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Washington wrath causes Filipino rethink

Updated On: Jan 05, 2007

When US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was transferred to the US embassy from the Makati City jail, the US military announced that it was going ahead with the annual exercises codenamed Balikatan this year involving 5000 UStroops.

It was a bittersweet end to a political fight between Washington and the Filipino government that started on 22 December 2006 when the Filipino government refused to hand over Lance Corporal Smith to the US embassy after he was convicted to 40 years imprisonment for raping a Filipino woman known as "Nicole" on the evening of Nov. 1, 2005. Others were also unhappy that the USused the cancellation of the ongoing relief operations for typhoon victims in the Bicol region as a threat for the return of Daniel Smith.

To placate domestic anger over what appeared to be Filipino capitulation to US power, Foreign Affairs Secretary Romulo tried to explain away the situation by stating that the confinement of Smith at the Makati City Jail "was merely a temporary one, pending a binding agreement by the relevant authorities concerning the proper facilities for his detention."

The Malacanang Palace Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye also quickly moved to do damage control, highlighting the importance of the joint Balikatan exercises in dealing with international terrorism. "We have said before that the cancellation, when it was first announced, would definitely adversely affect the operational capability of the Armed Forces and that this would have negative impact on the common fight on terror and also the common fight against poverty," he said.

Bunye openly denied that Washington used the Balikatan games to force the Arroyo government to hand over Smith to the US embassy in Manila. "The President said whatever action taken by the Philippine government was done in the interest of maintaining the strategic relationship between our two countries. Whatever happens, or what will happen later, will be consonant to long term objectives of both countries," he said.

But domestic political anger continues over perceived US highhandedness. Leading the way was Jovito Salonga, a former Senate president, who argued that the transfer of convicted Lance Corporal Smith from the Makati City jail to the US Embassy as "contemptuous act". He announced plans to impeach the President after the May 2007 elections.

The reason for the timing is because President in power is immune from any suit. "You cannot go against the President because while she is still the president she is immune from any suit but she is not immune to impeachment, but the one year period has not yet expired," he noted. In addition, Salonga also wants the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US terminated, arguing that it is an unequal treaty with all the terms in the agreement being in favor of the United States.

Besides Salonga, women’s rights groups also organized anti-American marches. "To bow to US pressure on the issue of custody of convicted rapist Smith is proof that the Philippinesremains a colonial slave to its USmaster," said lawyer Virgie Pinlac, one of the leaders of the militant women's group Kaisaka. They also branded President Gloria Arroyo "a champion of rapists and warmongers" for allowing Smith to leave jail despite Filipino court rulings to the contrary.

While the Daniel Smith affair has done short-term damage to the Arroyo administration, given public anger over the outcome of the controversy, some are speculating that long-term damage may boomerang on the US. There is talk even within the Arroyo administration to reduce dependence on the US military. "The President is really not happy that Balikatan has been cancelled and that the US government is taking the executive [branch] to task on the matter of custody when they are aware that there is a separation of powers in a democracy," Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said.

Australia seems to be moving in fast to fill up Filipino quest for military aid beyond the US.  Australian defense officials have vowed to contribute money, materials and training for the Filipino armed forces and are also keen on offering military aid comparable to that offered by Washington, including the donation of small boats to patrol the southern border. It remains to be seen as to whether other powers such as ChinaJapanor Indiamight offer the same.

Sources:

GMA OK’d Smith transfer (Manila Times, 3 January 2007)

US Announces resumption of Balikatan Exercises (Manila Bulletin, 3 January 2007)

The Bolante Case and Smith's Custody (ManilaBulletin, 3 January 2007)

USEmbassy Cites VFA In Smith's Custody (PhilippinesNews Agency, 2 January 2007)

Outrage Mounts Over Transfer of US Marine (ManilaBulletin, 2 January 2007)

Palace Looks Beyond US for Military Aid, Training (ManilaStandard, 28 December 2006)