The United States, says new Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., does not intend to interfere in Philippine internal affairs.
For any ambassador, it’s the right thing to say in a sovereign host country. But what if US intervention is sought by certain elements in the host country, or by the government itself?
The usual protest rally was staged by militants in front of the US embassy yesterday as America celebrated its 234th Independence Day. Yesterday also marked Friendship Day between the two countries, and Thomas made the ceremonial pitch at the Baseball Philippines North and South All-Star Game at the Alabang Country Club.
Post-colonial ties are often complicated, and more so when the former colonizer is the world’s lone superpower on which the former colony remains dependent on various forms of aid.
US assistance has a long string of conditionalities attached, including levels of compliance with standards set for democratic reforms, respect for human rights, and efforts to promote transparency and fight corruption. Such conditionalities are appreciated in countries ruled by repressive or corrupt regimes, even as American intervention is denounced by certain quarters.
In an interview at his embassy office recently, Thomas still seemed unaware of the impact of public pronouncements by America’s top diplomat in this country.
Told that there are Filipinos who have come to expect Washington to step in as it has done during crucial moments in the Philippines’ recent history, Thomas said, “I’m not aware of that and I’m shocked to hear that. I’m really surprised. Why would you want that? That’s news to me. We have tremendous respect for the Filipino people… you’re a mature democracy.”
When reminded that the US, upon the request of Corazon Aquino, scrambled fighter jets over Malacañang to drive away coup plotters during her presidency, Thomas stressed, “We are not here to intervene. We are here to partner with the people of the Philippines.”
Once upon a time, I told him, there were Americans who saw themselves as big brothers to their “little brown brothers” the Filipinos. Thomas chuckled and said only, “They called you that?”
“I’m very proud of the United States’ relationship with the Philippines. I think it’s mature, it’s mutually beneficial,” he said.
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Some quarters see the presence of US troops in Zamboanga City as foreign intervention. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo invited US troops back to the Philippines for the first time since the shutdown of the US bases shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York in Washington.
At the time, the Abu Sayyaf was on a kidnapping spree targeting mostly foreigners, and the Philippine military seemed unable to contain the threat. Opposition to the return of US troops, from the usual anti-American quarters, was surprisingly muted. By 2002, hundreds of US Special Forces, on tours of duty lasting several months, had set up camp in Zamboanga.
The troops are in the Philippines under the aegis of the Visiting Forces Agreement, and Thomas reiterated his government’s position amid a possible VFA review: “We have to honor our treaty obligations and we expect the Philippine government to honor its treaty obligations.”
Thomas added that the US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines in Zamboanga “will assist and advise as long as the Philippine government would like us to stay.”
That government is now headed by Cory Aquino’s only son, who is still pondering if he wants to endure the long flight to Washington as an invited guest of US President Barack Obama. The US capital is the traditional first foreign stop of newly elected Philippine presidents.
No sovereign nation wants US or any other type of foreign intervention, but Philippine presidents still turn to Washington for gestures of support during moments of political turbulence.
In July 2005, at the start of street protests calling for the resignation of then President Arroyo over the “Hello, Garci” scandal, the astute political survivor did several things. She ran to some bishops for help. She made sure her loyal officers were in firm control of the military and police. And then she attended the Fourth of July reception at the US embassy, personally hearing the traditional toast to the health of the Philippine president by the chargé d’affaires at the time, Joseph Mussomeli.
Foreign affairs observers flayed GMA for gate-crashing, saying presidents should leave attendance at embassy receptions to their foreign ministers. Diplomats told me that the president is always sent an invitation to the Fourth of July reception even if she is not expected to attend, so technically she was no gatecrasher. GMA is no party animal and she went to the embassy for a purpose, which she got: a toast with America’s top diplomat in Manila, and the message that she still enjoyed Washington’s support amid doubts over the legitimacy of her mandate.
Days later, the so-called Hyatt 10 resigned from the Cabinet and, together with Corazon Aquino, demanded GMA’s resignation. There was no supporting move from the Armed Forces. Asked for comment, Mussomeli said the US would not support extra-constitutional methods of regime change. The bishops later issued a statement that boiled down to support for GMA’s continued stay in power.
Months later, US officials, among them John Negroponte and Christopher Hill, would dissuade the Arroyo administration from imposing martial law or emergency rule. Last year, amid rumors that GMA was scheming to perpetuate herself in power, US officials, starting with then Ambassador Kristie Kenney and then Obama himself, repeatedly issued statements encouraging the Philippines to push through with the general elections as scheduled and a peaceful transfer of power in 2010.
Is America interfering in Philippine affairs? It’s like the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on affairs of state. The bishops can talk all they want about a whole range of government policies. But the Church, like Washington, is only as influential as the government and the people allow it to be.