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Why the Philippine Senate said no to American power

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josef san jose
an ordinary man trying to do extraordinary things

On Sept. 16, 1991, a divided Philippine Senate surprised the nation when it rejected a new treaty that would allow the United States to continue using its naval facilities in Subic for another 10 years after the expiration of the old bases agreement. The constitution required two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Senate for approval of the treaty, or about eight (8) votes enough to defeat it. Twelve (12) Senators voted against the extended stay of the US military bases while only eleven (11) supported it. That Senate vote ended almost a century of foreign military presence in the country and forever changed the course of Philippine-American relations.

Since Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay to implement the treaty of Paris with the waning Spanish empire in 1898, a military position in the Philippines was considered of such vital importance to U.S. military activities in the Pacific and Indian oceans that abandoning them was almost unimaginable. The U.S. bases in the Philippines then consisted of two sprawling base complexes (130,000-acre Clark Air Base and 62,000-acre Subic Naval Base) used as refueling stations, training centers for American troops, storage facilities for weapons and were supplemented by several smaller facilities (Wallace Air Station, San Miguel Naval Communication Station, and John Hay Air Station) used for tactical air control and warning, communications hub, vacation, recreational and other support facilities.

Philippine-American relations span the whole spectrum of political, economic, social, and security interests with the U.S. bases as its backbone. This special relationship, though perceived to be one-sided, has deep historical roots and emotional ties formed by half a century of American rule, shared ideals, and experiences.

The primary reason for support of American presence is because the military bases were perceived to have a stabilizing effect on the political as well as economic conditions of the country and the region. A classic case would be the persuasion flights by American air fighters from Clark Air Base who cleared the skies of rebel aircraft during the 1989 Coup d’etat staged by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) which almost toppled the fledgling Cory Administration and seized Malacañang Palace.

Department of Defense Secretary Richard Armitage led US officials, and Health Secretary Alfredo Bengzon led the Philippine panel in 1988 that negotiated the replacement to the expiring treaty that leased the bases for 99 years, later reduced to 25 years under the Ramos-Rusk Exchange of Notes. Only the Subic Naval Base was subject to the renegotiation since Clark Air Base become inoperable because of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. The resulting treaty was submitted for the concurrence of the Philippine Senate titled “RP-U.S. Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Security” which gave the U.S. a 10-year withdrawal period.

Location of US bases in the Philippines before the American pullout. from Graphic news.

Some of those who were in favor of extending the US presence argued that the Philippines stood to suffer dire economic consequences if the US pulled out of the country especially those that are working inside and in the periphery of the US bases. President Cory Aquino who lobbied hard for the approval of the treaty, of course, remembered that without American support, the country could be under a military junta and democracy would have died in that 1989 coup mounted against her.

But the Senate understood that times are changing. The years from the late ’80s to early ’90s saw the decline of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in many parts of the world which signaled that the cold war is ending. The Senators saw no need for the continued presence of military bases when there is only one global hegemon and the threat of communism is no longer present.

The US bases also became increasingly unpopular with Filipino nationalists who saw them as symbols of colonialism, dependency, and victimization. Movies like “Minsa’y isang gamo-gamo” and novels like “Gapo” depicted these sentiments. It didn’t help that these works of fiction were actually based on true stories in the life around the US military bases.

Dr. Bengzon revealed in his book that the Philippine panel’s original position in the negotiation was for a seven-year phase-out of the bases ending in 1998 which would be a dramatic way of commemorating the centennial of Philippine independence. But as expected, the U.S. got the most concessions, particularly on the contentious issues of duration and compensation. Armitage was also not very well-liked, as he had asked for the removal of Bengzon as head of the Philippine panel and “antagonized the Philippine senators with his brazen and brusque behavior.” The bullying attitude of the American panel did not sit well with their “little brown brothers”.

The proposed treaty also did not specify an amount for rental of Philippine territory and there was no firm commitment in the form of trade or assistance in exchange for the use of the bases. The Americans played the negotiation as if the Filipinos needed the bases more than they do. Many Senators felt that the $203 million dollars “annual aid” was a pittance and made us look like beggars.

The Americans did not anticipate that nationalists and anti-colonial sentiments among Filipinos have been brewing for some time and they forgot that many members of the Senate then like Guingona, Saguisag, Pimentel, Tañada fought the Marcos regime which the Americans vehemently supported. It was a reprisal of sort for their support to the dictatorship. Many disillusioned Filipinos became convinced that the US was not really interested in promoting democracy and that the treaty was inequitably against us.

“Sept. 16, 1991 may well be the day when we in this Senate found the soul, the true spirit of this nation because we mustered the courage and the will to declare the end of foreign military presence in the Philippines. I vote NO to this Treaty and vote YES to the Resolution of Non-Concurrence.”

– Sen. Pres. Jovito R. salonga

Senate President Jovito Salonga did not even need to cast his vote since only eight (8) votes against the treaty were needed to defeat it but he voted nonetheless along with senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Agapito Aquino, Joseph Estrada, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Sotero Laurel, Orlando Mercado, Ernesto Maceda, Aquilino Pimentel Jr, Victor Ziga, Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada – who authored Resolution 1259 of Non-Concurrence to the proposed treaty. They were known as the Magnificent Twelve.

“The treaty is defeated,” Salonga announced at the time. His decision on the bases issue was detrimental to his political plans for 1992. Many of his financial backers withdrew support to his candidacy. The perennial Senate topnotcher lost badly in that election but he won his place in the annals of history as the man who led the Senate that said no to American power.

The wisdom of that Senate decision twenty-eight (28) years ago is now being questioned given the heightening aggressiveness of China which some say could have been checked by American military presence in the western front of our country. But before we can even begin to respond to that criticism, isn’t it prudent to ask first what we have done in the past three decades to develop a credible national defense force for external security? We should also be reminded that our Constitution mandates an independent foreign policy that swears friendship to all and enmity to none, a policy that promotes first and foremost our national interests, and independent of the conflict between superpowers.

It is worthwhile to look back at the anti-bases struggle, learn from our history, and continue nurturing the soul of our nation which we found on that historic 16th day of September in 1991.

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