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Revisiting the forces agreement

Calls for the review of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States is well founded. There’s no question the VFA must be revisited with the contentious provisions reviewed and renegotiated particularly the issue of jurisdiction and custody for erring US soldiers. Obviously, the rape case involving Lance Corporal Daniel Smith and three others in 2005 triggered calls for the abrogation of the VFA. Smith was later found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Makati Regional Trial court judge while the three co-accused were acquitted. The one-sided agreement on this issue became apparent when the United States used its clout and influence to save the American soldier from ever setting foot in a Philippine jail when they took custody of Corporal Daniel Smith inside the US Embassy compound and eventually got the victim, “Nicole,” to issue a recantation. Later she migrated to the US. Shortly after, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Makati RTC and the young soldier was out of the country in less than 24 hours.

In a recent hearing of the VFA Legislative Oversight Committee co-chaired by Senator Loren Legarda, we were informed the majority is for reviewing and renegotiating the VFA. Some are even calling for its total abrogation. However, at a dinner the other night, President Noy told me he definitely is for reviewing the VFA particularly the unfair or one-sided provisions in the agreement. He is well aware that majority of Filipinos absolutely do not want a lopsided agreement. He said he has already informed US Ambassador Harry Thomas about this and is hopeful this new agreement will come to a successful conclusion. The President also said that while Executive Secretary Jojo Ochoa is heading the Executive Team, he will soon appoint Ambassador Albert del Rosario as the new DFA chief effective early next year to assist in the discussions for the VFA.

And as correctly pointed out by former UP Law dean Merlin Magallona, the Philippines could not unilaterally terminate the VFA — precisely because it is an agreement involving two parties. Anyone worth his salt would know a binding contract would not cease to exist just because one party feels like reneging on the agreement without concurrence from or renegotiation with the other contracting party. US Ambassador Harry Thomas told us his government does not object to the review of the VFA. In fact he sees no problem.

But the most sober argument comes from a man who’s been there, done that — Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. One thing is clear, if there’s anyone who can’t be accused of lawyering for the United States, it’s Manong Johnny. He is no “American boy” and has not set foot in the United States for a quarter of a century. He does not have a US visa and has no intention of getting one.

With what’s happening in Korea today, there is every reason to believe in what Senator Enrile said that the Philippines would not be able to survive an aggressive foreign attack without the help of the United States. While we have a lot of dedicated men and women in the military, we sadly lack the training, equipment, hardware and other logistical requirements to make our Armed Forces at par with the rest of our neighbors. Currently our Navy does not have a single working helicopter even for search and rescue operations since the last one crashed two months ago off Zamboanga, killing two Navy pilots. Finally however, after many years of “hemming and hawing,” we are preparing to acquire eight new helicopters for the use of our Coast Guard and Navy. As for the Philippine Army, our soldiers in hot areas do not even have GPS or sophisticated communications equipment — and while they do have cellphones to maintain contact, many times they complain about having no signal or worse, they run out of load!

Senator Enrile’s question may be rhetorical at this point — but what if the time really comes when we are forced to go to war with another country? After all, tensions concerning the disputed Spratlys continue to exist. Will we be able to defend our country and its citizens competently and ably, alone without any help from an ally like the United States? In essence, what the Senate President is saying is simple: All this talk about sovereignty and the Constitution is meaningless if at the end of the day, we do not have the means to back it up with military capability and balance the equation should war become imminent.

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Senator Loren Legarda is also pragmatic enough to realize that the issue is a complex one that must be seen in the light of the Mutual Defense Treaty plus the “prevailing security situation and the new geo-political landscape.” And while some of her colleagues demand a virtual accounting of the “benefits” that the Philippines has gotten out of the VFA in terms of dollars and cents or the number of trainings conducted and the like, the lady senator redirects the argument by pointing out that people also have to look at VFA’s “social and environmental impact, and the effects in the community and the lives of our people.”

A majority of Filipinos fully agree that the terms of the VFA must be renegotiated to correct the imbalance and make it a mutually beneficial agreement for both parties. Calling for its total abrogation at this time is, to say the least, being too hysterical and emotional. At the end of the day, Senator Enrile’s question begs to be answered: Can we go it alone if we are attacked?

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E-mail: babeseyeview@yahoo.com

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