MANILA, Philippines?American troops come and go in this country. The soldiers all look alike so it?s as if they never leave.
It was with such levity that Malacañang dismissed allegations that visiting forces from the United States appeared to have become a permanent fixture in the landscape of Zamboanga City and other crisis-torn parts of Mindanao.
?They are replaced every now and then. They leave, contrary to the critics? impression that they have not left,? said Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita.
Ermita did not dispute the prolonged US military presence in Mindanao, but disputed statements made by Edgar Araojo, a political science professor at Western Mindanao State University, that the country had surrendered its sovereignty.
Ermita said this was just the ?opinion of one person.?
Recent press reports said that local officials in Mindanao have complained about the continued stay of the US soldiers after six years and that the US forces have been putting up structures that appear to be permanent.
?Our national sovereignty and territorial integrity are intact,? said the retired military general and former congressman.
Ermita said the joint military exercises with the US, called Balikatan, had bolstered national and regional security. Terrorists and communist rebels were ?common enemies of democracy, therefore there is nothing wrong with cooperation? between the armed forces of the US and the Philippines, he said.
He said the presence of the US forces here was defined in the Visiting Forces Agreement which was in turn based on the Mutual Defense Treaty concluded in 1951 between the two countries.
He said that after the pullout of the US bases from the Philippines in 1991, the VFA was needed to help in the country?s development, including military capability. That?s why there are joint exercises like the Balikatan, he said.
Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro similarly justified the continued stay of US forces in Mindanao, saying this was provided for under the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty.
Interviewed on Vice President Noli de Castro?s weekly radio program, ?Para Sa Iyo, Bayan,? Teodoro said the conduct of US military activities anywhere in the country was part of the mutual obligation of both countries under the treaty.
The US facilities being allegedly set up in Mindanao were movable facilities that can easily be removed as US forces are mobile, he said. In the case of unmovable facilities, these will be left for the use of the Philippines, he said.
De Castro informed Teodoro that Celso Bayabos, the director of the Air Transportation Office in Zamboanga, had complained about the widening of the US structures inside the airport and had written the US forces about it.
Teodoro said that Bayabos should have written to Philippine authorities instead of dealing directly with the US forces, saying the setting up of such structures was permitted.
?He (Bayabos) was probably not aware of this. He should have coursed his complaint through the proper authorities,? he said.
Teodoro also said a list of military activities to be conducted by both forces are approved every year by the Mutual Defense Board, which includes the US secretary of state and the Philippine secretary of foreign affairs.
?As long as there is a Visiting Forces Agreement, every year there will be training and exchange of opportunities between the US and the Philippines. And as long as there is a Mutual Defense Treaty, we have mutual obligations, particularly in mutual assistance for training and operation and humanitarian and disaster response,? Teodoro explained.
Training RP soldiers
He said the US has been providing assistance on the training and professionalization of Filipino soldiers, as well as in the maintenance of Philippine military vehicles.
He cited how in southwestern Mindanao, American soldiers have been training Filipino soldiers on scene-of-the- crime operations and converting military operations into crime-fighting operations.
In the case of the Mindanao conflict, Teodoro stressed that US forces were prohibited from taking part in combat or even leaving their military camps without clearance from the Philippine area commander or from the Armed Forces chief of staff.
?That?s the situation right now. Sometimes we need to emphasize our joint partnership with the US, particularly when there?s an accident. They are quite willing to help, like in the recent C-130 crash. We really need to view this with some balance,? Teodoro said.
Not just Mindanao
Teodoro stressed that US military presence was allowed in the entire country, not just in Mindanao.
?The VFA covers American troops in the whole country. The only thing that is not allowed is for the US forces to be involved in combat operations. They are allowed to give military assistance, disaster assistance, joint training, aid to barangays as they are doing in Sulu,? he said.
Combat operations probe
A team from the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom) is flying to Sulu and Zamboanga to investigate reports that US forces have joined combat operations of local troops.
The team headed by Undersecretary Edilberto Adan will go to Zamboanga and Sulu to investigate the allegations, said Brig. Gen. Jorge Segovia, acting chief of the Armed Forces command center.
He declined further comment so as not to preempt the results of VFACom investigation.
According to reports, an American soldier was hurt when Abu Sayyaf bandits attacked Marine soldiers transporting logistics to Patikul, Sulu, on Aug. 30. The military has denied this. Four Marines were killed in the ambush.
?No US personnel was involved,? Col. Ernesto Torres, the AFP public information officer, told a Sulo Hotel forum.
Zamboanga City Mayor Mannix Dalipe said he doubted that US forces had taken part in the fighting as the VFA prohibits this.
?They?re more into humanitarian missions. But as far as engaging in combat, they?re not involved,? he said.
?As a soldier and officer, I want the conflict to be fought by us. The military would not allow anybody to lead local operations,? Dalipe said.
Administration Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri defended the presence of American soldiers in some areas of Mindanao, saying they have been helping in relief efforts in the towns ravaged by typhoons and the ongoing conflict.
Zubiri, a board director of the Philippine National Red Cross and a former congressman of Bukidnon, said it was US soldiers with their helicopters and planes who helped the PNRC bring relief goods to Iloilo after Typhoon ?Frank.?
He said the US troops? help in training Filipino soldiers was welcome considering the ?volatile situation? in Central Mindanao.
?As long as they do not engage in the conflict, and just limit themselves to training and helping in relief operations, they are welcome [to stay],? Zubiri said.
Issue to SC
The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said its lawyers would raise the issue of the allegedly overstaying US troops before the Supreme Court.
The high court has set for Sept. 19 for oral arguments on a suit that Bayan filed last year questioning the constitutionality of the VFA.
The case stemmed from the US invoking a VFA provision that allowed it to take custody of Daniel Smith, the US soldier convicted for raping a Filipino woman in Subic. The case is on appeal with the Supreme Court.
?Our lawyers will question the duration and scope of the seemingly permanent presence of US troops in Mindanao,? said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes.
Reyes said the continuing presence of US troops in Mindanao went beyond what the Senate contemplated when it deliberated the VFA in 1999.
?The US troops have been in Mindanao for six years. Isn?t that virtual basing?? he said. With reports from TJ Burgonio, Edson Tandoc Jr., Jerome Aning and Cynthia D. Balana