Tubbataha grounding: Expect more abuses as US pivots to Asia

Environmental advocates and activists protest the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef, call for the junking of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and immediate pullout of US troops from the Philippines. (Photo from www.globaltimes.cn)

Environmental advocates and activists protest the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef, call for the junking of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and immediate pullout of US troops from the Philippines. (Photo from www.globaltimes.cn)

The grounding of the USS Guardian on the Tubbataha Reef shows one of the many dangers that increased US military presence in the country brings. Just several months prior to the destruction of a portion of the protected reefs by the 224-foot American minesweeper, which reports peg at about 1,000 square meters, the US Navy was also involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Subic Bay. Worse, the presence of American forces in the country has also meant the death of our people such as the fisherman who was hit by a US military speedboat in Basilan last year. All these incidents happened in a span of less than one year.

To be sure, these are not the first transgressions committed by US soldiers who are in the Philippines through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). (See box at the end of this article for a summary of some of the human rights atrocities committed by US troops under the VFA.) The rape of Nicole by US Marine Daniel Smith in Subic is still fresh in our collective memory. But what is alarming is the increasing frequency of such transgressions and the impunity that the US forces enjoy. Daniel Smith was acquitted. The family of the Basilan fisherman opted for a settlement with the US military. The US Navy was absolved of any liability in the Subic toxic waste dumping.

In the Tubbataha grounding incident, which dealt the protected reefs its worst damage on record, it is perturbing that our officials seem content in just seeking financial compensation for the damaged reef, worth a paltry $300 per square meter. (If the damage is 1,000 sq. m, that makes us entitled to $300,000 or about ₱12 million. Certainly, a measly sum compared to the importance of Tubbataha as a World Heritage site.) President Benigno Aquino III was also emphatic on the need of the US to pay in accordance with our laws. While imposing financial penalties and demanding an official apology from the US are legitimate demands, their importance should not be overemphasized. They should be treated as a given and should be implemented as a matter of policy. But the Philippines must take a more decisive stance on this issue, one that goes beyond demanding compensation and apology from a supposed friend and partner.

Sadly, no administration official, including Aquino, has raised the need to pursue the criminal liability of the US forces, particularly the USS Guardian commander (identified as Lt. Commander Mark A. Rice) who ignored the warnings of the Tubbataha park rangers and ordered his men to be in “battle position” when local authorities tried to exercise their rightful jurisdiction over the vessel. The special treatment being accorded to the US troops is evident in the decision of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) not to include jail time in the penalties it is seeking for the grounding incident despite clear provisions in the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act (TRNP) of 2009 or Republic Act (RA) 10067. No administration official has raised the need to at least review the VFA given the circumstances surrounding the suspicious presence of the USS Guardian in the Tubbataha area (worse, the US Navy and US government’s failure or refusal to explain such presence more than 10 days since the incident) and the actions taken by the ship’s officials. On the contrary, defense and military officials assert that regular port visits by US warships and joint military trainings with the American troops under the annual Balikatan exercises will continue, as if the Tubbataha incident did not happen. Aquino himself absolved the VFA, claiming that the ever controversial military deal has “nothing to do with the Americans’ going to Tubbataha” and that the issue is simply “a question of violating certain ecological laws.”

Aquino is wrong. The USS Guardian and numerous other US warships, aircraft and troops have been going in and out of, and around, the country via the VFA. Thus questioning the VFA and raising the political issues, beyond the environmental aspect of the controversy, is crucial in asserting our sovereignty as a nation, which is the crux of the matter in the Tubbataha incident. This becomes more important in the light of the announced pivot to Asia Pacific of US military forces. Concretely, the pivot takes the form of deploying 60% of US’s naval fleet in the region. The US Navy is the world’s largest (its tonnage is said to be greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined) and includes, among others, 11 aircraft carriers (out of the 21 active carriers worldwide) and 71 submarines. Six out of the 11 US carriers are currently already deployed in the Asia Pacific but the US also plans to deploy more of its most advanced warships and jet fighters in the region as part of the pivot. Certainly, their increased presence in our seas will make us more exposed to incidents like Tubbataha and other abuses even as Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin vainly attempts to distance the frequent and unhampered entry of US warships in the country to the grounding incident, swallowing hook, line and sinker the flimsy excuse by the captain of the USS Guardian about a faulty navigation system.

In the Philippines, one of the immediate and obvious effects of the US pivot is the drastic increase in the frequency of so-called “routine port calls” of American warships. In 2012, for instance, a total of at least 10 supposedly regular port visits have been reported in the media, with the US warships docking at mostly at Subic and Manila bays. The port visits involved 12 warships of varying sizes that included the nuclear-powered super carrier USS George Washington (escorted by two other military vessels); four nuclear-powered submarines which included the most technologically advanced in the world – the USS North Carolina, USS Louisville, USS Hawaii and USS Olympia; and a host of guided-missile destroyers, submarine tender and amphibious assault ship. On the other hand, in 2011 there were only three reported port visits involving six ships.

2012 partial list of PH-US bilateral military exercises & “routine port calls” by US military warships
Date

Summary

Mar. 3 Port visit in Iloilo of USS Chafee, a guided-missile destroyer, to participate in the US Embassy’s program “showcasing American culture, US businesses & embassy services”
Mar. 5-10 Operation Pacific Angel 2012 – Some 99 US military members (US Air Force), along with members of the PH military, NGOs and LGUs conducted medical, dental, optometry & engineering programs in Legazpi, Albay
Apr. 16-27 28th Balikatan exercises involving 4,500 personnel from the US Pacom & 2,300 AFP personnel conducted command post exercise (which also included about 20 participants from Asean & 15 from other partner nations), multiple field training exercises & engineering, humanitarian & civic assistance projects (also supported by 385 local health professionals); exercises were held in Metro Manila, Tarlac, Pampanga, Nueva Ecija, Palawan, Zamboanga, Jolo & Basilan
May 14 Routine port call in Subic of the USS North Carolina, a Virginia class fast attack submarine, also described as one of the “stealthiest, most technologically advanced” nuclear-powered submarines in the world
Jun. 25-30 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Louisville, a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered attack submarine, to restock & R&R for its crew
Jul. 2-10 18th Cooperation Afloat Readiness & Training (Carat) involving some 500 members of US Navy & Coast Guard & about 450 personnel from the PH Navy & Coast Guard; exercises were held in General Santos City & Saranggani
Aug. 19-20 Routine port call in Manila of the USS Millius, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer
Sep. 3 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Frank Cable, an L.Y. Spear class submarine tender; ship repair, maintenance and training under the PH-US Acquisition Cross Servicing Agreement (Acsa) between sailors of USS Frank Cable & BRP Greogorio del Pilar
Sep. 7 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Hawaii, one of the most advanced nuclear-powered submarines in the world; capable of transporting special operations forces, unmanned undersea vehicles & US Navy Seals
Oct. 4 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Olympia, a Los Angeles class nuclear-powered submarine
Oct. 5 Routine port call in Subic of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, for R&R of its sailors & to offload US Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) who were participating in the Phiblex 13
Oct. 8-18 Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex 13) involving some 2,600 personnel from the US Pacom & over 1,200 from the AFP; exercises, held in Zambales, Palawan, Tarlac, Cavite & Nueva Ecija included staff planning exercise, a static aircraft display, multiple field training exercises & humanitarian & civic assistance projects
Oct. 24-28 Routine port call in Manila the USS George Washington, a nuclear-powered Nimitz class aircraft carrier with about 5,500 personnel; it carries about 80 aircrafts of various purposes, primarily F-18 Hornets, helicopters & E-2 Hawkeye airborne early warning turboprops; it was escorted by two other vessels – the USS Cowpens (a Ticenderoga-class guided missile cruiser) & USS McCampbell (an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer)
Nov. 19 Routine port call in Manila by USS Gridley, an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer & part of the US Pacific Fleet
2011 “routine port calls” & PH-US bilateral military exercises: USS Essex, an amphibious assault ship (Manila, Dec. 1-4); Cooperation Afloat Readiness & Training (Sulu Sea, Palawan; Jun. 28 to Jul. 8); USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group, which also includes guided-missile destroyers USS Shiloh, USS Bunker Hill & USS Gridley (Manila, May 15-19); 27th Balikatan exercise (Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija, Zambales, Palawan, Cavite, Cebu; Apr. 5-15); USS Blue Ridge, command & control ship of the US 7th Fleet (Feb. 13-16)
Data as of Nov. 26, 2012 onlyData culled from the Embassy of the United States, Manila, Philippines, press & photo releases for 2011 & 2012, http://manila.usembassy.gov/media-resources.html, and from various online media reports

The table above does not represent an exhaustive list of all the “port visits” by US warships in the Philippines as it merely enumerated what’s reported in the media. A statement attributed to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) claimed that in 2012, US ships made 197 port calls (aside from 444 US aircraft that were cleared to land) in the Philippines. Residents of Olongapo City claim that different US warships dock at Subic Bay almost weekly. When I visited Olongapo during the New Year break, I counted at least five large US ships docked at the bay. The presence of these US military ships was not reported by the media. And I’m pretty sure that many other abuses and transgressions by American troops also went unreported.

Human rights abuses and US troops
The presence of American soldiers in the country has invited grave abuses and violations of Filipinos’ human rights. This has been the case since the US occupation of the country and continued when they still had military bases in Subic and Clark. Under the VFA, attacks on human rights perpetrated by the US troops persist and worse, even covered up by the authorities. These abuses include the mauling of a certain Marcelo Batesil in Cebu City; the shooting of suspected Abu Sayyaf suspect Buyung-Buyong Isnijal in Basilan province; the reported massacre of three Muslim civilians in Barangay Sipangkot, Umapoy Island in Tawi-Tawi and four others in Maimbung, Sulu; and the killing of a certain Arsid Baharon in Barangay San Roque in Zamboanga City.

But the biggest and most controversial case of abuse so far is the rape of Nicole in Subic involving four American Marines in 2005. In December 2006, a local judge convicted one the Marines, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, of raping Nicole. The Court of Appeals (CA), however, reversed the decision in April 2009. But one month before the CA ruling, Nicole had issued a controversial affidavit which claimed that she “can’t help but entertain doubts on whether the sequence of events in Subic… really occurred”. This affidavit was apparently the result of pressure from the US and Malacañang with the lawyer assisting Nicole in the second affidavit reportedly from the same law firm of Smith’s counsels. While it carries no legal implication, its intention was to influence public opinion so that the CA acquittal of Smith will be easily accepted by the people. Nicole was also reportedly given P100,000 in “moral and exemplary damages” by the camp of Smith aside from a US visa that allowed her to fly to the US “for good”.

US troops staying in the country were again dragged into another controversy in 2010, this time involving the death of an interpreter they hired for an elite unit of US Special Forces called the Liaison Coordination Elements (LCE). Gregan Cardeño was found dead inside a Joint Special Operation Task Force (JSOTF) facility in Camp Ranao in Marawi City on Feb. 2, 2010 after allegedly committing suicide. Less than two months later, Capt. Javier Ignacio of the Philippine Army – a friend of the Cardeños helping to shed light on his death – was shot dead by unidentified gun men. Before his death, Cardeño separately called his sister and wife and told them that his job was “hard and not what he expected”. Ignacio, meanwhile, was killed while on his way to meet human rights groups to execute an affidavit on what he discovered about Cardeño’s death.

Sources: Sworn statement of Nicole, Mar. 12, 2009 (http://www.gmanews.tv/story/153159/Sworn-Statement-of-Nicole); GMA News Online. “Smith camp’s hand seen in Nicole ‘recantation’ bared”. Mar. 18, 2009 (http://www.gmanews.tv/story/153150/Smith-camps-hand-in-Nicole-recantation-bared); The Philippine Star. “’Nicole’ leaves for US, settles for P100,000”. Mar. 18, 2009. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2011; (http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=449575&publicationSubCategoryId=63); Lacorte, Germelina. “Group demands junking RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement over death of Filipino interpreter”. Davao Today. Jul. 15, 2010. Retrieved Mar. 25, 2011 (http://bulatlat.com/main/2010/07/15/group-demands-junking-rp-us-vfa-over-death-of-filipino-interpreter/)  

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