Jeff Elkins: Back To The Future Our Philippine Adventure

In an eerie replay of the United States' initial national foray into imperialism a century ago, American troops have returned to the Philippine Islands to do battle with the Muslim separatist guerrillas known as Abu Sayyaf – Father of the Sword.

Abu Sayyaf is an offshoot of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Muslim group that espoused a separate Moro Republic in Philippine Mindanao in the early 1970s. The Moros and Philippine military forces fought a bloody secessionist war during that decade, but in 1976 MNLF leaders entered into a political settlement with the Marcos government.

Abu Sayyaf fighters opposed the settlement and have conducted a campaign of bombings and kidnappings; most notably the kidnapping of American missionaries, Martin and Gracia Burnham, from Wichita, Kansas, whom they have held prisoner for over nine months.

Billed as 'advisors,' American soldiers are massing in the southern city of Zamboanga, preparing for a joint operation with 6000 Philippine military forces. When at full strength, the US forces will initially number about 1,000. Initially.

Filipino reaction is mixed. The constitution of the Philippine Islands specifically forbids foreign soldiers entering into combat in the Philippines and the year-old government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is coming under fire from both nationalists and leftists in the opposition parties.

In an interview with the New York Times, Jovito Salonga, former president of the Philippine Senate and a fervent nationalist says:

"After our Senate ended more than 400 years of foreign military presence in the Philippines, we are now back to the worst kind of military intervention. In my view, this is a violation of the Constitution that bans foreign troops and foreign facilities in the Philippines. If any American soldier is killed or the Burnham missionaries are killed by the Abu Sayyaf, there will be tremendous pressure in the United States to widen the so-called war in the Philippines and we will have another Vietnam."

If this happens, it won't be the first time US troops have fought and died on Filipino soil. We have a shabby history in the Philippines, going back a century in what was arguably our introduction to imperialism on a global stage and a betrayal of the desire of the Filipino people for freedom.

During the Spanish-American war, Filipino patriot Emilio Aguinaldo (who had led an unsuccessful insurrection against Spain in 1896) organized an army in the Philippines and gained control of much of the Philippine Archipelago , including the key island of Luzon. His goal was Philippine independence. That goal was to be thwarted by the United States, under the leadership of President William McKinley.

Following the US victory in the War With Spain, treaty negotiations were initiated between Spanish and American representatives in Paris, in another analog with our 20th Century Vietnam conflict, albeit reversed, at least as far as victory goes.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898. The Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico were ceded to the United States and Cuba was granted its independence. Cession of the Philippines to the United States bitterly disappointed Filipinos who had been fighting for a free Philippines. When the terms of the treaty were made public, then Phillipine President Aguinaldo issued his own proclamation that condemned "violent and aggressive seizure" by the United States and threatened war. The flash point that initiated hostilities occurred on the night of February 4, 1899, when two American soldiers killed three Filipino soldiers in a suburb of Manila.

The resulting war lasted more than three years and over 100,000 American soldiers were committed to the conflict, with resultant American deaths of close to 5,000. Over 16,000 Filipino soldiers died and it's estimated that close to 200,000 Filipino civilians lost their lives as well.

President Aguinaldo was captured at Palanan on March 23, 1901, by a force of Philippine Scouts loyal to the United States and was brought back to Manila. He then swore 'allegiance' to the United States and issued a proclamation calling on Filipinos to lay down their arms and surrender to the United States. That didn't end resistance by any means, especially by the Moro Muslims of Mindanao, the ancestors of today's Abu Sayyaf and MNLF guerrillas. The bloody battles continued, waxing and waning until this very day.

Former Senator Salonga is correct to be worried. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in allowing American troops to battle on Philippine soil is abrogating a key clause of her country's constitution and even her vice-president, Teofisto Guingona, has expressed doubts about the wisdom of her policies.

The Philippines have been under the heel of foreign masters for close to half a millennium and only in the latter half of the 20th century have they managed to break free. Ruled by Spanish, American and Japanese iron fists, now is hardly the time for Philippine patriots to allow yet another expedition of foreign military to intervene into what are purely internal affairs, 'war on terror' or not.

Jeff Elkins

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