Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - A top official of the Philippines' Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (PCVFA) has confirmed claims by the Pentagon that between 550 and 600 US troops are based indefinitely in the country.
Most of the American soldiers, belonging to the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), are in Mindanao (in southern Philippines), but "some are in Manila doing support roles like procurement," said PCVFA Executive Director Edilberto Adan.
The VFA has allowed the continued presence of the JSOTF-P in a strictly noncombat role, supposedly to advise, share information and conduct joint civil-military operations with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
"They (US forces) are not allowed to engage in combat operations. Their presence is authorized by our government through the RP-US Mutual Defense Board," said Assistant Foreign Secretary Eduardo Malaya.
Malaya, who is also the spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs, said support by the US forces "for the AFP has degraded the capabilities of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group."
Terry Ridon, chairman of the League of Filipino Students, believes "the permanent presence of 600 US troops here is no news."
"It had been confirmed as early as 2009 by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. What surprises us is the foot-dragging of the Aquino administration in failing to stop such an indefinite stay in the country," Ridon said.
A PCVFA review of the May 1999 agreement, which started late last year, is "ongoing," Adan told the Inquirer.
The former military officer, however, did not say when the review would be completed.
Sometime in November, Adan said that the VFA review planned to "look at the most contentious issues and ensure the provisions continue to make this agreement relevant and serve the national interest."
Adan said the PCVFA had organized several technical working groups tasked with addressing different aspects of the VFA.
Contrary to claims by some VFA critics, the treaty had been aboveboard, he said.
Militant groups have called anew for the abrogation of the VFA, which was concurred in by the Senate on May 27, 1999.
Renato Reyes Jr., secretary-general of the militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, said President Aquino "has been so awestruck by US military might that he even went on a tour of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. A few months earlier, he joined US troops in target practice during the Balikatan war games."
"Given these actions by the President, we wonder how the so-called review of the VFA will end up. National sovereignty doesn't seem to rank high in the administration's priorities," Reyes said.
Reyes noted that there was no attempt from the Aquino administration to question the Americans' indefinite presence in the country.
"They're no longer visitors. They've become permanent fixtures in Zamboanga. Their presence is a strong argument to terminate the VFA since it is too vague and overboard," he said.
Reyes said the Palace review of the VFA was focused only on the unequal provisions in relation to custody of US troops who violated Philippine laws.
"The more essential question should be why the VFA is being used to allow the presence of an unlimited number of troops engaging in undefined activities for an unspecified period of time. The review will end up a sham if it will not result in the termination of the VFA," he added.
The Philippine Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 11, 2009, that the VFA was duly concurred in by the Senate and had been recognized as a treaty by Washington.
The high tribunal also noted that the VFA was "simply an implementing agreement to the main RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951."
Sometime in March 2010, the high court upheld anew the legality of the VFA.
In a resolution, the tribunal upheld its earlier ruling on the constitutionality of the agreement, which allowed the presence of US troops in the country for joint military exercises after the 1991 pullout of the American military bases in Clark and Subic.
Washington regards the VFA as an executive agreement which does not require approval by the US Senate.
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