Student activists protesting Balikatan deface US embassy seal
- Sandy Araneta () - April 17, 2012 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Student activists defaced the seal of the United States embassy along Roxas Boulevard in Manila to protest the Philippines-US Balikatan military exercises that started yesterday.

At least 100 members of the leftist League of Filipino Students (LFS) surprised Manila policemen and US embassy security guards. The students slipped through security to stage a lightning rally near the main gate of the embassy at around 6 a.m., then sprayed red and blue paint on the embassy seal.

Another student used an improvised club to smash the metal letters of the seal while security guards watched helplessly from the embassy compound.

There were no Manila policemen or crowd control unit on site to confront the activists.

The students brought placards that read, “Defend national sovereignty!” “Junk VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement)!” and “US troops out now!”  

The activists also burned an American flag.

The VFA was signed in 1999 to authorize the Phl-US joint military exercises.

Witnesses said militants pretended to be joggers and then staged the lightning rally at the embassy gate. The protesters dispersed after 30 minutes when three policemen arrived. The police failed to arrest any activist.

Embassy security guards decided not to go out of the compound, but they took photographs of the students who were vandalizing the embassy seal.

Policemen later blocked several militants who tried to return to the embassy.

Senior Superintendent Ronald Romero Estilles, chief of the District Directorial Staff of MPD, told The STAR that they have sent some 100 Manila policemen to secure the embassy perimeter.

“There was a lightning rally made by the militants. And they threw some paint on the seal of the embassy. That’s why we have reinforcements here in our deployment so that no similar incident would happen again. They were more or less about 100 militants,” Estilles said.

“No arrests were made. We were thinly dispersed this morning. Police were then less than 10, and rallyists were about 100. We do not want to create any violent reaction. We were not able to arrest them because they were so many,” he said.

MPD spokesperson and head of the MPD Public Information Office (PIO) Chief Inspector Erwin Margarejo said that the Constitution guarantees the right of rallyists to peacefully assemble and air their sentiments.

“But if they will violate the law, the police is also mandated by the law to preserve peace and order,” said Margarejo.  

The LFS said, “Despite the people’s clamor for independence, Noynoy Aquino continues to be at the beck and call of the government of the US and, in doing so, exposes himself as a slave for his imperialist masters instead of us Filipinos.”

Charisse Bañez, Anakbayan secretary-general, said in a separate statement that they also opposed the presence of US troops in the Philippines.

“Thus, we are also opposed to the Balikatan war games between American and Filipino troops which will begin today, and will take place simultaneously in several parts of the Philippines,” Bañez said. Bañez said these war games allow US troops to be based in the country without the actual and physical military bases which the Philippine government had evicted back in 1991 and which are expressly forbidden under the Constitution.

American troops who are part of this year’s Balikatan military exercises refused to comment on the defacing of the US embassy seal.

“We are just here for the Balikatan exercises,” said US Marine Lt. Col. Curtis Smith, spokesman for the US Balikatan contingent, in an interview in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) urged militant groups to avoid damaging property when staging mass demonstrations.

“We respect their views but they should not violate our laws when staging protests. They should not destroy property,” said Balikatan Philippine spokesman Maj. Emmanuel .Garcia.

He also asked the activists to consider the benefits of staging the bilateral exercises. Garcia claimed the exercises would enhance the disaster preparedness and knowledge of soldiers while uplifting the lives of people in poor communities.

“These exercises will help boost our capabilities and will enable us to learn new things,” he said.

US and Philippine military officials say nearly 7,000 American and Filipino troops have begun two weeks of major military exercises in Palawan, but they stress that China is not an imaginary target.

Garcia said Monday that the annual drills, called Balikatan or shoulder-to-shoulder, will include combat maneuvers involving the mock retaking by US-backed Filipino troops of an oil rig supposedly seized by terrorists near the South China Sea.

In a speech at the opening ceremony for the exercises, Armed Forces chief Gen. Jessie Dellosa did not specifically mention China but said the war games highlighted strong US support for its weaker ally. “Given the international situation we are in, I say that this exercise, in coordination with all those we had in the past, (is) timely and mutually beneficial,” Dellosa said. 

“The conduct of this annual event reflects the aspirations to further relations with our strategic ally, a commitment that has to be nurtured especially in the context of the evolving challenges in the region.”

The Philippines has over the past year made repeated public calls for closer military ties with the United States, its former colonial ruler and longtime ally, as part of its strategy to deal with China over a maritime dispute. 

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.  

Tensions spiked again last week when the Philippines sent its biggest warship to Scarborough Shoal, about 230 kilometers west of Zamables, where eight Chinese fishing boats had been seen. 

The Philippine government has sought to emphasize that the Balikatan exercises have nothing to do with the Scarborough Shoal dispute and there is no reason for the war games to provoke China. 

However, the Philippine military has confirmed some of the drills will be held just off the western coast of Palawan in waters facing the South China Sea. 

The Balikatan exercises are also being held as the United States is rebuilding its military presence across the Asia Pacific, partly to counter the growing political, economic and military might of China.  

China has criticized the US move, with the Chinese defense ministry describing it as proof of a “Cold War mentality.” 

President Aquino said last month he was willing to help the US in this context by allowing more joint exercises such as Balikatan.  

More anti-Balikatan protests

Environmental activists joined yesterday’s caravan from Manila to the former US military base at the Clark Freeport in Pampanga to protest the Balikatan exercises.

“These military exercises have been proven to be enormously taxing on the environment and local communities. In the past Balikatan exercises, war and combat simulations which involved naval maneuverings and live fire exercises have caused coral reef destruction and ecological pollution. These activities also consumed massive resources like fossil fuels and released large volumes of toxic waste into air, land, and sea,” said Frances Quimpo, secretary-general of environmental political group Kalikasan party-list group.

The Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (PNE) said the caravan aims to raise awareness on the negative social, political and environmental impacts of the 2012 Balikatan exercises.

The activists said that in 2004, US Naval ships participating in Balikatan exercises allegedly dumped sewage and oil in Subic Bay. 

“These same military exercises will definitely exact a heavy toll on the pristine environment of Palawan and its surrounding marine ecology. Not only Palaweños but also all Filipinos should oppose the anti-environment Balikatan exercises. The local government units in Palawan province and Puerto Princesa can declare their area as a Balikatan military exercise free-zone like what Davao City did,” Quimpo said.

Some 1,000 members of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson (AMGL) and other groups also joined the protests at the Clark Freeport.

They said hundreds of farmers and fisherfolk in Central Luzon are again likely to be barred access to their livelihood sources to give way to Balikatan under the VFA.

“The areas of Balikatan exercises are usually where farmers, fisherfolk and indigenous people get their livelihood. During these dangerous exercises they are banned from attending their crops and fishing in the sea,” said Joseph Canlas, AMGL chairman.

Anakpawis party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano urged yesterday “all freedom loving Filipinos to oppose the latest US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises.”

“Once again, US is using the Philippines as a launching pad of its defense strategy shift to the Asia-Pacific. It is enraging that the Aquino government willingly allows this mockery of our national sovereignty and patrimony,” Mariano said.  – With Evelyn Macairan, Alexis Romero, Ding Cervantes, Rhodina Villanueva, Ding Cervantes, AP

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