More protests, citizens’ watch greet Day 1 of RP-US Balikatan

The first Balikatan in Mindanao started in January 2002 in Basilan and Zamboanga City,  supposedly to finish  in July although some stayed US military forces stayed behind to finish some infrastructure projects.

Since January 2002, there had always been a batch of American soldiers in Mindanao. Asked about this in February 2005, then US Ambassador Francis Ricciardone told MindaNews, “we established a semi-continuous, not permanent, but semi-continuous (military presence), that is to say, some number of our personnel, rotate, at the pleasure of the command, your command…It’s a high-priced consultancy, only we’re doing it for free. And the second your command says it’s not useful, we leave.”

Only the first Balikatan was covered with a Terms of Reference.

Contingents of the US troops Out Now! Mindanao and Bayan from Lanao del Sur, Bukidnon and Butuan gathered in Sunday in Cagayan de Oro for a mass protest there today. The groups’ press statement said General Santos City, Cotabato City, and Pikit will also hold rallies today, despite what the press statement calls alleged “intimidation” from military agents.

“The past two weeks, activities of Out Now Mindanao have been subject to military surveillance and intimidation in Marawi, Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon, showing the military's desperate attempt to suppress the people's protest against the Balikatan exercises,” it said, citing the latest incident on Saturday night when volunteers posting anto-Balikatan protesters were harassed by two military gents. “The volunteers were slapped in the head, pushed away, and dispersed by gunfire by these agents who appeared drunk.”

“Agents were also spotted spying in our forums in Cagayan de Oro, Bukidnon and Marawi with speaker Prof. Roland Simbulan, a noted anti-US bases activist from the Center for People Empowerment in Governance.  In the forum in Xavier University last February 7, an agent was spotted taking note of the participants and the program. A student saw this agent writing on his paper “wala man dinhi si Satur” (Rep. Ocampo is not here).  We are treating this as an indication of a threat on Rep. Ocampo, if not an insidious monitoring of his presence and activities. Another agent was seen in the forum taking pictures with his video phone in Valencia, Bukidnon on February 8.  When asked for his identification and invitation, this man quickly vanished,” it said.

Ocampo and Gabriela Women Party Representative Liza Maza, leading proponents in Congress for the rejection of Balikatan and the Visiting Forces Agreement, will join the caravan in Cagayan de Oro while Mindanawon Gabriela Women Party-list Rep. Luz Ilagan will deliver today her privilege speech in the House of Representatives against US military intervention.

The press statement also noted how Army Major Benedicto Manquiquis disrupted a student forum in Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) last Wednesday.

The mass actions against Balikatan have continued despite a press release earlier this month by the Public Affairs Section of the United States Embassy in Manila, that there will be "no military exercises or war games conducted in Mindanao and Sulu" during Balikatan 2008 from February 18 to March 3 but "Mindanao and Sulu" will receive "humanitarian assistance" within that period.

The press release did not specify in which areas in Mindanao they were going to conduct the "humanitarian assistance," citing only "Central and Western Mindanao" and "the Sulu Archipelago" where "approximately 23 humanitarian assistance projects" will be conducted within the period.

Mindanao has 27 provinces and 33 cities.

The press release said "approximately 600 U.S. troops will work with civilian authorities and the AFP (Armed Forces in the Philippines) in these regions on humanitarian projects" and that the joint teams will offer "free medical, dental, and veterinary care."

"They will also construct and repair schools and other community infrastructures in areas of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago that are in great need of assistance. The majority of U.S. personnel are construction engineers and medical specialists.  They will be working side-by-side with their AFP counterparts who will be in charge of all projects," the US Embassy said.

 "These humanitarian assistance and training activities enable our soldiers to get to know each other, train together, and provide assistance in communities where the need is greatest," the press release quoted U.S. Ambassador Kristie A. Kenney as saying. "True to the meaning of the word Balikatan, Americans and Filipinos are shouldering the load together to help the greatest possible number of people in need," Kenney said.

Lawyer Beverly Musni, convenor of US Troops Out Now – Mindanao said, “the military is using underhanded methods to repress our efforts to expose the real intent of the Balikatan exercises which is to establish a permanent basing of the US military in the Philippines to promote and protect US economic interest in Asia Pacific.”

In Zamboanga City, the Citizens’ Peace Watch will hold a press conference in Zamboanga City at 11 a.m. February 18.

In its press statement, the Citizens’ Peace Watch says it “plans to meet with military
officials, government officials, local civil society groups and local residents” in the two areas and have in fact “written to top military and cabinet officials demanding that they be allowed to inspect the facilities where US troops are staying and working.”

“The group notes that the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines has its headquarters inside Camp Navarro in Zamboanga City and has its troops deployed in small teams all over Mindanao.  Acting on the US and Philippine governments admission that the unit is constructing military facilities in Mindanao, the group hopes to find out
whether these facilities constitute military basing which is prohibited under the Philippine Constitution,” the press statement read.

The Citizens Peace Watch is initially composed of representatives from the Moro Human Rights Center, Anak Mindanao Party List, Akbayan Party List, Pinay Kilos (PINK), Focus on the Global South, Mindanao Peoples’ Caucus , STOP the War
Coalition Philippines, Tulong Lupah Sug, Bangsamoro Women’s Foundation, BANGSA Solidarity, Mindanao Peoples Peace Movement, Sumpay Mindanao, and Alyansa ng Kabataan sa Mindanao para sa Kapayapaan, Bangsamoro Caucus, Task Force Detainees of the Phils/Mindanao, Kilusan Pasa sa Pambansang Demokrasya/Mindanao, Peace Women Partners., Muslim Women’s Organization. (MindaNews)