Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In the Philippines, Haunted by History

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In the Philippines, Haunted by History

Article excerpt

America's policies, and its defense ties with Manila, have always benefited the Filipino elite.

The Philippines is haunted by its relationship with the United States. I remember the day, in 1991, when the Military Bases Agreement between the two countries was rescinded. The headlines yelled, finally: Freedom! But worrywarts held on to their beads. Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base were America's largest overseas outposts -- powerful vestiges of colonial rule decades after the American occupation, which lasted from 1899 to 1946, had ended. In American history books those decades have fallen into an Orwellian memory hole: lost or abridged.

On the Philippine side, however, the relationship with America looms like Donald Barthelme's balloon, a deep metaphysical discomfort arising from an inexplicable physical presence. In Barthelme's story "The Balloon," a huge glob inflates over Manhattan, affecting ordinary acts of puzzled citizens for no apparent reason. American involvement in Filipino affairs sometimes seems like that balloon, spurring fathomless dread. Bursts of anxiety over the bases' return pop up every time America finds a new enemy.

The high-level meeting between the United States and the Philippines in Washington on Monday occurs during a standoff between Beijing and Manila over disputed territories. Hillary Clinton has called the contested portion of the South China Sea "the West Philippine Sea," fanning Chinese ire and Filipino nationalism alike over obscure islands known by most as the Spratlys. And tensions have not been soothed by joint military training exercises featuring 6,000 U.S. and Filipino troops practicing so-called mock beach invasions on the coast facing China. Indeed, as America pivots to Asia and China rattles Manila, old phantoms are rising.

When George W. Bush declared his war on terror in 2001, many Filipinos wondered whether a new airport on Mindanao, where U.S. soldiers had increased so-called training operations, was big enough to land an F-14. Nations see global affairs through amusingly paranoid lenses, but as Filipinos joke, just because one is paranoid doesn't mean no one is out to plant a huge airstrip that might land a fighter jet.

When Raytheon, the defense contractor, repeatedly consulted with visiting American forces last year about making "dumb" bombs "smart," and in February actual smart bombs fell on Mindanao, killing alleged jihadists from Malaysia and Singapore, editorials came up with a familiar specter. "Forward base," one pundit said.

The bases haunt us because they emerged during a dreamspace, when we still believed in our capacity for revolution. America "friended" the Philippines during our 1896 war against Spain then "unfriended" us when it paid Spain $20 million for the islands in 1899. The building of military installations began apace, in step with the trauma of our sense of betrayal.

We agitated against the Clark and Subic bases during the Marcos years, that conjugal dictatorship propped up by American good will. There are photographs of the Marcoses with every American president since 1965, many on Wikicommons: Imelda dancing with the sweaty and the suave: with Nixon, as the Vietnam War waxed, and Reagan, as the Cold War waned. A brutal war against ill-equipped, proto-Maoist insurgents kept the Marcoses, and American guns, in business. It's no surprise that the bases became a linchpin in our constitutional debates after we threw out the dictator in 1986.

I was a volunteer sorting through the dregs of history left behind in Manila's presidential palace when the constitutional convention of 1986 was in full swing. Delegates were venting over the removal of American military bases as I dragged out from the palace drawers, in the office of Imelda Marcos, one document after another branded "For Your Eyes Only. …

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