LIKE many incidents in the time of the US bases in Clark and Subic and the previous one in the Visiting Forces Agreement era, the Jennifer Laude case took place during the American servicemen’s ‘liberty’ or rest and recreation (R&R). It has also caused protests and demonstrations because of the controversial provisions regarding criminal jurisdiction and custody in the VFA, successor to the US bases’ Status of Forces agreements.
During my watch (2002) as Executive Director of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACOM), there were no incidents calling into play Article 5 of the Agreement on criminal jurisdiction. This was because VFACOM insisted, in the planning of the military exercises, that participants leave the Philippines immediately after the conclusion of the exercises; they could spend their rest and recreation in their home base(s). Since the VFA has no provision concerning the length of stay of the participants, this matter I assumed was up to the host of the exercises.
No doubt our position was helped by the security red alert that was then raised over the sites of the exercises and their vicinities due to possible NPA and Abu Sayyaf attacks (but such red alerts would not prevent the soldiers from going out in groups). Our position was really impelled not so much to prevent criminal offenses committed against Filipinos as to prevent the VFA causing or contributing to the rise of prostitution and other social problems in the country, especially in the vicinities of the exercises. This was in fact in compliance with a specific handwritten instruction to that effect from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. While sex workers as such have rarely been victims of criminal offenses perpetrated by off-duty US servicemen, the negative effects of the US military presence on Philippine society was a burning issue directed at the US bases and has been the subject of renewed apprehensions by NGOs and civil society over the VFA (and the EDCA).
Some Filipino military officials I told about the President’s instruction smiled and said, “My, what a difficult task you have! Boys will be boys!”
When informed of VFACOM’s special concern with regards to Balikatan in Mindanao, the late great mayor of Zamboanga City Clara Lobregat bristled at the suggestion that there could be prostitutes at all in her jurisdiction. No, she emphatically stated, there are no prostitutes in Zamboanga. I took her word for it, knowing that many of the prostitutes and owners of bars and brothels in Subic and Clark were not native to these cities but came from various other parts of the country.
Our experience in Zamboanga working with Mayor Lobregat informed us our task was not hopeless. The mayor indeed showed how hospitality should be extended to the visiting soldiers, appealing to their better nature. She organized an exhibition of Zamboanga products and cultural programs where the soldiers had the chance to meet the local community, including the ladies. These activities effectively drew people away from the few bars in the city, leading the late columnist Joe Guevara to report a further drop in the number of those bars. I will enlarge on the lessons we learned in Zamboanga further below.
The absence of US servicemen spending their rest and recreation anywhere in the country must have been traced to the VFACOM.
Reporters assaulted me with the question: Why don’t I allow the visiting forces’ “liberty” so people can have a source of income?
My reply: The reason for the visiting forces is mutual defense. The benefits that we derive from our defense cooperation with the US in terms of developing and maintaining the country’s capacity to resist armed attack should be enough. But the exercises do make an economic contribution, too. All the food in the mess halls come from local farms.
Besides a climate of security affects economic growth and the long-term confidence of investors.
But it seems now that I had my finger in a leaking dike, and the dike has long ago burst. American servicemen in R & R after exercises are roaming Olongapo by Night once again, with seeming vengeance. This has made possible, perhaps inevitable, the affairs Nicole and Jennifer.
The suspects in these cases were such servicemen. In addition, American ships on port calls now unload hordes of servicemen on “liberty.” And even better days are perhaps coming to practitioners of the oldest profession in the world as EDCA’s “greater access” and “rotational presence” might mean a bonanza in greater numbers of US forces coming to visit.
For all the din the usual critics of the VFA are making over the killing of Jennifer Laude, it does not look like the abrogation of the VFA is in the offing. The previous case of Nicole proved the VFA better than the bases arrangements of yore, that it in fact worked, the suspect was not spirited away from our shores, and was tried and convicted by a Philippine court (released on appeal because Nicole changed her testimony). And it appears like both sides of the VFA are determined to make it work again in the Laude case and prove that deeds to speak louder than the words of the agreement.
But amending the VFA to improve and update its terms does not need to detract from the “bigger picture” of our need for stronger defense capabilities. The VFA is marked by arrogant, neocolonial overtones. The verbiage on custody is a carry over from the scandalous provision of the military bases arrangements before: “US authorities” merely replaced the “US base commander. ” It is inconsistent with the provision on Philippine jurisdiction over criminal offenses, and this inconsistency makes the latter just a little better than the incredible original military bases arrangement which lodged jurisdiction over all cases in the US.
What may also be left if the VFA survives the Laude case is the task of doing something about the US servicemen’s “liberty.” A laissez faire approach to this matter will not do. It is the playground of the Devil out to exploit the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of poor Filipinos.
If we are intent on making use of the presence of US visiting forces for tourism let us go ahead and organize serious, wholesome, educational, but relaxing tours and other activities enabling them to see not just the vicinity of the bases but the many tourist spots in the country, the beaches, the snorkeling opportunities, the golf courses, etcetera, etcetera.
How about a tour of Corregidor and other landmarks of the military history of the Philippines? But please, let us not set their vessels loose in our internal waters and risk damaging our treasured coral reefs and underwater gardens. US military vessels taking their passengers around our islands should be properly guided or escorted. A broader
perspective of the country and its people might make the visiting forces realize the value of every Filipino’s life. And their true purpose in coming to the Philippines, promoting the friendship between the two countries based on our common interests and aspirations.
Ambassador Jaime J. Yambao is retired. He was last posted as Ambassador to Pakistan and concurrently Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghiztan.