issue 163 - September 1986
Photo: Brian Eads / Camera Press
Yankee go home
War does not have to break out for ordinary people in the
Third World to be affected by the superpowers' military build-up.
Joy Balazo and Mandy Tibbey report from the Philippines, where
the US backed Marcos to protect its own strategic interests.
It was around four in the morning when I heard heavy boot-steps coming towards our home. Then I heard a loud, angry shout accompanied by gunfire: Baba kayong lahat mga rebelde (come down from your houses, all you rebels). Together with three other families, we were grouped at the village hall, accused of being New People's Army supporters.
The men in our group were marched away from the village, whilst we women and children were to march in the opposite direction. Then I heard continuous firing coming from everywhere until I was so shocked that I didn't hear a sound. I woke up feeling a heavy weight over me. I kept still until the boot-steps faded away. I found myself buried under my mother's dead body, her blood dripping into my hair.
I was then only 12 years old. My uncle and aunt took me into their home in another village in Mindanao. They had five hectares of land planted to cassava and sweet potato. Although they had three small children of their own, they sent me to the nearby school where I learned basic reading and writing.
To help my aunt and uncle, I decided to try and get work in Manila and ended up at the US naval base in Olongapo. Olongapo was a shock. The huge naval base, the American GIs so big, with so much money and crew cuts, zooming around in smart cars. So many nightclubs, bars, sauna baths, massage parlours! I got a job as a waitress in a bar.
Some of the women here are dancers, dancing from 8pm to 2am with a 20-minute break to talk to customers who may take them out. At first I was embarrassed to be working with prostitutes - although we call them 'hostesses' so as not to offend them. I got to know Josie, because she sleeps in the room that eight of us share when she is not taken out. Josie has to support her children, that's why she's working here.
One morning just after Cory Aquino came to power, Josie came home all beaten and bruised. Some guy had thrashed her when she didn't please him. She knows hostesses who have been killed.
I often wonder what it would be like to go with a GI. They want to take women out, and watch live shows like coin-sucking in the vagina, live sex and so on. It feels strange when I see a GI with a T-shirt saying 'Westpac is my Home' or 'Olongapo sucks'.
But maybe I could get a steady. Some hostesses marry their steadies and go away to America.
This story of 'Ligaya', a composite character, is the story of thousands of Filipino women. There are around 15,000 'hostesses' in Olongapo, adjacent to Subic Naval Base, and thousands more around Clark Air Base. Ligaya's story shows how ordinary women are the victims of the military machine, This machine is fuelled by the arms which the US supplies to the Philippines. These are given as 'military aid' but are used to repress a rural populace grown restive from poverty, suffering under the corruption of the Marcos era.
Meanwhile, US domination of Filipino economic, political and social life continues, signalled most obviously by the 14 US military bases in the country.
A former American colony, the Philippines was only granted 'independence' in 1946 on condition that the bases remain in the country, and they have been an excuse for US intervention in the internal affairs of the Philippines ever since. The bases are very strategically placed in relation to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and have been a springboard into Asia, as in the Korean and Vietnam wars. They were even put on 'red alert' during the recent Libyan bombing. They are a huge storage area for conventional and nuclear weapons and equipment, and the headquarters of the Seventh Fleet.
Maintaining these bases is the greatest stake the Americans have in the Philippines, even greater than their economic control of the country. The US has over $1.3 billion directly invested - in huge plantations and electronic component assembly, for instance - and last year's trade with the Philippines totalled $4 billion. But the bases are the fulcrum of US military power in the Western Pacific region, providing 'stability' for America's 'new frontier', the Pacific Rim. This stretches from Australia and Micronesia, up through South-East Asia, China, South Korea, Japan and a portion of the mid-Pacific. This dynamic area is the fastest growing region of American trade, having outstripped Europe four years ago.
Paul Raffaele / Camera Press
The new Aquino Government, brought to power on a wave of public outrage about the depredations of the Marcos regime, faces many problems, with the economic quagmire not least among them. Aquino has agreed that a referendum will be held asking whether the bases should be maintained beyond 1991. But a younger, less colonially minded population might not come up with the 'right answer', and moves are afoot to push the Aquino government into maintaining the bases beyond that date, without reference to the people's will. Even Bob Hawke, the Australian Prime Minister, has suggested to Aquino that she maintain the bases.
Before US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's recent visit to the Philippines, Aquino announced that her government did not want military aid from the US - only economic aid. But Weinberger told her that the Philippines would not be able to achieve economic stability whilst the 'grave threat of insurgency' remained from the New People's Army (NPA). To wipe out the NPA, the Filipino army would require a revamp and thus increased military aid. Economic aid is a different matter - it is quite conceivable that the US could insist on the referendum on the bases being dropped before it is granted.
The presence of the bases is seen by many Filipinos as a visible vestige of colonialism impairing national sovereignty and independence and making the Philippines a magnet for nuclear attack - Soviet SS-20 missiles are targeted on Clark and Subic. They are a 'safe house' for American convenience, and have been used as such - for example, to fly Marcos out
But it is not only in the interests of world peace that the bases must be removed. Unless the Aquino government can resist superpower interference, it will never be able to change the unjust social structures which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Ligaya's story indicates the way in which militarization - conventional military capability and the presence of the American bases - is shaping the lives and futures of Filipinos.
In the words of an emotional Filipino song: just as a bird struggles to be free, so a people, caged and dominated, will struggle until they are really free. One tyrant, Marcos, has been removed. When will the other, US domination, be thrown off?
Joy Balazo works in Mindanao as regional co-ordinator for the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP). Mandy Tibbey also worked with the EMJP In the Philippines until her recent return to Sydney.