No more major ‘Balikatan’ drills in Ilocos Norte, say execs
LAOAG CITY, Ilocos Norte — Major “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) drills that were previously set in this province next month have been moved to Zambales province, the provincial government confirmed Wednesday.
Gervy James Gumarit, information officer of the Ilocos Norte government, told the Inquirer in a message that they “received a communication from the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines]” informing Gov. Matthew Marcos Manotoc that major events for the war games initially lined up in the province have been moved to Zambales.
Gumarit said that the information they received from AFP did not include any reasons why the major events were moved.
“We were only told na decision daw ng higher officers ng AFP,” said Gumarit.
Among the events previously lined up in Ilocos Norte was the conduct of live-fire drills in Burgos town to test the newly acquired weapons systems of the US and Philippines.
There was supposed to be an observation area at the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.
Balikatan spokesperson Col. Michael Logico also confirmed that no military exercise would be held in Ilocos Norte.
“We are doing it in Zambales. We were instructed to move it to Zambales,” he said.
The US-funded health center under Balikatan’s engineering civic assistance project would still be set up in San Joaquin village in Sarrat while “minor marine-to-marine activities in the 4th Marine Brigade” based in Burgos town would push through, said Logico.
In January, Logico and other officials from the US and Philippine militaries met with the provincial board, Ilocos Norte provincial police, and Philippine Marines to present and plan the security and logistics of what was to become the biggest war games so far, with 17,000 Filipino and American troops expected to participate.
On Monday, the provincial board approved a resolution that asked local government units in the province to “relocate” fishermen and residents in coastal areas where major events and firing points of the war games would have been held.
Gumarit, however, told the Inquirer that the Monday resolution was already “disregarded” in view of the developments.
Responding to the possible displacement and relocation, fisherfolk group Pamalakaya on Tuesday, March 14, condemned what they described as the “unacceptable” displacement of the affected fishermen.
“No Filipino fisherman deserves to be displaced from their communities to pave the way for foreign military exercises. What difference does the U.S. make to China that threatens the livelihood of Filipinos?” Ronnel Arambulo, Pamalakaya national spokesperson, told the Inquirer in an interview.
The major war games, which would have been held for the first time in Ilocos Norte province, would occur amid rising tensions between China and Taiwan.
Earlier, President Marcos told Nikkei Asia during a state visit to Japan in February that the Philippines could likely be dragged into a possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait because “of our geographic location.”
Marcos, who hails from Ilocos Norte, said that his home province is just a 40-minute flight away from the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung. During his term as provincial governor, there were direct flights from Kaohsiung to Laoag International Airport.
“We feel that we are very much on the front line,” the president earlier said, adding that “nobody wants to go to war” as he urged that the two countries should look into resolving their conflict diplomatically rather than militarily. WITH A REPORT FROM JOANNA ROSE AGLIBOT