DAVAO CITY, Philippines – As thousands of US soldiers begin nearly two weeks of war games in the Philippines, an estimated 5,000 Mindanao activists will embark on a 5-day Mindanao-wide caravan to protest the activities.
Led by Patriyotiko Mindanao, the protesters said US troops are not welcome in the region. The “Lakbayan” will kick off in this city Monday, April 16, and will stop over in Cotabato City in the evening.
The activists are expected to arrive in Pagadian, Zamboanga del Sur on Tuesday, April 17, and will proceed to Ipil, Zamboanga Sibugay on Wednesday, April 18.
Indayla warned the police and the military against attempting to stop the protest caravan.
On Thursday, April 19, they plan to mount a big protest rally in Camp General Basilio Navarro in Zamboanga City, headquarters of the military’s Western Mindanao Command.
The camp is also the base of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force- Philippines (JSOTF-P), which is composed of US Marines, Air Force, Navy, Army, and Special Forces, all under the US Pacific Command. They change personnel after about every 6 months.
“US troops are not welcome here in the country most especially in Mindanao,” said Bai Ali Indayla, secretary-general of the Kawagib Human Rights Organization and Patriyotiko Mindanao convenor. “The Lakbayan is an expression of the opposition of patriotic Mindanaoans to the continuing presence of US forces in the country,” she added.
Set up in 2003 from a smaller task force in Western Mindanao, the JSOTF-P in Zamboanga City was tasked with a mission to carry out a long-term security assistance program with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It started with a budget of US$78.65-M for that year alone.
The JOSTF-P reflected at the time the new US strategy in fighting terrorism in various parts of the world. In the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report released in February 2006, a key decision made was to “strengthen forces to defeat terrorist networks.” This translated into increasing Special Operations Forces and deploying them in “joint and combined operations,” a shift from the “separate military service concepts of operation.”
Some 4,500 American troops are expected to participate in the 28th Balikatan exercises in the Philippines in April, which will be the 3rd Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Response (HA/DR)-focused joint exercise.
They will be joined by 2,300 personnel from the Philippine military.
“Definitely, these foreign forces will not just stay in their assigned venues. It is very possible that they will maximize this opportunity for the expansion of their influence and temporary bases in the country. And for sure they will go back to their existing facilities like in Awang in Cotabato City and in Basilan,” Indayla said.
Patriyotiko Mindanao said that the US government has 837 military bases abroad, plus 137 security agreements with other countries.
President Benigno Aquino III has said in a previous interview with Agence France-Presse that, although there would be no return to permanent US bases in the Philippines, he welcomed a greater American military presence through more joint exercises such as Balikatan.
In this context, Balikatan will hold extra significance in terms of sending a message to China, according to John Blaxland, a regional security and political expert from the Australian National University.
“It’s a subtle message affirming for the Philippines that the US is serious about playing in Asia and will lend assistance to those in need,” Blaxland told AFP.
But “Aquino has always been a willing pawn for the interests of the imperialist US,” said Sheena Duazo of the leftist Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Southern Mindanao. – with reports from Agence France-Presse