Public Lives

Salonga and the Senate that said no


Twenty years ago, on Sept. 16, 1991, the Philippine Senate took a vote that forever changed Philippine-American relations. By a close vote of 12-11, a sharply divided Senate rejected a new treaty that would allow the United States to continue using its naval facilities in Subic for another 10 years after the expiration of the old colonial agreement. The Constitution requires the concurrence of at least two-thirds of the senators.

So strong was the American pressure on the Senate and on the beleaguered Cory Aquino presidency itself that a slight delay in the vote might have changed the result. The exemplary role played by Sen. Jovito R. Salonga made all the difference.

From day one as Senate president, Salonga made a personal vow to frustrate any attempt to extend the life of American bases in the Philippines under a new treaty. This was not easy because it meant going against President Cory Aquino. It was mainly Cory’s popularity that had carried him and his colleagues in the Lakas ng Bayan coalition to victory in the first post-Edsa elections of 1987. Now Cory was on the other side, actively campaigning for the approval of the new treaty, as a way of repaying the support the US gave her when military coups threatened her government. He himself had spent many years in exile in the US during martial law and had benefited from the friendship of countless US officials and politicians.  He could not ignore easily the pleas of these well-meaning friends.

Salonga’s acute sense of history kept him focused on what he felt he needed to do. He set aside all personal considerations—something that, in our culture, was hard to do without appearing rude and arrogant. But, the closing of the American bases in the Philippines took precedence over everything. It was to him a necessary condition for our emergence as a fully sovereign nation—something we needed to do for the sake of future generations, even if it meant displeasing an important and powerful ally.

He was painfully aware that his active opposition to the treaty would adversely affect his political plans. The presidential election of 1992 was just around the corner. Many influential leaders and businessmen who had supported him in his long political career and wished to see him succeed Cory, warned him against playing an assertive role on the issue.  But Salonga would not be deterred. For him, the time had come to close this colonial chapter of our history, and it fell on him to lead the Senate to that final moment.

Political decisions like this are not made in a vacuum. Many things happened in 1991 that shaped the way Filipinos thought about the future of their country. In June that same year, in the middle of the bases negotiation, the long dormant Mt. Pinatubo volcano erupted in fury, burying Central Luzon where Clark Air Force Base and Subic Naval Base were located, in thick ash fall. More than half a million residents were dislocated. The Americans abruptly left Clark, but they insisted on remaining in Subic. The provinces of Pampanga, Bataan and Zambales—whose economies had long been dependent on the American bases—favored the US retention of Subic. They saw in the continued American presence a peg on which to anchor the region’s recovery from devastation.

But a new era was unfolding in the rest of the world. The period from 1989 to 1991 saw the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe. These events effectively brought to a close the Cold War which, for a half century, had been the stimulus to the proliferation of American strategic bases in the Pacific. They signaled the emergence of the United States as the lone superpower on the global stage. In this new world order, nearly every nation aspired to be on the good side of a triumphant America. Except the Filipinos who seemed bent on “unfriending” the world’s lone superpower by flatly rejecting its request to retain Subic.

In retrospect, America might have overplayed its hand and underestimated the residues of anti-colonial sentiments that remained in the hearts of a generation of Filipinos who longed for real independence. The proposed treaty contained no firm commitment in the form of trade or assistance in exchange for the use of the base. Some of the senators who supported it could not speak for it with full conviction. The US knew that the country needed concrete assurances of assistance in a time of great need. But it opted to act as if Filipinos owed America its bases.

America took the Senate rejection badly.  Ambassador Frank G. Wisner who came to Manila at the height of the negotiations in 1991 was recalled soon after, spending barely a year at his post. For a long while, Washington did not send a replacement. The departing US forces took out everything they could detach from their facilities, leaving their stunned hosts to clean after them.

It took sometime before we could put the lands that the US bases occupied to productive use. But the country did not die after the American pullout. Later, we tried to appease America by approving a Visiting Forces Agreement that permitted US soldiers to come for joint military exercises with our forces. They did not go back to Clark or Subic, but instead they have established a regular presence in Mindanao, using the global war on terror as their justification for being there. It makes one wonder what else they are doing in that contested part of the country. It is time for the Senate to affirm its historic vote of 1991 by junking the VFA.

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  • Pablo

    Mr. Randy David and others of his mindset are being ruled by emotionalism rather than pragmatism. Working with the American in terms of defenses in no way lessens our sovereignty.

    • Anonymous

      Not renewing the bases agreement do not mean we are no longer ‘allies’ with the US; and it’s not emotionalism, it is PATRIOTISM. Hindi mo ba natutunan yan sa mga paaralan nung nag-aral ka?

  • Anonymous

    We see now with then Spratly island dispute the result of the Salonga work. Instead of to help the Philippines, the American will not help the Philippines and the Chineses get already a large part of the islands.
    How stupid was Salonga!

    • George Babsa-ay

      get your facts straight…

  • Anonymous

    By rejecting the American navy from Subic bay, Salonga invited implicitely the Chineses. They mhave already get a part of the Spratly islands.
    How stupid was this Salonga!!!

    • Anonymous

      Salonga is a patriot.  He is not stupid

      • Argent Rama

        But they are. They didn’t expect China’s power, nor augment our military to replace American presence.

        And these people, these politicians will be the first to flee this country when war happens (I hope it doesn’t).

      • Anonymous

        Gusto mo bang lumaban ng barilan si Salonga pag -umatake ang mga Intsik.  Diyos ko naman more than 80 years old na yung tao.

        Kung tingin mo dapat nandito ang mga Amerkano sa bansa para  ipagtanggol ka sa mga Intsik, eh ano na lang gagawin mo?

        Tayong mga Pilipino, hanggang wala tayong respeto sa sarili natin as PILIPINO, walang mangyayari sa bansa natin. 

    • alienpatriot

      Spratly islands. How important are the Spratly islands? Are they more important than the poverty in this country? Are they more important than financial independence for the Philippines? If the Chinese want to use the islands to hold secret dances at midnight, let them. What else are they useful for? Lets get sensible priorities.
      I am not even a pinoy but I can see the sense in what Salonga did.

  • Anonymous

    Prof Randy, I think former Sen Salonga et al and the ‘nationalists’ looked at the presence of US bases with a myopic eye.  They failed to see the presence of the bases as a deterrent to the expansionist appetite of China. With the absence of the 7th fleet the seas, the Chinese navy now rules the China Sea, bully us, and even claim some of the islands that are well within our territory.  Okay, being nationalist is cute but sometimes you have to view things in a global scale with a little business-sense.

  • Anonymous

    with no concrete counter offer from the US, based from David said, I think it is only right to discontinue their used of bases in the country. We should not be treated any less from our neighboring countries who let US make bases in their country for something in return. With regards to VFA and the American soldiers presence in Mindanao, I can’t help but think that the American gov’t has something to do with the blocked initiation of setting ARMM independent from our country. From what I’ve read, Former Amb. Kenney was in Malaysia together with the parties involved in ARMM’s autonomy. If ARMM will be independent I can’t help but think that the US may just say the region is cradling a terrorist and then creating war there then tap its natural resources. I can’t help but imagine US doing that since they have been capable of doing so in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Anonymous

    salonga’s move was in retaliation of his many frustrations in sequestering the stolen assets of the dictator & plunderer marcos which were located in the USA, so he use his influence in the senate for his personal vendetta, ok? and the whole area suffered economically including the whole country until now,  many of those bases workers were forced to leave their families to work in the middle east since they lost their good paying jobs at the bases, ok?  salonga is no hero, he didn’t have alternative plans for the lost jobs but his personal vendetta, tsk, tsk, tsk! was he able to get those ill gotten wealth, ha? only a couple, maybe?

    • Anonymous

      personl vendetta?  Diyos ko po.  ano ba yan?

  • Troy Carbon

    They are in Mindanao because they know that Mindanao is the country’s richest source of resources. Minerals like gold,copper and most likely oil. They are keeping a lookout on these resources to make sure that they a hold of it once they can legally.

  • @Rakehell_Obi

    Now we don’t have an American force in our own backyard. I think someone posted that those pinoy workers ended up emigrating to support their families?
    The neighbourhood strongman. i.e. China can do what it wants with the Spratly Islands.

    What will stop the Chinese from claiming the Benham Rise, which is even closer to the Philippines?
    Is it too late to ask the Americans to come back?

    • Anonymous

      Running hastily to Uncle Sam at every sign of trouble is like being in kindergarten for a very long time and not growing up.

      mga kapwa ko  Pilipno, huwag tayo papadala sa mga foreign bases loving
      groupies.  Have the balls to stand up to defend your country;  otherwise
      tumahimik na lang kayo sa isang tabi at umiyak.  Hindi kayo kailangan
      ng bansa natin.

  • Anonymous

    I am European, from a small country of 10,000,000 peoples and live in the Philippines. In my country as well as in Germany and other European countries, there are US bases. They protected us against the Russian army that was very powerful during 40 years. We did not lose our independence.
    By closing the US bases in the Philippines, Salonga weaken the Philippines and make upset the US. The first result is that the Chinese spread in the Spratly islands. The Philippines can not do anything because too weak. The second result is that the US are no more helping the Philippines against the MILF (even if they fight against Abu Sayef). It seems that they are even pushing in favor of the MILF during the negotiations. The third result is that thousands of persons lost their job in Subic and Clark.
    Salonga was a patriot but he acted like a Chinese agent. He should let the US bases as we did in Europe…

    • Anonymous

      Politics in the Philippines is for Filipinos to decide.  You may be a welcome guest in our country, but a little respect for your host will be most welcome.

      It is myopic for people to see only the absence of foreign bases in Subic And Clark, when the truth of the matter is that the Americans never left.  The VFA ensures that.  Go to the areas where the exercise are held and you will see the US bases are still here.

    • alienpatriot

      I am also a foreignor living in the Philippines, Ed, but I do not share your view. I agree with much of what Ian Alera said in response. The issue of what foreignors like ourselves are able to contribute to forums like this is possibly a difficult issue. It is my opinion that I have much to offer this country and thus it is appropriate for me to express my view. It is also appropriate for Ed to express his view even though I disagree. What is not appropriate is when foreignors who have no interest in the country’s future attempt to lecture people here on various matters of politics. Ian is correct in asking for respect for the host country. Although I do not agree with Ed, I do not see his comments as disrespectful or insulting.
      In my opinion, Ed seems to lack perspective on the problems facing this country, but so do many Pinoys. I can’t accuse Ed of being insulting when he is saying what many Pinoys believe.
      Let me now explain why I disagree with Ed George.
      Firstly, as stated by Ian, the American presence here is very strong. It will remain strong regardless of the presence of their bases. Secondly, why did the Americans want Subic? It was for their own purposes. We would not expect Malacanang to put the interests of another country ahead of Philippines so we should not expect Washington to put the US second either. We can state that Philippines and US have a strong friendship but each will act in their own self-interest.
      The US is the stroingest military presence in NATO but the other European nations are collectively as strong. Having US bases in Europe is not the same situation as the Subic proposal. The Philippines is weaker economically and in most other respects and thus has a weak position when it comes to fighting for equal status in military matters. A US base in Philippines is there purely as a US base. In Europe it is NATO-related. Any military alliance between Philippines and US is lopsided. The US can decide on the terms of it almost unilaterally. The European base comparison is invalid.
      With regard to the Spratly’s, is this just a case of China flexing its muscles? It would seem so. What exactly is the importance of the Spratly’s to this country? Why is it so important? China is not threatening to invade Palawan. It is simply acting tough but, in the end, will put trade first. It is not military threats that will dissuade China from claiming the Spratly’s it is trade requirements. China likes talking big but mainly they just want money.

  • Anonymous

    WE do not need to establish the bases like it once were.  This is the
    modern era.  Ships travel fast, armaments and supplies gets shipped. 
    People gets transported very quickly.

    If we Filipinos want to keep our their freedom, then we should all stand fast
    and work hard to increase our country’s defenses as well as diplomatic clout.

    Running hastily to Uncle Sam at every sign of trouble is like being in kindergarten for a very long time and not growing up.

    Sa mga kapwa ko  Pilipno, huwag tayo papadala sa mga foreign bases loving groupies.  Have the balls to stand up to defend your country;  otherwise tumahimik na lang kayo sa isang tabi at umiyak.  Hindi kayo kailangan ng bansa natin.

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