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PHILIPPINES: Rape Case Won’t Dent US Military Presence

Analysis by Stella Gonzales

MANILA, Mar 30 2007 (IPS) - While public anger has dogged the Subic Bay rape case, which resulted in the conviction of a United States marine in December, it will not affect U.S. military presence in the Philippines or Washington’s overall policy in the Asia Pacific region.

”By and large, the Subic rape case and other crimes that may be committed by U.S. troops are inconsequential to America’s overall security interests in the Philippines and the region as a whole. Pentagon calls these ‘collateral damage’,” analyst Prof. Bobby Tuazon of the Centre for People Empowerment in Governance told IPS.

Tuazon said both the Philippine and U.S. governments consider the much-publicised rape case as “an isolated aberration” to the close ties between the two countries. In fact, he said, this close relationship “will continue to flourish in the years to come.”

Even anti-U.S. activists are saying that while the rape case – especially the controversial handover by the Philippine government of rape convict Lance Corp. Daniel Smith to the U.S. embassy in Manila – may have “inconvenienced” the U.S. government, the latter’s military strategy in the Philippines and the region remains unchanged.

“There may not be that big an effect or any major policy shift as far as U.S. military presence is concerned,” said Renato M. Reyes Jr., secretary-general of the militant ‘Bayan’, the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance).

Reyes pointed out, however, that the custody row over Smith following the latter’s conviction by a trial court did cause “operational problems” in a “Balikatan” (literally, shoulder-to-shoulder) military training exercise.

The U.S., apparently putting pressure on the Philippine government to gain custody of Smith, had announced last December that it was cancelling the annual event that involves thousands of U.S. and Filipino soldiers. Four days after Philippine officials clandestinely turned over Smith – then detained at the Makati jail – to the custody of the U.S. embassy in Manila, the U.S. government said the “Balikatan” was back on track.

Reyes said that aside from the delay, the Feb. 19 – Mar. 3 “Balikatan”, had to be scaled down and dispensed with the customary field training exercises. He told IPS: “There were some slight hassles, some inconvenience on the U.S. troops, but as a matter of policy, the U.S. intends to maintain a sizeable presence in the region.”

Reyes said the “bullying” of the U.S. government opened the eyes of many people on how dominant the U.S. was in its relationship with the Philippines. But it was more a “political” issue than a military one.

Prof. Rommel Banlaoi of the Strategic and Integrative Studies Centre and of the National Defence College of the Philippines said U.S. military strategy “will be more of the same” because the rape case “is just a very, very small issue in the grand scale of things.” He said that while the U.S. has been made aware that the rape case “created an irritant,” the two governments are taking steps to prevent similar incidents in future.

“The Nicole case was a wake-up call for the U.S. to be more sensitive to the Filipino public,” said Banlaoi. (“Nicole” was the alias given to the rape victim by her handlers.) Banlaoi is flying to Okinawa this month to lecture U.S. Marines who will be going to the Philippines, on the Philippine culture and history. “Before, such lectures to the Marines were only a matter of compliance on the part of the U.S. government, but now, they are ready to pay attention,” he told IPS.

Tuazon is convinced that given U.S. record in other countries where it maintains a military presence, the Subic rape case will not cause the superpower to divert from its military strategy. “There have been similar rape cases in Okinawa and South Korea involving U.S. soldiers, and their security partnerships, let alone U.S. military objectives in the region, have not changed,” Tuazon said. Thus, he said, there would also be no change in the U.S. ties with the Philippines.

“The Philippines is an important military outpost of the U.S. under its Pacific Command, not only for its so-called ‘war on terror’ but also for its current policy of military encirclement of China as well as North Korea. It is also important in terms of securing U.S. presence in the South China Sea. And U.S. troops are being trained in the Philippines for subsequent combat assignments in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries where U.S. forces are engaged in military operations and occupation,” Tuazon said.

While the public outcry over the rape case may not change U.S. military policy, it did help obtain justice for Nicole and exposed flaws in the Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Tuazon said. The VFA provides for the conduct of bilateral military exercises, among others.

“The lesson to be learned from this whole case is that the struggle against the VFA (and other military agreements) and U.S. military presence should grow stronger with a sustained momentum,” Tuazon said.

Following the Subic rape case, Bayan and several activist groups have filed a case before the Philippine Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the VFA.

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