MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - The seemingly innocuous visit of two American senators to a former US naval base in Central Luzon in the Philippines has stirred a hornets' nest that could revive strong anti-American protests in the country.
What sparked the entire hullabaloo was a highly speculative story in one of Manila's leading dailies that said the visit of US Senators Daniel Inouye and Thad Cochran to the Subic Bay Freeport on Tuesday could be related to Washington's interest to revive its huge naval facility in Subic, now an economic zone.
The report linked the supposed US interest with the delay in the American military build-up in Guam following the disasters that hit Japan.
An unnamed source said that Inouye and Cochran, chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the US Senate committee on appropriations, appeared to be interested in reestablishing US military presence in the country during their discussions with officials in Subic and nearby Olongapo City.
But what gives credence to the story was the support to the return of the US military presence in the Freeport by Olongapo City Mayor James Gordon, Jr.
Gordon said that he welcomed the idea. "We want two economies here - the one that is free port-based and the other (which relies on support services) to the US military. They can coexist here," he said.
Reports of possible return of American military presence in the country immediately elicited strong reactions from Philippine and US officials.
Members of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), a leftist political coalition, strongly condemned supposed plans to restore United States bases in Subic, saying these will undermine further the country's sovereignty.
On the other hand, both the Presidential Palace, and the US embassy have downplayed the reports.
During their four-day visit, the two American senators met with President Benigno Aquino III, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, among other officials.
According to Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda, during their visit to the Presidential Palace, the two senators and President Aquino did not talk about the possibility of the return of the US military to Subic.
US embassy spokesperson Rebecca Thompson also said that Washington has no plans to reestablish American military presence in Subic or elsewhere in the Philippines.
"At no time during their meetings with Philippine government officials did the senators seek to reestablish bases in the country," Thompson said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs likewise said that the return of American military bases in the Philippines is "not possible" under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States.
"The VFA does not allow a possible return of a foreign military base in the country," DFA Spokesman Eduardo Malaya said, adding that the US itself had repeatedly said that it is not interested in reestablishing military bases in the Philippines.
In the Senate, Senators Sergio Osmena III and Gregorio Honasan cautioned the government against toying with the return of the US bases in the country, saying it should stand by the historic 1991 Senate vote terminating the bases.
Osmena vowed to oppose any such move and reminded the government that the Senate had made a firm decision to "throw out the bases" two decades ago and there was no reason to host them again.
On Sept. 16, l991, the Philippine Senate, by a vote of 12-11, rejected the RP-US "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Security" that would have allowed the continued stay of the American military bases in the Philippines.
It was during the administration of the incumbent president's mother, the late President Corazon C. Aquino, that the treaty was crafted and approved. Then Senate President Jovito Solonga led the Senate in rejecting the treaty.
Although the voting was close, the 11 votes of the pro-treaty group were 5 votes short of the required two-thirds majority for the Senate to ratify the treaty.
At the House of Representatives, Albay Rep. Al Francis Bichara, chairman of the House committee on foreign relations, and Muntinlupa Rep. Rodolfo Biazon said the matter of the continued presence of US military bases had already been decided by Filipino people 20 years ago.
The 1987 Philippine Constitution bans foreign military bases, troops or facilities in the country except under a treaty concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by the people in a referendum, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting state.(philstar.com)