Peace Mission to Philippines exposes U.S. militarism’s harm to population

By Joe Piette 
July 2, 2024

As the Pentagon dangerously increases its military presence in nations close to China in preparation for another imperialist war, a group of U.S. anti-war activists participated in a Peace Mission to the Philippines May 14-29 to expose and oppose U.S. militarism in the Philippines.

Organized by BAYAN USA, it included 28 militants from across the United States. Filipino activists, military veterans, anti-war advocates, labor unionists, women’s rights defenders, students, filmmakers and others participated, representing BAYAN USA and other groups including NODUTDOL, Malaya, Gabriela, United Auto Workers, Dissenters, Palestinian Youth Movement and Workers World Party.

They spent the first few days in the National Capital Region of Manila, a city of 15 million residents in a country of 120 million people. They heard presentations on BAYAN’s history, labor, student activism, women’s and LGBTQ2+ movement developments and visited historical sites.

The Philippines was a Spanish colony from 1565 to 1898. Revolutionaries were on the brink of defeating their Spanish colonizers when the U.S. stepped in to forcefully re-colonize the populated islands but not before perpetrating a genocide against almost 1 million Filipino people in order to subdue them. The Philippines finally gained formal independence in 1946, but remains closely tied to the U.S. economically, culturally and especially militarily.

Three of the Peace Mission participants — Nina Macapinlac of BAYAN USA and Resist NATO, Patrick Nevada of Anakbayan NY and Joe Piette of Workers World Party — recounted their experiences at a June 28 report-back meeting in Philadelphia.

Left to right: Patrick Nevada, Nina Macapinlac and Joe Piette at report back on the Philippines, Philadelphia, June 28, 2024. (Photo: Patrick Nevada)

The three activists were part of a group sent to Cebu — the oldest city in the Philippines with over 1 million residents.

Leaving the airport, they passed by the Mactan Economic Zone — a tax-free, low- regulation center where more than 200 foreign companies exploit over 50,000 workers — the second largest Economic Zone in the Philippines.

At Cendet — an institution with a long and well=known history that provides services to workers, urban poor, farmers and fisherfolks in the Visayas — some background to Cebu’s struggles for justice was given by Jaime Paglinawan Sr. He is one of 27 activists who was recently charged for supposedly violating the Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012 by the Department of Justice’s Terror Task Force and the Central Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It would be like the Pentagon charging community activists with terrorism.

The 27 defendants released a statement demanding that the government drop the phony charges and stop “its anti-poor and anti-people policies that conspire with the imperialists, huge local business owners and landlords to generate more wealth in their pockets”.

Fight to remove U.S. military bases

Paglinawan explained how the people succeeded in removing all the U.S. military bases in 1991, after decades of opposition. However, politicians got around the law in 1999 with the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows U.S. military aircraft and ships access to 22 ports and waived Philippine jurisdiction over any crimes committed by U.S. military personnel.

In 2014, during a visit by President Barack Obama to the Philippines, the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed, allowing the U.S. to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays. It also allows the U.S. to build and operate facilities. There are now nine EDCA bases scattered in the Philippines, most of them aimed at China.

The Peace Delegation drove by the entrance to one of the EDCA sites at Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base located in Lapu-Lapu City, on Mactan Island in Cebu. Lapu-Lapu City ironically is the location where Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish explorer, famous as the first European to circumnavigate the earth, was killed in 1521 by the resistance forces of Mactan chief Lapu-Lapu.

Map showing U.S. military bases in the Philippines.

The airbase shares runway facilities with the Mactan-Cebu International Airport next door. The U.S. recently paid $2.7 million for a 40,000-gallon fuel storage facility there, which was completed last fall. Its intended use is for Lockheed-Martin’s C130 military Air Transport, Osprey and other military planes.

We visited a Lapu-Lapu City neighborhood where the extremely impoverished community’s homes were demolished without warning, violating residents’ human right to housing. Developers desire the property, located on a major road not far from the Cebu airport and military base. Residents noticed the military was monitoring their neighborhood during the initial notices of demolition.

Copper, gold, silver and sulfur mines are located in Cebu and in addition a quarrying site next to a peasant community we visited is taking away sandy soil for a reclamation project in Cebu’s harbor and other places. Many of the community members’ homes have developed cracks, and residents worry about their safety as the quarry machines continue to dig away at the hill their mountain village stands on.

A fishing community in Minglanilla is next door to where developers have already built McMansions for wealthy foreigners. Organized fisherfolk are fighting to keep their land and community together despite a 250-acre shore reclamation project that threatens to displace hundreds of families and wreak havoc on the livelihood of the fisherfolk. Some of their leaders have experienced red-tagging (accusing someone of being communist and a terrorist) and harassment from state forces.

The Carbon Market Street Vendors association is an organization representing up to 6,000 vendors fighting developers trying to remove them in favor of a modernization project. Thousands of vendors will be affected by the demolitions, and those left will experience an increase in rent, utilities and other fees. The Carbon Market in Cebu has existed for more than 100 years.

After a suspicious fire burned down their community in 2019, members of the Tipolo Residence Association were placed temporarily in the parking lot of the dilapidated Cebu International Convention Center, which was built for the twelfth ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in 2007. An earthquake and super-typhoon Yolanda in 2013 caused the poorly constructed building to partly collapse.

Displaced Tipolo residents in Cebu explaining their struggle for housing. (Photo: Joe Piette)

Since 2019, with little support from city officials, the displaced residents have been forced to live in makeshift homes of scrap wood under overlapping roof panels made of corrugated iron sheets. Despite red-tagging of their leaders, residents are still fighting after five years to return to their properties. Residents suspect officials want to replace their former homes with commercial development.

At the University of the Philippines – CEBU, members of the PISTON transport union, Coca-Cola workers, furniture workers and other workers explained their struggles for better working conditions despite red-tagging and other pressure tactics.

Members of Anakbayan Cebu, Alliance of Concerned Teachers and students in Nagkahiusang Kusog sa Estudyante (NKE UP Cebu) described their struggle for better education. NKE UP Cebu is an organization at the University of the Philippines Cebu which aims to provide a “nationalist, scientific and mass-oriented education as an alternative to the existing colonial, commercialized and fascist system of education.”

Conclusions after three days in Cebu

The courts, elected officials and the Philippine military (with close ties to the U.S. Pentagon) all work together in counterinsurgency efforts to impede the human rights of the Filipino people for housing, clean water, land, education and food.

The military is a key tool in the suppression of any organization that is fighting for the basic livelihood of Filipino working people, from NGOs to grassroots organizations.

The military is active in counter-organizing where poor people are fighting back, with bribes of rice and other commodities if they turn in their leaders. The promises of rice and so on are most often not followed through.

Where bribes don’t work, the state uses the accusation of red-tagging, a fear tactic which can lead to arrest, disappearance or even death. It’s often used against community organizers simply fighting against displacement or other human rights.

Despite the pressure and direct impact of rising militarization and economic plunder, communities continue to fight back for their land, livelihoods and other human rights.