this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on June 4, 2009.
I understand you have reached the shores of my hometown, Tabaco City, in a big boat. I’m glad at your safe arrival.
Going from one mission to another—that seems to be the soldier’s life. I don’t know where you were posted before your latest assignment, but you must be tired. I hope you will find the local climate nice for a quick rest.
Yes, I’m glad that you arrived safely. But I’m afraid I cannot extend my civility as far as to greet you, “Welcome, brother.” Not after I heard what you have set out to do in our place. Some very concerned people have said that you’re here on a mission to blow some local rebels to kingdom come, although our government says it’s just a military “exercise,” part of the Balikatan program under the Visiting Forces Agreement. Joe, I can’t welcome you because I sincerely believe that what you are planning to do is not the right thing.
Let me tell you about that place you are visiting, the Bicol region. I grew up here, you see. It’s a quiet place. It’s completely different from the small counties you see in rural America. Bicol is an agricultural area where all you’ll ever see are rice paddies and coconut and abaca plantations. Those are the main economic sectors that provide employment to the locals. But the farmers don’t own the lands they till, Joe. The vast agricultural lands you’ll see are owned by a few landowners. The Philippines, Joe, was not able to implement a comprehensive agrarian reform program that would have distributed the lands to farmers and given them the incentive to increase production.
Agriculture is the foundation of our economy. When people don’t generate extra wealth, no new secondary economic activities are developed. That is the reason Bicol has no large industries to speak of, which explains why there are not many jobs available here.
That, combined with the lack of clear directions from the national government, has made Bicol lag economically. Until now, many places in our provinces don’t have electricity or clean water. The only hope of those who can afford it is to send their kids to college and pray they do well so that they can leave Bicol and go to the national capital, Manila, to find a decent job after they graduate. But these lucky young men and women constitute but a few of the youth in Bicol. The majority living in the countryside continue to live in abject poverty, although some find employment abroad as blue-collar workers.
Bicol, Joe, is among the poorest regions in the Philippines. Is it any wonder that it has become one of the major recruiting grounds of the communist movement, a movement that seeks among other things the expropriation of the landlords’ possessions? Even if you kill as many members of the New People’s Army as you like, Bicol’s situation will hardly improve and the country’s problems will hardly be solved. In fact, your being here makes things worse.
To tell you frankly, your very presence here is somewhat confusing, given the amazing things that have been happening in your own country recently. I envy your country, Joe. I envy its people, and how they exert so much effort to make their government work for them, even if they don’t always succeed in the face of corporate lobbying. And recently something magical happened again courtesy of the American people. Barack Obama became your first African-American president, upending old stereotypes that depicted black as signifying evil and white as symbolizing good.
It was George W. Bush who sent out many of your fellow soldiers to die in the fields of Iraq because it was believed to have developed weapons of mass destruction, which you never found although you did find the oil. Obama is supposed to be the opposite of Bush. His government is supposed to be a government of honesty and morality and a government that simply does the right things.
The present Philippine government, Joe, has nothing of all that. I know they never told you the things I just told you about Bicol, just as they didn’t tell you that the President of our country cheated her way to the presidency, something that would have been unacceptable in the US. Neither will they tell you that hundreds of righteous people have been killed for opposing this regime, which is again something unthinkable in the US. Under this regime of liars and corrupt politicians, anyone standing up for a little more decency in government is considered a threat to national security, if he is not branded outright as a “communist.” Some of the most rabid supporters of this regime, by the way, are the same landlords from Bicol who double as honorable congressmen in Manila.
Would your government, Joe, really want to be associated with people like that? Would you?
Your presence in our country basically involves the issue of sovereignty. If the sovereignty of the Filipino people is recognized, there would be no troops from a foreign country roaming our land. I’m sure that in one of his many great speeches, Obama must have said something about how the US government would respect the right of other peoples to self-determination. So even if Obama were the one running the Balikatan, it would still be wrong. The VFA would still be wrong.
For all its greatness, America has to learn that it can be wrong and that it has been wrong. It has no monopoly of truth and it has no mandate to police the world. Ultimately, agreements like the VFA serve only to impose US influence, whose legacy is an economic system that has not only failed to create a just and humane society but has also caused, because of uncontrolled profit-making by the elite, mankind’s most serious problems at present: the global financial crisis and climate change.
Like somebody said, Joe, sometimes the hardest enemy to see is oneself.