IT is true that my government has not been acknowledged by any of the foreign powers; but we expect that the great North American nation which struggled first for its independence and afterwards for the abolition of slavery, and is now actually struggling for the independence of Cuba would look upon it [the Philippine government]with greater benevolence than any other nation.
— President Emilio Aguinaldo writing to US Brigadier General Thomas Anderson
AS seen in the July 1898 letter quoted above, the Philippines’ first leader Emilio Aguinaldo believed the United States would be true to its freedom-loving tradition and would respect his new republic’s month-old independence. So when US Army Brigadier General Thomas Anderson wanted his troops to land and occupy areas held by Filipino revolutionaries, Aguinaldo agreed as long as “you should communicate in writing the places that are to be occupied and also the object of the occupation”.
Aguinaldo’s assent became the undoing of Asia’s first republic. Anderson’s troops disembarked and took positions in Manila, including one side of Intramuros relinquished by Filipinos surrounding the colonial capital. The month after Aguinaldo’s letter, Spanish troops in the city, after a mock battle, surrendered to the Americans, not the Filipinos.
That presaged on the ground the colony’s turnover to the United States, as later stipulated in the Treaty of Paris in December 1898, by which Spain ceded the Philippines to America for $20 million. And the unopposed landing of US forces paved the way for their conquest of the archipelago and another half-century of colonial rule.
The history lesson is simple: policies should be based not on idealistic notions, but on realistic assessments, especially of paramount interests and risks. And in his security accords, President Benigno Aquino 3rd may be making Aguinaldo’s mistake.
The risk of extremism in Bangsamoro
Take the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the Bangsamoro Basic Law implementing the CAB. What interests drive the parties in the pact, especially the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and what risks do the CAB and the BBL pose, especially for the Philippines?
The MILF’s overriding interest has always been Moro self-determination. As shown by its war warnings, it admits there are radicals inside and outside the Front who still demand independence. Moreover, the MILF has extremist factions harboring terrorists, local and foreign. All that won’t change despite the peace pact.
The risk then is that secessionists and extremists could win power in the Bangsamoro, and control its police, especially if rebels join en masse the law enforcement force. Indeed, the MILF is set to control the process of creating the new political entity, through its chairmanship and majority of seats in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority.
With the BTA under its thumb, plus its Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces as the region’s largest armed group after the Philippine Army, the MILF is also poised to dominate elections for the proposed autonomous government. Thus, one top legislator said he would push for BBL amendments to block the Front’s rise to dominance.
For its part, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines highlighted the risk of extremism in its statement on the BBL, issued three days before the January 25 Mamasapano Massacre of 44 police commandos by Muslim rebels. The CBCP recommended “a provision in the BBL that would make it impossible in the future for any radical extremist group to exploit or change the democratic framework of the Bangsamoro government so as to deny … religious freedom.”
In sum, rather than being overly enamored with the ideal of peace, legislators revising the BBL and justices ruling on the MILF agreement and, if it’s passed and challenged, the Bangsamoro Basic Law should address provisions that could be exploited for terrorism, and separatism. Otherwise, they could spawn an even bloodier conflict, with extremists able to operate with greater freedom, power and resources than ever before.
Uncle Sam’s EDCA agenda
The second Aquino pact purportedly enhancing national security, yet again failing to properly assess risks and conflicting interests is the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Malacañang pushed EDCA to counter China’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.
The accord signed during President Barack Obama’s visit last April, would allow far greater deployment of American naval and air assets in the archipelago, and grant them access to Philippine military bases. Last week Armed Forces Chief General Gregorio Catapang cited eight facilities the US wants to use, including bases in Ilocos, Batanes, Clark and Subic; two in Cebu and two in Palawan.
Despite that wish list, however, US forces will still not help in territorial frictions. That’s the plain truth, according to General Catapang himself. He said the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty “does not include the West Philippine Sea, and so we want to develop our own capabilities.” In all tussles with rival claimants in the South China Sea, American forces have never ever come to the Philippines’ aid.
So what is Washington’s interest in EDCA? It’s crystal clear from many US statements: it needs a vast area to deploy 60 percent of its naval assets moving to the region under its Pivot To Asia policy. Moreover, Philippine bases would be of immense value if and when there are conflicts in Japan, Korea and Taiwan — all under US protection.
And that’s the risk: In hostilities involving American forces, even those not involving the Philippines, our bases, waterways and islands become legitimate targets, since they host or support US forces. That poses a far greater threat to our nation than Beijing’s encroachments in faraway waters, in which Washington doesn’t help anyway.
In believing America would not conquer the Philippines, Aguinaldo could be forgiven, since the US was not a colonial power then, and even supported Latin American independence movements.
But Aquino knows the MILF has long sought independence and harbored extremists, and the US has never backed us in territorial disputes. His mistakes are inexcusable — and immensely dangerous for our nation.