MANILA, Philippines (ViaNews) – US president Donald Trump’s raising a glass of wine with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte may seem like everything is fine and splendid here at the 31st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But in the streets of Manila, the atmosphere was quite fiery and tense as Filipino activists marched against what they deem as the US government’s effort to “retain its status quo in the region.”
“The US retains its preeminent position even in a meeting of the ASEAN, of which the US is not even a member. The US President sits beside the host, the Philippine President, who is also the ASEAN Chair. The US looks to retain its status as top dog in the region,” said Filipino activist Renato Reyes, who is also the secretary general of progressive group Bayan.
On Nov. 13, some 9,000 Filipino activists marched on the streets and burned down a 13-foot “fascist spinner” Trump effigy. Their protest was met with water cannons and truncheons as they were dispersed by the police on their way to the venue of the ASEAN summit, injuring at least 56 activists. A paralegal of human rights group Karapatan, Neil Legaspi, was also arrested and remains incarcerated over trumped-up charges.
In a series of protest actions, activists left no possible place behind – even holding a short rally right in front of the Trump Tower in the country’s business district Makati City.
This year, the Philippines hosted the ASEAN Summit with a theme, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World.” The United States, along with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Russia, among others, is supposed to be one of its “dialogue partners” in various issues such as the economy, trade, security, development and more.
But what do these big words really mean? And why are Filipino progressives are marching against it?
Critics argue that instead of bringing in genuine economic integration in the region, the US might bring in disarray if not war.
For one, the US and the Philippine government have always maintained unequal and one-sided economic and military relations, which, according to critics, have resulted to widespread inequality and gross human rights violations in the country.
Among the military agreements between the US and the Philippine agreements are Mutual Defense Treaty, Visiting Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The latter two agreements, signed in 1998 and 2014, have somehow led to the virtual return of the US military presence in the country, even after the US bases were ousted in the Philippines back in 1991.
Two infamous crimes have since happened.
First is the case of “Nicole,” not her real name, who was raped back in 2005 by US Lance Corporal Daniel Smith inside a moving van in Subic, north of Manila, where US military bases were once stationed. Nearly 10 years later, in 2014, transgender woman Jennifer Laude was found dead, her neck blackened with strangulation marks, and head inside the toilet about 30 minutes after she and Private First Class Joseph Pemberton checked in at a hotel in Subic.
In both cases, Smith and Pemberton were in the country as part of the joint military exercises.
Filipinos and many environmental advocates abroad grieved when a US Navy minesweeper ran aground the Tubattaha Reef back in 2013 near the disputed waters in the Philippine Sea while they were in their supposed “normal transit.” A significant portion of the Tubattaha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and widely recognized as the center of marine biodiversity in the whole world, was destroyed.
Unfortunately, President Duterte, who had earlier said he will have EDCA scrapped, has reaffirmed the said military ties during his bilateral meeting with Trump in the recently-concluded ASEAN Summit.
Two months ago, back in August, the Philippine military has asked legislators for a budget allocation of $2.5 million for the country’s “counterpart fund” under the so-called “Construction and Enhancement of Base and Base Support Facilities” enshrined in EDCA.
“We are no doubt being dragged into US interventionist wars across the globe, our soil used as grounds for military exercises, and the Filipino people rendered more exposed to different forms of rights violations. This affirmation of US-PH relations has made one thing clear: Duterte has placed the welfare of the majority of Filipinos in the backseat. As expected, human rights and people’s rights are non-issues for both tyrants,” said Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay.
The US, on the other hand, has also reaffirmed their commitment to “modernize” the Philippines’ armed forces. This poses a problem to human rights advocates who have long decried the standing gross human rights violations committed by the Philippine military and police forces. These include extrajudicial killings, both political and drug-related, enforced disappearance, harassment, torture, to name a few.
Meanwhile, Trump has offered to mediate between countries that have claims to the disputed West Philippine Sea. However, the US military presence in the area, including that in the Korean Peninsula, has been widely criticized for contributing to the tension in the region. In the past, China has already criticized the US intervention in the sea dispute.
“Our country would be better off without Trump’s visit because aside from pushing and supporting for more military actions in the Philippines, like more airstrikes especially in Mindanao, he is also engaged in rabid saber-rattling in the Korean Peninsula that would have terrible effects in the Philippines if war breaks out,” progressive legislator Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna said.
President Duterte’s reported turnabout will surely be the subject of flak in the coming days.