25 years of the VFA: Surrender of sovereignty, increased military intervention, and grossly unequal relations

by Renato M. Reyes, Jr.

May 27, 2024 marks 25 years of the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement. The VFA is the legal framework for the treatment of US military personnel “temporarily” in the Philippines for various “approved” activities. More importantly, it is among the many unequal military agreements imposed by the US on the Philippines from the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the 1947 Military Assistance Pact and the 1947 Military Bases Agreement. After the VFA, the US would also impose the 2002 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) and the 2013 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). These agreements are important pillars of continuing imperialist domination of the Philippines as a US neo-colony.

After the RP-US Military Bases Agreement ended in 1991, and the Philippine Senate rejecting a new bases treaty, thousands of US troops in the major bases in Clark and Subic were effectively removed from the Philippines. But this was only for a short time, as the US sought to regain its military foothold on Philippine soil. The Ramos regime negotiated with the US a Status of Forces Agreement and and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (SOFA-ACSA). The negotiations matured into what is now the VFA, signed during the Estrada regime and ratified by the Senate on May 27, 1999 amid widespread protests.

The VFA covers the treatment of erring US troops “visiting” the Philippines. It deals with issues of jurisdiction, custody and what happens when an American soldier is convicted. While it was being deliberated, proponents of the VFA said that the agreement would modernize the AFP, help improve our defense capacity and address security issues.

During the Senate ratification of the VFA in 1999, Bayan had warned that the proposed treaty would lead to the return of US bases in the Philippines and that the pact was an affront to our national sovereignty. The VFA allows the entry of an unlimited number of US troops, engaged in unspecified activities, deployed in unspecified areas, for an unlimited duration of time. The “unli” character of the VFA was intentional as it sought to give the widest latitude for the actual stationing of US troops on Philippine soil even without a formal basing agreement.

The US claims that there are no troops permanently stationed in the Philippines because under a rotational deployment, a batch of US troops would be in the Philippines for only a few months, and then replaced by another batch of US troops. Even if rotational, the reality is that there is not a day when there are no US troops present in the Philippines. Furthermore, the Philippine government has no means to determine if US troops are not permanently stationed in the Philippines because US forces do not go through regular immigration procedures.

The VFA does not specify the activities US troops may engage in. This has resulted in US troops participating in counter-insurgency operations in active war zones.

Since the VFA does not specify how many US troops can enter the Philippines, thousands of US troops have engaged in large-scale war games in the country. The large-scale war games are a form of power projection, a show of force by the US aimed at its rivals in the region.

Because the VFA was purposely vague as to the scale and duration of US military presence in the country, some 500-600 US Special Forces personnel under Joint Special Operations Task Force- Philippines were permanently stationed in Mindanao after 2002.

Unlike the RP-US Military Bases Agreement, the VFA does not specify the areas where US troops may “visit” and conduct activities. It opens the entire country to US war games and makes the Philippines a military outpost of a foreign superpower. Unlike the RP-US MBA, the VFA has no expiry date, and is in effect indefinitely unless one party notifies the other of its intent to terminate the agreement.

The VFA exempts US forces from passport and visa requirements. US vessels and aircraft are also exempted from paying landing or port fees, navigation or overflight charges, or tolls or other use charges, including light and harbor dues. Philippine authorities cannot conduct quarantine inspection of US vessels to ensure there are no quarantinable diseases present. The Philippines likewise cannot inspect US vessels and aircraft that are possibly carrying nuclear weapons.

To further highlight the gross inequality between the US and the Philippines, the VFA was ratified by the Philippine Senate as a treaty, but was not ratified as such by the US Senate. It was merely considered a treaty through a certification by the US embassy. This goes against the constitutional provision that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate… and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.’

The VFA epitomizes the grossly unequal relations between the US and the Philippines, cementing our status as a US neo-colony and tying our foreign policy to US imperialist interests and dictates.

Permanent presence and direct combat involvement

After the 9-11 attacks, the US embarked on its “global war on terror”, invading Afghanistan and Iraq, causing massive death and destruction. The US then labeled the Philippines as the “second front” in the “war on terror” and for the first time, US troops conducted large-scale military exercises in provinces like Basilan and Sulu, supposedly against the Abu Sayyaf. Some 1,300 US forces would be initially deployed in areas where they would be involved in armed hostilities.

As the International Solidarity Mission in 2002 found out, US forces joined combat patrols supposedly against the Abu Sayyaf, resulting in the shooting in Basilan of Buyong-buyong Isnijal by a US solider during a raid on Isnijal’s house. The government claimed Isnijal, who was also arrested, was a suspected Abu Sayyaf member.

The “war on terror” in the Philippines was called “Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines” and was used to justify the stationing of 500- 600 US Special Forces personnel in Mindanao for a period of at least 14 years. For the first time since US bases were kicked out, the US military had a permanent foothold on the Philippines even without a basing agreement. The VFA was used as the legal framework for this permanent military presence. In his visit to the Philippines in February 2023, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went to Camp Navarro in Zamboanga to visit some 100 US soldiers stationed there – proof that the US military never left Mindanao after first arriving in 2002.

US forces were involved in the the botched Mamasapano operation in 2015 that resulted in the death of 44 Filipino SAF troopers as well as Filipino civilians and in the destruction of Marawi in 2017 during operations against the Maute group.

In the Mamasapano incident, at least 6 Americans were involved in the planning, training, intelligence gathering, and in the execution of the mission. At least one of the Americans tried to give orders to Filipino commanders during the operation. When the target of the operation Jukifli Marwan was killed, proof of his death was given to the American FBI waiting in General Santos City, and not to Philippine authorities. This incident exposes who are really calling the shots in these so-called joint operations with the US forces.

In the Marawi Siege of 2017, the US provided aerial surveillance and targeting, electronic eavesdropping and communications assistance during the operations. Marawi was flattened as a result of sustained military operations by the AFP with support from the US.

There would be other documented instances where US operations led to the deaths of Filipino civilians. There were no criminal liabilities in the deaths resulting from these operations.

In February 4, 2008, US forces were said to be embedded in an AFP unit that conducted a military operation in Maimbung, Sulu that resulted in the deaths of seven civilians. This included two children, two teenagers, a pregnant woman and an off-duty soldier. This incident was documented by the Commission on Human Rights.

On April 18, 2012, a US boat from the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) collided with a local fishing vessel killing one fisherman and injuring another.

On January 17, 2013, the USS Guardian ran aground in the Tubbataha Reef, a protected area and UNESCO World Heritage Site, causing damage to the coral reef. After public outrage, the US was forced to pay $1.97 million for the damage its ship caused.

Criminal cases

The VFA became even more controversial when its provisions on jurisdiction and custody were tested in actual criminal cases. These cases again highlighted the gross inequality between the US and the Philippines as special treatment were accorded the erring US soldiers.

In the Subic rape case of 2005, US Marine Daniel Smith was charged with rape, but for the duration of the trial, was held in the US embassy, not in a Philippine facility. Upon his conviction, he was brought to the Makati City Jail but was later on transferred back to the US embassy on the grounds that his conviction was still under appeal. This was done under the Romulo-Kenney Accord which was later on struck down by the Supreme Court. The SC however did not order the immediate transfer of Smith to the Makati City Jail and merely asked the DFA and the US embassy to negotiate a appropriate detention facility based on provisions of the VFA. The complainant in the rape case would later recant her testimony and move to the US, while Smith would be acquitted by the Court of Appeals and released from his detention facility at the US embassy. It was believed that the complainant was pressured to recant her testimony.

The VFA would be invoked again in the murder of transwoman Jennifer Laude in 2014, with US serviceman Joseph Scott Pemberton being charged with murder. Laude was found drowned to death leaning on a toilet bowl. The US sought to take custody of Pemberton even if he was being charged in a Philippine court — in what was another affront to our sovereignty. Pemberton could no longer be held in the US embassy after the SC ruling on Smith, and was instead held at the US-controlled JUSMAG facility inside Camp Aguinaldo.

After his conviction for homicide, Pemberton was held in a special jailhouse in the ISAFP compound in Camp Aguinaldo, constructed especially for him by the US embassy. In September 2020, Pemberton would be granted absolute pardon by then president Rodrigo Duterte. This follows an earlier phone conversation between Duterte and then US president Donald Trump over the issue of the VFA termination, COVID vaccines and US military aid.

Duterte earlier threatened to terminate the VFA but later withdrew the termination after the US promised more military aid and possibly COVID vaccines.

Sham modernization

The VFA was touted as key to the AFP’s modernization as its ratification provided the incentive for the US to focus military aid to the Philippines. The modernization of the AFP and the presence of the US in the country, were seen as deterrents to foreign aggression especially from rising power China.

The technical and logistical benefits from the Balikatan and the VFA are small, as admitted by some military officials. Former Commodore Rex Robles has described these benefits as being in the “nice to have” category. Navy whistleblower Lt. Sg. Nancy Gadian meanwhile says the benefits are limited to the use of firearms and night-vision goggles. The high-end equipment are exclusively used by the US and are not transferred to the Philippine military.

What the Philippines receives in bulk are Excess Defense Articles. The EDAs are second-hand or antiquated military equipment which cannot be considered as indispensable for the Philippines. The Federation of American Scientists in an article said that “not wanting to pay the costs of storing or destroying the surplus, the (US) Department of Defense dispenses most of it for free or at deep reduction through the excess defense articles (EDA) program.” Receiving EDA’s will not modernize the AFP. This was true during the time of the US bases, and this remains true today. Among the ships procured by the Philippines in 2011 was a decommissioned Hamilton-class cutter from the Vietnam War era, later named as BRP Gregorio del Pilar. Ironic, considering that del Pilar died fighting the American colonizers as he defended Tirad Pass.

After 25 years of the VFA, the Philippines had not developed a credible external defense posture. It is in the interest of the US to keep the AFP backward and dependent on US military surplus, because this provides the US added leverage to dictate policies on the Philippines. The existence of the VFA also did not prevent China from taking control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

What is true is that US military aid is used to commit widespread human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in course of the Philippine government’s counter-insurgency drive. US military aid funds state terrorism, carried out through the US-inspired counter-insurgency and counter-terror programs under a so-called whole-of-nation approach.

Photo by Davao Today.

US VFA led to EDCA and other VFA’s

With the VFA allowing permanent US military presence in the Philippines, the US would now need a legal framework for the construction of facilities that would serve as bases for the US troops. On April 28, 2014, the US and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement which they claimed was an implementation of the MDT and the VFA, and thus did not require Senate ratification.

The executive agreement allowed the construction of US military facilities, use of existing Philippine military and civilian facilities and the prepositioning of weapons in these facilities. As in US war games, access to and control over weapons, equipment and facilities are exclusively with the US as Philippine troops are reduced to being perimeter guards of the US bases.

The VFA and EDCA taken together complete the requirements for the return of US bases and permanent US military presence in the Philippines. US justification for their presence here have also evolved through the year. In the 50’s it was the “Cold War, in the 2000s the “war on terror and now the threats from China. What is certain is that the drive for permanent US military presence has more to do with defending US national security and economic interests more than anything.

After the US VFA, American allies and junior partners have sought to secure the same type of agreement to allow their military to join US-led war games. The Philippines now has a VFA with Australia, ratified in 2007. Japan is seeking a similar VFA which it hopes to negotiate this year. And just recently, France said it would also be seeking a VFA so its troops can participate in military activities in this part of the world. The Philippines will become the playground and laboratory of foreign troops seeking to expand imperialist interests in Asia, which are not at all identical with Philippine national interests.

Continuing opposition

Bayan and various progressive groups have waged a consistent opposition to the VFA throughout its 25-year existence. We have called for the abrogation of the VFA and all unequal military agreements including the MDT and the EDCA. Our perpetual dependence on the US has made us backward and underdeveloped. The benefits from these agreements are grossly one-sided – in favor of the US imperialist agenda of becoming a Pacific power. There is no other just option but to scrap these agreements.

The US motive for the VFA is no different from the US motive in supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza, or US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq in Libya. The US is an imperialist monster bent on imposing its interests on oppressed nations and people’s of the world. The VFA and US military presence here will never be benevolent, and will never be without major social costs including human rights violations, environmental destruction (Tubbataha incident) and prostitution.

The world has seen what US militarism has done in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, LIbya, Vietnam and in the US proxy war in Ukraine. The US is provoking more conflict here in Asia through its rivalry with China. Anywhere the US is involved, there is always war and conflict. The VFA is part of the US preparation for war.

The VFA has taught us that Philippine sovereignty can only be upheld by Filipinos, not by any foreign government, and that our national interests are not identical to US imperialist interests. There is no mutual benefit nor mutual interests between an imperialist superpower and its neo-colony. Now more than ever, oppressed peoples from Palestine to the Philippines, must stand up to stop the US war machine. Junk the VFA, uphold national soverignty and fight for genuine freedom against US imperialism. #