Military centre sparks fears over US role

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2007, 12:00am

A US$14 million centre being built for the exclusive use of US soldiers inside the headquarters of the Philippine armed forces in Mindanao has sparked renewed controversy over the role of the US in the country.

Legislator Crispin Beltran has asked the House of Representatives to investigate the building, which is being constructed by Global Contingency Services LLC of Texas inside the regional headquarters of the armed forces in Zamboanga.

The Philippine constitution specifically bans 'foreign military bases, troops, or facilities', but the US and the Philippines have a visiting forces agreement that allows US forces to provide military training.

'Will they allow on-site inspections and will they surrender complete data and information regarding the extent and coverage of the construction activities?' said Mr Beltran, who represents Anakpawis.

Mr Beltran said he doubted lawmakers would be given access to the US$14.4 million facility, which US diplomats in Manila describe as 'temporary'.

But analysts said the cost of the building meant it could not just be intended for US soldiers training Philippine troops to battle a few hundred Muslim extremists in the south.

University of the Philippines professor Roland Simbulan, who has written a book on American bases in the Philippines, said he believed the structures were part of America's regional security. He noted Mindanao was close to two Muslim countries - Indonesia, where the US military has no presence, and Malaysia, where it is confined to port visits.

'They are using Abu Sayyaf just as an excuse to be there,' he said, referring to the militant group that has been linked to al-Qaeda. He said construction had began just as the Philippine military claimed it was about to finish off Abu Sayyaf, which numbers about 400 men.

Herbert Docena, research associate of Focus on the Global South, a left-wing think-tank in Bangkok, agreed. 'I have real doubts that Abu Sayyaf poses a threat to the US; I really have doubts the structures are aimed at them,' Mr Docena said. 'I think it's a regional forward base.'

He pointed to a January, 2006, report issued by the US Congressional Research Service. The US Congress' public policy research arm stated that 'in November 2002, the Arroyo administration signed a Military Logistics and Support Agreement allowing the United States to use the Philippines as a supply base for military operations throughout the region'.

Mr Docena earlier disclosed that the US Naval Facilities Engineering Command - a unit in charge of providing 'operating, support and training bases' to the navy - awarded the multimillion dollar 'operations contract' in June this year to a Texas firm.

US envoy Kristie Kenney has denied the US was building a military base. 'We will not have any military facilities in this country,' she said, adding the military was in the Philippines temporarily.

She announced that the US would sign a US$100 million development package for Mindanao next month.

The embassy's deputy spokeswoman, Karen Schinnerer, said the project was for the US soldiers' 'medical, logistical and administrative services'. Those were 'definitely not permanent US bases', she said.