IAF101

Filipino-American history is a fascinating study on the perils of neo-colonialistic tendencies entrenching itself in powerful democracies that have themselves earned their freedoms from foreign rule. 

It goes to show that a nation when presented with enough power and opportunity to suppress the aspirations of others to further its own ambitions will not hesitate to do so regardless of its own history or national philosophy. 

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LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 I have to put it slightly different: "neo-colonialism" and "USSR containment" were used quite interchangeably for a while. This means that the term "neo-colonialism" got really abused lately.

 I think that the accusations were somewhat inflated by inflated expectations of what can be done of one's own, unrealistic promises from Soviet side and the lack of understanding of the role of trade and capital flows in the early stages of the development, and strong independent judiciary and democracy - at later stages of the development.