Philippines divided over US return to Subic Bay
Date November 20, 2012
By : Lindsay Murdoch / The age.com.au
China, dollars and human rights are on the agenda as Filipino society awaits American forces.
The anti-child sex crusading priest Shay Cullen plans to mobilize Filipinos to protest against the return of United States forces to the former home of the US 7th Fleet at Subic Bay, north of Manila, 20 years after the Philippine Senate ordered them to leave.
''They are coming back and civil society will not tolerate it,'' said Father Cullen, a Columban priest from Ireland who helped whip up anti-American sentiment across the Philippines that forced the US from its two largest overseas military installations at Subic Bay and nearby Clark air base in 1992 and 1991.
''We are more organized than we were 20 years … there is now a much stronger network built up to fight for human rights and children's rights that will be able to mobilize the masses,'' he said from his sprawling offices overlooking Subic Bay, where a US navy ship was loading supplies.
Anti-US crusader Father Shay Cullen, and a US submarine in Subic Bay. Photo: Reuters
US and Philippine officials have confirmed that Subic Bay, which has a port and airfield now known as Subic Bay Freeport Zone, will play a much larger role in US Pacific Fleet deployments as the US military shifts its focus towards Asia and the Pacific.
While officials insist there are no plans to reopen any bases in the Philippines, which would violate Philippine law, Subic Bay is set to host US ships, marines and aircraft on a semi-permanent basis, officials say.
This time the anti-US campaigners will encounter stronger opposition amid heightened tensions over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea after a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine ships at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, off the Philippine coast, earlier this year, analysts say.
''We're open for business,'' said James ''Bong'' Gordon, the mayor of Olongapo, a city of 240,000 people next to Subic Bay. ''No matter what you call it … a base or semi-permanent hosting or whatever, the US is back and its great news for Olongapo.''
Mr Gordon said residents of his city are gearing up for the arrival of thousands of US marines who will flood bars, restaurants, craft shops and sporting facilities.
Father Cullen has crusaded against the sexual exploitation of under-age Filipinos since 1974. He says 90 per cent of the sex bars in Olongapo were closed after the US forces left in 1992.
But he said new bars are already opening as US ships dock more frequently at Subic Bay's wharf. ''We will mobilize. We will say no, no, no … we cannot return to the past.''
But Mr Gordon said the returning forces would greatly boost his city's economy and bring the Philippines closer to the US at a time many Filipinos are fearful of the future.
Also, US personnel coming off the ships are now better behaved than they were 20 years ago, he said, mainly because many of them are women.
''Before they were all men … it's still a reality that some US personnel will get involved in prostitution. It happens everywhere in the world,'' he said. ''We try to minimize it.''
Twenty years ago Mr Gordon's elder brother, Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippines Red Cross and a former senator, led the pro-US campaign to retain the bases, bitterly clashing with Father Cullen.
''It was a tragic mistake to shut out the world's most important country at that time,'' Richard Gordon said in his Manila office. ''But people who didn't listen to me then are now running around panicking, saying there's a genuine threat from China and we need a strong alliance with the US.''
Analysts say that moving back to Subic Bay on a semi-permanent basis will give the US a strategically important force posture for its shift in emphasis to the Pacific.
Richard Gordon, who was mayor of Olongapo in the 1980s and became head of the Subic Bay Authority which oversaw development of the area when the US forces left in 1992, becomes angry when asked about US personnel attracting prostitutes.
''How dare you people come here and call them prostitutes,'' he says. ''They just want to survive … they don't have anything. They don't have a choice.''
Mr Gordon said the ''noisy minority'' would make a fuss about the US forces returning.
''But the majority of Filipinos want the Americans here … we have to do what is in our interests as a nation,'' he said.
Father Cullen, 69, who founded the People's Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance organization, operates a squad to rescue sexually abused children, some of them babies found with sexually transmitted diseases.
He has twice been nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and often leads the squad, which was involved this month in rescuing an eight-year-old girl.
''You are never going to wipe out the abuse completely,'' he said. ''But with economic development that brings jobs and a lot of effort we can reduce it by 60 per cent.''
Father Cullen estimates there are still 10,000 to 15,000 sex workers in Olongapo and up to 100,000 in red light areas of Angeles City, which is popular with Australian sex tourists.
''We see victims as young as eight sucked from their impoverished home into the sex industry. The abuse … will only get worse if the Americans return,'' he said.