By CARLOS H. CONDE
The New York Times
Published: December 22, 2006
MANILA, Dec.22 â€” The decision by the United States government to cancel a major joint military exercise with the Philippines has been met with reproof here, with critics denouncing Washington for allegedly putting pressure on Manila as it seeks to gain custody of an American Marine convicted of raping a local woman.
Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of United States forces in the Pacific, said on Thursday that he was canceling the joint military exercise â€” Balikatan, or Shoulder-to-Shoulder â€” scheduled for February because of Manilaâ€™s failure to turn over the marine, Lance Cpl. Daniel Smith, to American authorities.
A local court convicted Corporal Smith earlier this month of raping a woman at a former American military facility north of Manila in November last year. The United States Embassy has been saying that under the Visiting Forces Agreement signed by both countries, Corporal Smith should be in the custody of the American embassy while he appeals his conviction.
The United States ambassador, Kirstie Kenney told ABS-CBN television today that Washington was â€œdisappointedâ€ in the local court for refusing to yield Corporal Smith to its custody. She, however, emphasized that the marineâ€™s conviction was not the issue â€” just his custody.
The court, in refusing to yield the serviceman, argued that Corporal Smith should remain in a Manila jail until both countries can reach an agreement on where he would serve his 40-year sentence.
A former senator, Wigberto TaÃ±ada, who is representing the rape victim in countering Corporal Smithâ€™s appeal, said Washingtonâ€™s cancellation of the exercises and its threat to suspend military aid â€œis just another way of putting pressure on the Philippine government.â€
This, he said, â€œis most unfortunate because it seems that despite the long period of special relations between the U.S. and the Philippines, the Americans still have not learned to treat us as equals.â€
Mr. Tanada, one of the most vocal critics of American military bases here, added that while the Philippine government has been â€œbending over backwards to accommodateâ€ the United States, Washington â€œhas not learned to treat us with dignity.â€
Emmi de Jesus, secretary general of Gabriela, a leftist womenâ€™s group that supports the rape victim, said Washington went overboard with what she called an â€œattempt to blackmailâ€ Manila into releasing Corporal Smith to United States custody.
If President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo succumbs to the pressure, Ms. de Jesus said, â€œshe would only show how subservient she is to the Americans.â€
The United States had maintained military facilities in its former colony until 1991, when they were closed after the Philippine Senate refused to renew the bases agreement. The closure did not, however, stop Washington from providing military aid, and it continues to be the Philippinesâ€™ largest source of such assistance.
Since the September 2001 attacks in the United States, hundreds of American servicemen have been stationed in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao to help Filipino troops defeat groups like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah, which have been blamed for some of the worst terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia since 2002.
Officials said these troop trainings, as well as logistical support provided by the Americans, were crucial in driving terrorists away from their former lair on Basilan, an island in Mindanao. The Americans have since moved to other islands in the region where both militant groups, according to officials, have been recruiting from among the largely impoverished local Muslim population.
Aside from training exercises meant to upgrade the skills of Filipino troops, the United States is also involved in a program that seeks to modernize the largely ill-equipped Philippine armed forces. Admiral Fallon told The New York Times on Thursday that the United States would stop aid and reconstruction programs carried out by the American military in the Philippines until he is confident the troopsâ€™ legal rights will be protected.
Officials from the Philippine military and the administration of President Arroyo refused to comment about the cancellation of the exercises, saying they had not yet received official communication from Washington.
But Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, an ally of the president who heads the foreign relations committee of the Philippine Senate, said in an interview that the decision will not have a serious impact on American-Philippine relations.
â€œWe will have to appeal to the U.S. government to suspend any adverse reaction to the Smith case pending the resolution of the case in the higher courts,â€ she said, referring to the appeal of the conviction filed by Corporal Smith. â€œThis will only be a blip on the screen of our relations with the Americans,â€ she added.
The United States Embassy here, meanwhile, said only the specific military exercises has been canceled, while humanitarian work by the Americans in the southern Philippines would continue.
The United States embassy spokesman, Matthew Lussenhop, said Washington will not stop â€œcivil or military cooperation between the Philippines and the United States, especially in Mindanao.â€
[tags]carlos conde, philippines, US military, balikatan, subic rape case, nicole rape case, daniel smith, manila[/tags]