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Restoring US credibility in the Philippines

RECENTLY, Philippine and United States representatives ended negotiations on an interim pact governing US military bases in the Philippines. The main document covering the bases, the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, expires in 1991. In 1979, an amendment called for five-year reviews, and the June 1983 review, which is still in effect, bound the Reagan administration to make its ``best effort'' to seek $900 million in economic and military assistance from the US Congress. This year's talks cover 1990 and 1991, and propose a significant increase over current US funding levels. The total sum agreed to is almost $1 billion total, or $481 million for one year.

The limited scope of the recently concluded negotiations was narrow. Before the start of the talks, there was considerable speculation that agreement would be reached on the future of the bases after the expiration of the 1947 treaty. Apparently neither negotiating team wanted, at that time, to touch this controversial issue.

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Unlike the interim agreement, which occurred within the context of an existing treaty, any decision to extend the bases beyond 1991 will, under the Philippine Constitution, require two-thirds approval by the Philippine Senate, as well as the possible submission of the issue to a popular referendum. As to the former, sentiment in the Philippine Senate has been less than promising.

For example, in 1987, 12 of the 24 senators cosponsored legislation banning nuclear arms from Philippine territory. The measure does not specifically mention the US. The implications are clear, however, and underscore a widely held Filipino suspicion that US ships and planes in the Philippines carry nuclear weapons.

Beyond the question of US bases and nuclear arms, there is, from the Filipino perspective, a level of residual resentment from America's conduct during the long tenure of former President Ferdinand Marcos. The Reagan administration supported Mr. Marcos's dictatorial regime until he demonstrated in February 1986 a nearly total incapacity to govern.

During the Marcos years, many of those now in power - a group that includes President Corazon Aquino, Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus, who headed the Philippine side during the recent bases talks, and Senate president Jovito Salonga - were forced into exile in the US. Such people were political moderates, and hardly the leftist threats Marcos tried to depict them as. Moreover, they were friendly to the US and fully cognizant that their country, as a former US colony, was routinely touted as America's successful ``experiment in democracy.''

The general assumption, held not just by Philippine political elites but by the general public as well, had been that because of their shared history, Filipinos and Americans would have a ``special,'' almost personal, relationship. Central to this bond was the belief that democracy was both a Filipino and an American value, and that the US would not tolerate, much less nurture, a despot such as Marcos.

Those holding that view were wrong, and their error has prompted a public and often rancorous discussion, not just on the bases but on the future of Philippine-US relations.

For Filipino nationalists, the bases are the most visible symbol of undue US influence in their country. They argue persuasively that because Marcos defended the bases, he received almost uncritical help from the US until his ouster in 1986. Their position is that the bases must go, if not now then by 1991.

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Addressed less persuasively is the question of a replacement for US funding. Given the sorry condition of the Philippine economy, the increase in US aid is particularly significant and will be a factor in any Philippine decision on the bases beyond 1991.

Despite the inevitability of an increase in US monetary incentives, it would be erroneous to believe that money alone will guarantee that the bases stay in the Philippines beyond 1991. For many Filipinos, America's priceless credibility was lost during the Marcos years.

On this, much work needs to be done. The recent indictment in New York of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos on fraud and racketeering charges is a small step in that direction. If the prosecutions succeed, the couple's stolen money - rumored to be in the hundreds of millions - will assist the Philippines. More important, the prosecutions signal that the gulf between American actions and ideals, once cavernous, is now less so and that US credibility, although still tarnished, is in the process of being restored.

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