By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: June 1, 2007
MANILA: Australia will send troops to the southern Philippines to help train Filipino soldiers in anti-terrorist tactics under a security agreement signed Thursday, officials from both countries announced.
Under the agreement, which was signed in Canberra by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines and Prime Minister John Howard, Australia will provide Manila with military equipment, including 28 high-speed gunboats to strengthen the Philippine Navy.
Since the bombing of nightclubs in Bali in October 2002 that killed 202 people, including several Australian tourists, Canberra has worked to improve its defense programs with Southeast Asian countries. It has given Manila support and cash for programs that address terrorism, maritime security and upgrading the military.
In addition to the defense aid, Canberra also said Thursday that it would increase its development aid to the Philippines by 32 million Australian dollars, or $26 million, over the next year, bringing overall aid to more than 100 million Australian dollars.
Both countries are particularly concerned about the waters off the southernmost Philippines, which have been used by pirates and terrorists, including members of the Southeast Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah.
“Our allies help us root out and destroy these vicious killers who ply their dislocated and evil ideology on the innocent,” Arroyo said in Canberra on Thursday, Reuters reported.
Before Thursday’s agreement, defense cooperation between Canberra and Manila was governed by a 1995 Memorandum of Understanding. The new agreement is expected to significantly increase Australia’s engagement in the Philippines.
Australia is second only to the United States in providing defense assistance to the Philippines. Between 2005 and 2006, Canberra spent more than $3 million on training Philippine defense officials in counterterrorism tactics.
Hundreds of U.S. troops are stationed in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, where the Philippine Army has been fighting Islamic separatists. The U.S. troops train the government soldiers against fighters from Jemaah Islamiyah and another Islamic militant group, Abu Sayyaf.
Philippine officials said that the deployed Australian troops may include special forces. Officials said those troops would only train Philippine soldiers and not engage in combat operations. The Philippine Constitution forbids foreign soldiers from engaging in combat in the country.
Some environmentalists questioned the defense agreement, saying it was intended to protect Australia’s investments in the mining industry; many mines are in Mindanao and critics contend that they have displaced indigenous communities.
“It is no sheer coincidence that the war games with Australia are planned to be held near the mineral-rich regions coveted by Australian mining giants,” said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a nongovernment group here.