Rechartered Waters: Will U.S. Military Land Back In Philippines?

It's been 20 years since the U.S. had troops in the Philippines. With new plans in the works for a Filippino-U.S. base-sharing, much has changed - both locally and geopolitically.

Joint military exercises in the South China Sea
Joint military exercises in the South China Sea
Jason Strother

MACARASCAS — Down on the docks in the small fishing village of Macarascas, on Palawan Island's west coast, locals are taking their boats out to sea. It's a sunny, clear day, the perfect conditions to bring back a catch of mackerel or octopus, the fishermen hope.

"Our population as of now is almost 1,700, and our main source of income is farming and fishing," says Jane Villarin, the 37-year old leader of the local community council.

The fishermen in her village share the waterways with the Filipino Navy. Just across the bay is the Ulugan Bay navy base, home to a small fleet of patrol boats and military personnel.

About 160 kilometers west of here are the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of hundreds of rocks, reefs and islets. Several countries in the region lay claim to this area, principally the Philippines and China. It's an area rich in marine life and thought to have vast untapped natural resources. About 50% of the world's maritime traffic sails through these waters.

Over the past few years, navies from both countries have been confronting each other at sea. Villarin says it's a bit scary to live in what has become a front row seat of this regional flashpoint. That's why they're pleased to have the navy nearby.

"It's protection for us," Villarin says. "That's why the Philippines Navy is welcomed here, because of that."

And she adds, she'd welcome American naval resources here too. "Today I'm pleased that we are beginning an important new chapter in the relationship between our two countries, and it starts with our security."

Coming back after two decades

In April, U.S. President Barack Obama and Philippines President Benigno Aquino signed a new defense pact, the Enhancement of Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which opens the door for American forces to be stationed here, 22 years after the U.S. closed its bases.

But as Obama explained, it's more of a base-sharing arrangement than a re-establishment of American power in the region.

"The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases," he said. "At the invitation of the Philippines, American forces will rotate through Filipino bases."

A Macarascas fisherman takes me out on his boat as close as we can get to the Ulugan Bay base. Inside here is another, deeper port called Oyster Bay. This is the facility the Philippine government has offered the U.S. Navy to use.

"The very purpose of that base is to enhance our defense capabilities westward to the West Philippines Sea," says Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, public affairs chief for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "Oyster Bay is one of those that we want to offer to the United States so we can develop it."

He says it's still too early to determine how big or what might be included in the proposed base-sharing agreement.

Villarin sees an opportunity for her village too. Most people in Macarascas earn just over $100 a month, so inviting the United States here will bring more jobs to the barangay, as the community is called in the local language.

The majority of people here in bustling Puerto Princesa feel the same way. They see the expansion of the Oyster Bay base as a potential boost for the economy.

Naysayers cite U.S. track record

But not everyone here is happy about having a modern American fleet with bigger ships and soldiers in their backyard. Environmentalists point out that much of Palawan Island is a protected conservation zone, including the mangrove forest around the navy base.

A fisherman in Oyster Bay — Photo: Jason Strother

Elizabeth Maclang, superintendent of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, says Puerto Princesa, to which Oyster Bay and the Macarascas village belong, opposes the military's plan to develop the base and allow Americans to use it on environmental grounds. Maclang says local communities don't realize what's at stake — like chopping down the mangroves to build a new port and other installations.

"Even if there's a lot of jobs, there are a lot of facilities that will be put up there," Maclang says. "But if you cut the mangroves, it will greatly affect their livelihood. Because the Macarascas and Baheeli are among the potential ecotourism sites as well, and that would add some extra livelihood also for them."

Maclang explains that the U.S. doesn't have a good environmental track record in the Philippines as it is. In 1992, American forces left the country after almost a century of deployment here. But the bases that were handed back over were left heavily polluted, and last year a U.S. Navy ship crashed into one of Palawan's coral reef preserves.

Environmental advocates say the U.S. pretty much got off with just a slap on the wrist from the national government.

The stationing of American forces on Palawan could also bring some other unwanted impact to the community. There's a strip of bars in Puerto Princesa that caters to male patrons. About 20 girls work in one particular establishment, all having come from outside Palawan, the manager says.

Off-duty American soldiers, she says, are some of her best customers, and she'd be happy to have more. "Especially the past few years," she says. "There are many American customers here. I think they are not here for work. They are here for rest and relaxation."

The prospect of expanding the Oyster Bay base and stationing Americans there alarms Jean Enriquez, director of the Manila-based Coalition Against Trafficking in the Asia Pacific.

"The presence of naval soldiers in that area would also mean the existence of a demand site to trafficking and also prostitution, and that could be a magnet for the trafficking of women and children from the outskirts of Oyster Bay, probably from Puerto Princesa and other indigenous communities from around Palawan who are very poor," she says.

Enriquez points out that in the areas where American bases used to be, prostitution and human trafficking are still serious problems.

She and other advocates have taken their concerns to the streets. protesting the redeployment of U.S. soldiers to the Philippines.

These demonstrators greeted President Obama during his trip to Manila earlier this year, and it seems that their worries are being heard by the nation's top court. Judges are now reviewing petitions that claim the new U.S.-Philippines defense pact is unconstitutional.

Zagala, the Philippines Armed Forces spokesman, says plans for the Oyster Bay base development have been put on hold for now, but he doesn't expect the delay to be long.

Back in Macarascas, despite the protests, Jane Villarin says she hopes the plan will go through soon. In the meantime, she says locals are already getting familiar with American soldiers.

"The U.S. Navy, they came here last year and have some projects in our elementary school, in our barangay," she says.

And that she says, makes the Americans even more welcome for most residents here.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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