Filipinos Can Tolerate Foreign Boorish Behavior But Not Abuse
by Manuel L. Quezon III
The conviction of an American Marine by a Philippine court on Monday made headlines not only in the local papers, but around the world. Three of his co-accused were acquitted, not necessarily because they were innocent of any wrongdoing, but because the prosecution failed to prove they were involved in a conspiracy to commit rape.
US bases in the Philippines closed down in 1992 when the Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to reject a renewal of the treaty that provided for those bases. I recall at the time that a survey indicated three-fourths of Filipinos, if given a chance to express their views in a referendum, would have voted to keep the bases. I was one of those who was happy with the Senate decision, and felt the date should have become a holiday on par with independence day. It was not a question of being anti-American, but pro-Filipino. We were poised, I felt, to be freed of a psychological dependency that confused alliance with perpetual tutelage at American hands.
And for a time, it did seem there was a springtime in Philippine confidence in dealing with the world, which was enhanced by American irritation over both the negotiations leading up to, and the Senate vote itself. But it didn’t last long. Within six years the Philippine and American governments had embarked on crafting an agreement to allow temporary visits by American servicemen for training and military exercises. It would be called the Visiting Forces Agreement, and was approved by the Philippine Senate in 1998. Other governments initially warmed to the idea of reaching similar deals with the Philippines. However, the Cold War was over, China hadn’t yet begun to flex its muscles as a regional power, and the Philippines wasn’t central to any other nation’s agenda.
The era of global terrorism changed all that, increasing, among other things, the frequency and duration of training exercises, and the emphasis on ground troops. There are many Filipinos who recall the controversies of the 1950s and 1960s, when there were cases of Filipinos who were shot by patrolling US servicemen along the bases perimeters. One justification became particularly notorious: One US soldier claimed he confused a Filipino with a wild boar, because it was nighttime.
There are also Filipinos who can still recall the US military posting signs saying “Filipinos keep out” around their military facilities, a situation that helped sour Filipino-American relations after World War II. Reading the opinions of an even earlier generation of Filipinos, those that had come to terms with American rule during the first half of the 20th Century, but who had experienced the American conquest of the Philippines, I came to the conclusion that even though many Filipinos lack a specific knowledge of the bitter experiences of those times, there remained a kind of unconscious historical memory of those events. And those events resulted in an undercurrent of animosity not towards all American troops, but the US Army and Marines in particular.
In the 1930s, when independence legislation was proposed by the US Congress, a great debate erupted among Filipinos as to whether to accept the legislation or lobby for more favorable terms. One aspect of the debate was over whether US Army bases should continue after independence. Oddly enough, US naval and even air bases wasn’t closely debated; it was the continued presence of the US Army, which had crushed the infant Philippine Republic in 1899-1901 that was hotly argued.
In the end, there would be no army, but only navy and air, bases that would be kept. And it was not the presence of US ships or bombers that bruised sensibilities, but the soldiers who patrolled and secured those bases, the heirs of the American foot soldiers that tried to “civilize ‘em with a Krag” at the turn of the century (Filipinos then, as now, insisted they were already civilized).
The turn of boots on the ground thus meant that the potential for reviving old tensions thus went up; and it became almost a matter of time before the Visiting Forces Agreement would find its provisions tested. And so they have, with charges of rape having been filed by a victim the court ordered referred to as “Nicole.”
The rape case is often discussed in terms of a recovered nationalism and an obsession with safeguarding sovereignty. The compulsion to insist on an interpretation of the Visiting Forces Agreement’s that is favorable to Filipinos, tends to be described as the hard-won fruits of some sort of nationalistic renaissance dating to the 1960s that needs to be protected. This is true, but only in that it was an attitude that actually harked back to dimly remembered, if at all, traumas of the past. In fact it has always been there, that demand for the relentless prosecution of erring, or abusive, American servicemen, and has been felt with equal outrage for Filipino soldiers who have done similar things.
But something else must be acknowledged, which matters less to those opposed to any American — or foreign — military presence in the Philippines, whether in terms of permanent bases or temporary visits. And it is, the fundamentally pragmatic opinion I’m convinced most Filipinos have towards foreign troops on their soil. Again, going back to the past, it is useful to recall that there seems to have been fewer disagreements with non-army people; sailors and airmen were more warmly welcomed, because their visits by necessity were brief, even seasonal, and the opportunity for friction minimal even when they were on duty. Soldiers shot Filipinos; you did not read of naval bombardments or cities accidentally bombed. Who knows, perhaps the military culture of those services were themselves less conducive to abuses, though every service was a party to tolerating prostitution and so forth.
The thing is, those who argue that the outrage and anger that greeted the rape case represents the minority view, and who assume Filipinos are overwhelmingly American-lovers, confuse the innate Filipino tolerance for boorish foreign behavior (because of its economic benefits and yes, a genuine fondness for American culture) with a willingness to be used and abused without limit. There are always limits, and the limits are enhanced by a kind of residual memory of the American conquest and the way the postwar relationship turned sour.
Most of all, I think it’s due to the disgust Filipinos instinctively feel, when one of their own gets a raw deal, and few Filipinos in positions of authority show an inclination to take up the cudgels for a compatriot who’s been wronged. There was a crime; there was a trial; and at least, someone was found guilty. But the continuing scandal is that the Philippine government had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming, to fully prosecute the case, and even now, is engaged in debating itself as to what extent a convicted US Marine should actually suffer for his crime.