Manila – The US-Philippine collaboration in the war against terror is under threat from an unexpected circumstance: The alleged rape of a young Filipino woman by six American servicemen at the former US naval base in Subic Bay on Nov 1.
State prosecutors said formal charges will be filed against the Americans if a formal investigation found "probably cause" to do so. Public outcry against the alleged rape has intensified amid reports in the Philippine media that the United States is not keen on giving up custody of the accused soldiers.
Several legislators and left-wing groups have called for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement that has allowed US troops back into the Philippines for counter-terrorism exercises since 2001.
However, the government and analysts believe that such a drastic move would only set back the anti-terror campaign in the Philippines, described by some as the "weakest link" in Asia's war against terrorism.
"The truth is that the government has no resources or capability to fight terrorism alone. We need assistance from the US and other allies," political scientist Rizal Buendia told Singapore's The Straits Times.
"If we sever US involvement in the campaign, I think we would be in a far worse situation," he added.
In early 2001, around 800 US troops were deployed in southern Mindanao to train and advise Philippine soldiers trekking down Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf militants. It was the first time that the US had deployed troops to its former colony since it shut down its bases in the Philippines in 1992.
Since then, some 600 American soldiers have been allowed to be stationed in the Philippines at any one time, ostensibly for joint exercises or humanitarian missions.
However, despite the involvement of US forces, Mindanao continues to be a haven for regional terrorists such as members of the Indonesia-centred Jemaah Islamiah.
"The war on terror is far from over. But it's clear that the Philippines has made substantial progress because of the help of the US," said Prof Buendia.
Whether anti-American feelings in the country will continue to grow will depend on whether the US hands over the six marines to the Philippine government if formal charges are filed against them.
"The government should not in any way be perceived as conniving or yielding to the Americans. If this case is not handled impartially, like if the rape complaint against the Americans is dismissed outright, the government could be accused of a cover-up," said political analyst Leland de la Cruz.
* Marines rape case fuels anti-US feelings (The Straits Times, Nov 26)