From the pages of Z Magazine


Fidel Ramos.... In the Footsteps of Marcos?

By Daniel B. Schirmer


The Philippine post-Marcos constitution prohibits Fidel Ramos from running for re-election in 1998 when the next presidential vote is scheduled. But leaders of his party, the ruling Lakas-NUCD, are campaigning for a constitutional amendment to extend his term of office for several years. These leaders claim to have secured more signatures than legally required to a petition calling for a constitutional convention. (Later comes they required national referendum on amendments proposed by such a convention.) An amendment to extend Ramos’s term has been discussed before. However, its organized promotion gives the question what Manila's Philippine Daily Inquirer calls "an alarming turn," and a stormy political crisis is on the way.

An anti-amendment coalition, now assembling, is many-sided, including labor unions, peasant associations, religious bodies--Catholic and Protestant--and a host of cause-oriented, community-based organizations. Politically it runs from the conservative Cardinal Sin, leader of the Philippine Catholic Church, through the center as represented by Laban, an important minority party in the Philippine congress, to groups like Bayan and Bisig on the left.

Ramos has done nothing to prevent his supporters from promoting the constitutional amendment to extend his term of office. He has vetoed legislation limiting funds for a constitutional convention to forward such a goal. Formally, however, he takes a hands-off attitude toward the amendment. The Philippine president does acknowledge his interest in constitutional reform to prevent the Philippine judiciary from interfering with the executive's handling of economic affairs. Philippine courts have recently interrupted privatization in two cases: that of the historic Manila Hotel to Malaysian investors, citing constitutional prohibition of the alienation of the national patrimony, and that of Manila's water and sewage systems to foreign and domestic corporations, citing procedural faults.

Ramos's adherence to both free market ideology and U.S. military dominance is evident in his support for the Pentagon's policy of "rest and recreation" in the Philippines (widely understood as the U.S. military's use of Philippine women as prostitutes). He apparently accepts as normal and legitimate the exploitation of cheap Philippine labor--in this case sexual labor--by the armed forces of the superpower.

President Ramos's commitment to the reign of the free market in the Philippines and Asia is well known, especially since he played host to the 1996 APEC conference in Manila. Less known in the United States, perhaps, are the efforts he and his administration have made on behalf of the U.S. military in the Philippines. Since the Philippine Senate defeated the bases treaty in September 1991, the Pentagon has been trying to re-establish its military presence in the Philippines in order to be able to use that country again as a springboard for U.S. power projection. President Ramos and his administration have been the Pentagon's main allies in this effort.

To renew its presence in the Philippines the Pentagon has turned to the policy of military access. This operates through executive agreement implemented by the military forces of the U.S. and the host country. Executive agreement also governed the U.S. and Philippine military in matters concerning the bases during the Marcos regime. In the eyes of many Filipinos the present access agreement violates the post-Marcos constitution which requires Senate approval of a U.S. military presence in the Philippines.

As a high military official of the Marcos dictatorship Ramos supported the U.S. bases; as President Aquino's Minister of Defense he continued this support; as a candidate for president in 1992 Ramos declared for access, and shortly after his election the Pentagon got its access agreement.

In November 1992, at the initiative of high U.S. military officials in the Pacific, their Philippine counterparts agreed to give the U.S. military access to Philippine ports, air fields, and military installations for purposes of ship visits, air transit, and small unit military exercises (as was reported in the press at the time). In November 1994 the Pentagon, with Ramos's support, proposed to broaden the limited access agreement of 1992 with an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) giving the U.S. military rights in the Philippines, and the use of Philippine territory as a launching pad for possible U.S. intervention.

From the complacent (if not arrogant) manner with which both access and ACSA were proposed it seems the Pentagon seriously underestimated the strength of the nationalist opposition to the renewed U.S. military presence that was to arise, bringing with it the leadership of the Philippine congress. But it was not long before the U.S. military realized its mistake.

The persistent and cumulative nature of this opposition was certainly a factor leading the U.S. embassy in Manila and the U.S. Pacific high command to declare in June 1996 that they were no longer interested in the ratification of ACSA by a Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Board (although both had originally taken this ratification for granted). In October President Ramos followed suit with a more extreme repudiation. He denied an attempt on the part of the Philippine and U.S. governments to give the U.S. access to its former Philippine military installations. This strange dynamic did not rest here. In late January 1997 the U.S. military suspended military exercises in the Philippines, because, it was reported, the Ramos Administration refused to grant immunity from criminal liability to participating soldiers. Yet only some four years earlier President Ramos had made a point of personally welcoming U.S. troops to their first military exercise on Philippine soil since base removal.

The Pentagon's stated loss of interest in strengthening U.S.-Philippine military ties through ACSA seems questionable when set against its repeatedly declared intention to remain the dominant military power in the Pacific. President Ramos's virtual denial of access is contradicted by the public record. In this uncertain atmosphere the reported disagreement on military exercises might remind a skeptic of a sham battle--moro-moro, in the language of the Philippines.

These anomalies suggest another reason for the present deflated status of U.S.-Philippine military relations, in addition--but connected--to the pressure of the Philippine opposition. That is the approach of the presidential elections of 1998. The U.S. government may want to keep the issue of military access out of the election debate. President Ramos, with possible ambitions to extend his rule, may also think it wise to separate himself from the issue.

Fidel Ramos follows the lead of Ferdinand Marcos in willingness to open the Philippines to foreign capital, with minimal restraint. He follows the lead of Marcos in solicitous attention to the claims of the U.S. military, covered over when politically expedient by gestures of nationalist intent. Will Ramos take a step toward dictatorship; as did Marcos before him, with the constitutional amendment prolonging his hold on power? A year ago Ramos proposed "anti-terrorist" bills that popular opposition rejected as dictatorial. This could happen again.

Ramos and the Pentagon recently appear to have taken considerable pains to distance themselves from each other. That is one side of the picture. The other side can be seen by asking a question. In 1998, which would the Pentagon most likely prefer: the continuation in office of Fidel Ramos, or the election to the Philippine presidency of the current frontrunner, Vice President Jose Estrada, who campaigned against the bases in 1991?

Reprinted with permission from Malaya (Manila.