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US Return to Subic Bay: Reopening the Gates of Hell

On this 4th of July—US Independence Day and US-Philippine Friendship Day—we ask who benefits and who suffers if GI Joe returns to Subic

Contributed by Jezrel V. Curambao and Joshua Reyes

According to the bidding documents and development plans of the Philippine Air Force in 2024, the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration decided to establish a forward operating base at the Subic Bay International Airport to support reconnaissance and combat aircraft not just of the Philippines but of other countries as well. Subic Bay used to a United States of America Naval Base, which was officially closed on November 26, 1992, marking the independence of the Philippines from being a foreign military base host. In reality, however, it did not completely close. Rather, it became a free port zone, with US military planes and ships still frequently visiting the base for supplies, repairs and operations, and R&R (rest and recreation) of US personnel. The base, then and now, remains a symbol of American colonialism of the Philippines.

In its heyday as a military port, Subic Bay was regarded as a Sodom and Gomorra by patriotic Filipinos, a manifestation of hell on earth, full of decadence and evil. Touted as beneficial to its supporters, it was a terrible curse on many local residents. Now, the Marcos Jr. government is reinvesting funds to reopen the gates of hell, wanting to let the nightmare replay.

Pro-American government tramples on the achievements of national struggle

Marcos Jr.’s decision is a surrender of the Filipino people’s struggle for genuine independence from our former colonizers. Since the 1960s, nationalist groups, including the Communist Party of the Philippines, opposed the naked subservience of succeeding governments. And in one fine display of patriotism in September 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to expel US military bases from our shores. That also put an end to the environmental pollution and illegal industries fostered by the US military in Subic Bay.

Since 2015, the US government has been pushing to reestablish nine military bases in the Philippines, including the Subic Bay Naval Base, which was rejected by the previous two governments. However, Marcos Jr. announced in November 2022 that it would renovate and restore the infrastructure of various bases and promised to explore more Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) base locations. Desperate for the approval of the country that played a role in their family’s ouster from power in 1986, Marcos Jr. acted on his promises. For example, in 2022, the government leased Redondo Peninsula, where the Subic Aguila Shipyard is located, and established a new naval operating base. In September 2023, he said he plans to use the naval operating base as a potential EDCA location and construct several pier-style docks in cooperation with the US.

Since 2022, there have been numerous protests by local patriotic groups against EDCA. They held a rally last February 4, the 125th anniversary of the start of the Philippine American. An even bigger rally was held last May 1 led by workers who blame U.S. imperialism for the country’s neoliberal economic policies that keep them impoverished. But with Chinese incursions in Philippine territorial waters as justification, Marcos Jr. completely ignored their voices, forging ahead with his plan to reopen the US military base in Subic Bay.

Environmental pollution has brought a long-lasting curse to the residents

The US military and its related institutions left a large amount of toxic wastes in Subic Bay, causing severe environmental pollution and destruction, and significantly impacting the health of the nearby community residents. From 1941 to 1991, when the US Navy had control of Subic Bay Naval Base, it did not construct a sewerage and waste disposal system that complied with environmental protection standards. It directly discharged sewage and wastewater containing heavy metals into Subic Bay or buried them. The power plants they built emitted large amounts of highly toxic gases such as PCBs into the air. According to subsequent investigations by civil society organizations, these pollutants caused cancer as well as heart and respiratory diseases among local residents. They have also resulted in miscarriages, congenital defects, and intellectual disabilities in children. By 2024, the pollution caused by the US military’s activities in the area has led to at least 1,180 deaths from illnesses caused by toxic substances. Due to the difficulty of natural degradation of the pollutants, this number will continue to increase.

Expectedly, the US has denied leaving any significant toxic waste in Subic Bay, claiming that it complied with Philippine environmental laws. It has never acknowledged the pollution issue and is unlikely to repent. To avoid displeasing US, Marcos Jr. ignores the demands of the victims for reparation. His decision to offer Subic Bay to the Americans anew also opens the area’s delicate ecosystem for further contamination.

Prostitution and the human rights violations of abandoned Filipino Amerasians

During its stay, the US military at Subic Bay Naval Base has spawned a notorious prostitution trade in Olongapo City and nearby towns. Many Filipino girls throughout decades became tools for the sexual gratification of American soldiers, leaving behind a large number of abandoned Amerasian (American-Asian) children. According to the Pearl S.Buck Foundation, there are at least 5,2000 Amerasian children abandoned in the Philippines by their American fathers. And because of their situation, they have been discriminated against with the Philippine government leaving them largely unprotected. The US has refused to address the issue of their upbringing and nationality in lawsuits initiated by non-governmental organizations.

Even without a full-blown US naval base in Olongapo, US soldiers carried on with wild abandon in their harsh treatment of locals. In November 2005, under the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, a Suzette Nicolas was raped by Lance Corporal Daniel Smith inside a van, cheered on by fellow US Marines. In October 2014, this time with the EDCA in effect, transgender woman Jennifer Laude was brutally murdered by Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton who was convicted but never spent a day in a regular jail but in special US and Philippine military facilities.

The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu is seen moored at Subic Bay, Philippines, on Sept. 29, 2014, for Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) 2015. (Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy)

Amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu moored at Subic Bay at the time of Pemberton’s murder of Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude. (Photo by Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy)

Marcos Jr.’s decision to swing Subic Bay’s gates fully open once more disregards the yet unresolved issue of the abandoned Amerasian children and the victims of many other rape and prostitution victims. It also ignores the local residents’ sentiments as well as various religious groups.  The impending return is about to let this humiliating, painful, and sinful history repeat itself.

Rebuilding the base serves only US interests

Allowing the US military to return to the base not only disregards the people’s patriotic struggles against all forms of colonialism in the Philippines. The reestablishment of these bases will also have an impact on the safety of local people, including but not limited to the activities of the US military in residential areas near the Subic Bay base. Operations such as weapons testing, target practice and bombing exercises may threaten the lives and wellbeing of local residents, such as those that regularly happen in nearby Pampanga and Tarlac against Aeta communities. In the event of a war, these bases will become military targets, further endangering residents.

A reason cited in the 1991 Senate vote was the US’ refusal to pay agreed-upon “rental fees,” a further affront on Philippine sovereignty just as worse as Chinese incursions in our waters. The announced repair and enhancement projects to entice another US military base in Subic will also bring financial pressure to the local government, increase national financial expenditure, and use Filipinos’ money to create something that benefits the US government for free.

We Filipinos have given our land, manpower, material resources, and financial resources in exchange for polluted environments, human rights violations, and the threat of war. Whose interests is Marcos Jr. really pursuing? #

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Jezrel V. Curambao and Joshua Reyes are freelance writers and were former University of the Philippines students passionate about political and social justice issues.

Opinions expressed in their contributed article above are entirely their own and may not necessarily reflect Kodao’s.