By Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, April 29 (Xinhua) -- The two-day state visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Manila that started Monday was greeted with exuberance by the government of President Benigno Aquino III as well as angry protests by militant groups.
Hours before Obama's arrival, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. Ambassador to Manila Philip Goldberg signed the 10-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that would allow the use of Philippine military bases by American forces.
In a joint press conference shortly after a bilateral meeting in Malacanang, the seat of the Philippine government, Obama said that the objective of the United States in signing the EDCA is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new ones. "The goal (of EDCA) is wide-ranging.. The goal is to build Philippine capacity (not simply to deal) with issues of maritime security, but also to enhance capabilities for disasters," Obama said.
The Philippine Constitution bars permanent U.S. military bases in the country. Under the signed agreement, a Filipino base commander would have access to entire areas to be shared with American forces, according to a government primer.
The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down major U.S. bases at Subic and Clark, northwest of Manila. However, in 1999, it ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that allows temporary visits by American forces, paving the way for hundreds of U.S. forces to hold counterterrorism combat exercises with Filipino troops dealing with insurgents in the country's south.
But activists claimed that the EDCA reverses democratic gains achieved when huge U.S. military bases were shut down in 1991, ending nearly a century of American military presence in the Philippines.
On Monday while Obama was in Malacanang, thousands of protesters marched to the historic Mendiola Bridge that leads to the presidential palace and the scene of violent anti-government demonstrations in the past. The marchers shouted anti-American slogans and burned the effigies of Obama and Aquino.
In other major cities in the country, angry protesters also burned American flags.
Militant groups claimed that the EDCA violates the Philippine sovereignty and the constitution for allowing "de facto U.S. basing".
"No matter how much the U.S. denies it, U.S. troops have been stationed in the Philippines since 2002 under the VFA," Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Nationalist Alliance) Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr., said in a statement.
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago said that the agreement was an "unfair surprise" for the Senate because it needs to concur on treaties or agreements before they can take effect.
Santiago said she has no basis for assessing whether the agreement is positive for my country because the Senate was not been given the courtesy of being furnished with a copy.
"It would be a case of interpreting the Constitution to accommodate the military program of a foreign state. That eventuality defies all principles of constitutional supremacy," Santiago said.
Bayan Muna (Country First) Representative Neri Colmenares has criticized the Aquino administration for being in a "mad rush" to finish the EDCA in time for Obama's visit, saying the pact is "worse than the bases treaty rejected by the Philippine Senate in September 1991."
"Simply put, it is like a dog's welcome gift to his master. They are trying to move heaven and hell so that Obama would be here for the signing of the EDCA," Colmenares said in a statement.
According to Colmenares, the agreement will practically bring back U.S. military bases to the Philippines but this time " without a treaty, without rent and without limits as the Americans may use all the Philippine military facilities."
Colmenares said his party will question the agreement before the Supreme Court for violations of the Philippine Constitution.
During the press conference, Obama stressed that goal of the United States was not to contain or counter China.
He said the United States has been consistent in its message that maritime disputes should be resolved peacefully. "The goal is to make sure everyone is operating in a peaceful and responsible fashion," he said.
Obama also did not issue a firm commitment that the United States would defend the Philippines in case of an attack by a foreign country.
Even sounding conciliatory, Obama noted that the U.S. relationship with China is vital insofar as trade is concerned. " I think it's good for the region and the world if China is successfully developing and lifting its people out of poverty," he said.
He said that it is inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region just by its sheer size. "Nobody denies that.. The question is if other regions will prosper in their own terms, attending to the needs of their people."