VFA: a Lick and a Promise?


By W. Scott Thompson and Oliver Geronilla*


“Well, because he looked like a wild boar,” the American serviceman explained his shooting of a Pinoy at Subic Bay forty years ago; was there anything more insensitive he might have said? Oh yes there is. When rich Bill Blair arrived with his wife (Deedee of the ten best dressed women of the world), he said Filipinos were “ungrateful” with respect to the bases and all else America had purportedly done for the Philippines—was he referring to the Thomasites or to the development of the Colt 45 so to be able to kill Filipinos more efficiently in the independence war?

This has always been the worst issue between Filipinos and Americans, so it’s no surprise that Senator Santiago has picked it up. She always knows how to inflame issues for her own advantage. Should the government dance foxtrot with Miriam? With her stance in the senate, it seems that she’s now on the fast beat strutting much faster to ask GMA to renegotiate the executive bilateral agreement. And if all fails, “terminate the agreement,” she opines.

Here’s the nub of the issue. At independence, the Philippines was destroyed by war and destitute; the American star was ascending all over the world. America was—since it was little affected by World War II—half the world product, if only briefly. The Philippine bargaining position wasn’t exactly strong. And the governing elite, more or less the same then as the sugar elite, satisfied itself with the famous American sugar quota, whereby the American consumer paid a 400% bounty for sweets from the archipelago, in return for all the concessions on sovereignty. There was also a lot of talk back then about how the American military commitment to the Philippines was a lot less automatic than to NATO partners, which was true, though with time this has become moot.

Principally, here was the question of jurisdiction over crimes committed by Americans on official duty at and around the bases. Status of forces agreements in almost all cases involved the American request for waivers for soldiers charged with a crime to be tried in their own courts. NATO countries granted 94.8% of the waivers requested as of 1970; the Philippines 00.9%. There just wasn’t a lot of trust in this realm.

For a generation, that’s all we heard of. The agreements here were “second class,” America saw the Philippines as “second class.” Well, yes and no. It is true that the NATO provisions were more favorable to the host countries. But in all fairness, the Philippines was just developing its judicial system and we all know some of the weaknesses. The USA used its economic position for concessions, but it was increasingly—and has been ever since—a comparison of apples with oranges.

Come the base lease endings in 1991, new temporary agreements were concluded. They really encapsulated the best of the past, though one of Cory’s chief advisers thought they were less favorable than those previously existing. Not so, said the then SND, Fidel V. Ramos, when he was interviewed at the time.

But now the atmosphere is heating up all over again. Filipinos are discovering that the 500 Americans merely ‘advising’ in Mindanao (and the moon is made of cheese?) are thick in the fight and they are worried that once again the USA can slip one over on the less powerful Philippines, and spirit away offending American troops. Well, at least the 500 got GMA enough of an excuse to extract a meaningless thirty -minute meeting with Barack Obama, right? And the fight in Mindanao, the leading authority on insurgency in Southeast Asia, Zachary Abuza, has said, is the foremost front in the region against terrorism, right?

That puts all and sundry in limbo.

Seeing the people in the government espouse principles that are poles apart is nothing new. Senator Santiago’s “either A or B” approach in making VFA work for the country is laudable, but things are not always what they seem. All these issues have been there for a long time waiting to be examined. But why just now? People might argue that certain loopholes only become apparent when problems surface out. True. But isn’t it a classical case of healing only when and where it hurts?

Secretary Teodoro sings a different tune. Almost a month ago, he warned the nation against abrogating the agreement as it won’t bode well for the country for “it might send a wrong signal to its allies that it cannot keep its commitment.” Just recently, he issued another statement saying that the discussions on the matter must be done after the elections so as  to avoid putting political color into it. That holds water, doesn’t it? Or, is it just a political posturing?

Legal luminaries have of course asked the Supreme court’s help on this issue zooming in on its constitutionality; however, the Supreme Court has articulated its position not only once but twice– It is constitutional! What happened to Art. VII, Sec. 21 of the Philippine Constitution? It says: “No treaty or international agreement shall be valid and effective unless concurred in by at least two-thirds of all the members of the Senate.” It’s perhaps due to this reason that the Former Senate President, Jovito Salonga, together with the other petitioners who questioned its constitutionality does not lose hope. In fact, they’re keeping their fingers crossed that the other justices would join the four who dissented.

Has the Upper House done its job? For the nonce, yes. Senate Resolution No. 1356 serves as its clarion call aimed at GMA to serve notice to the US to terminate or renegotiate the agreement.

And the Lower House? Well, based on their reactions, it seems that they are not singing from the same hymnbook.

Not too long ago, Senator Joker Arroyo succinctly wrapped up the issue by asking both the legislative and the executive branches of the government to iron things out minus the bickering that we have been seeing on national television.

Clearly, they are at loggerheads. Without a unified stand on the issue, we all know too well that everything is bound to come a cropper. We think that Miriam is doing a disservice. This is a very difficult issue, and as a lawyer, she knows better than to present it all in chiliastic terms. Time for her to consult her, shall we say, “advisers”?

And oh… Let’s all wait till the fat lady sings.


* W. Scott Thompson, D.Phil., is professor emeritus of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He wrote this with the assistance of Oliver Geronilla, language instructor at HMA, Dasmariñas, Cavite

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