Fear Not The Balikatan, Military Says

February 3, 2008 at 5:44 pm | Posted in 1 | Leave a comment
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Feb. 03, 2008) – A senior Filipino military commander doused fears of human rights violations and abuses by soldiers who will participate in a joint RP-US Balikatan training in southern Philippines.

Balikatan, which means “shoulder-to-shoulder,” is the codename of the joint anti-terror drill held each year since 2001. The training will begin February 18 in the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao, where militant and anti-US activists are opposing the war games.
“There is nothing wrong with the Balikatan and troops will concentrate on humanitarian and medical missions in the provinces. Our only aim is to help the people though various humanitarian activities and nothing more,” Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga, chief of the Western Mindanao Command, which has jurisdiction over half of the region, told the Mindanao Examiner.
Some 6,000 US and Filipino soldiers are expected to participate in the Balikatan, but most of the military training exercise would be held in Luzon.
But hundreds of US troops have been deployed in Zamboanga City and Sulu since last year where they are helping the local military fight terrorism.
Militant groups and activists opposed to US presence in the Philippines said they would stage simultaneous rallies in the province to protest the holding of the Balikatan. They accused US troops stationed in Sulu of human rights violations after soldiers forcibly closed down a government hospital in Panamao town last year.
Last week, a motorcycle rider was injured after a US soldier driving a jeep hit the Filipino man outside a military base in Zamboanga City and fled the scene before policemen could arrive to investigate.
A teenager was also shot and seriously wounded by a US soldier while gathering firewood near a firing range in Zamboanga City. US soldiers participating in previous Balikatan in Zamboanga and Sulu also chased and detained journalists and prevented them from taking pictures and videos of the foreigners in public places.
Amirah Ali Lidasan, president of the Suara Bangsamoro (Voice of the Moro People), urged President Gloria Arroyo to scrap the Balikatan because of the abuses involving the US troops.
“Suara Bangsamoro calls on President Arroyo to heed the call of the Moro people and the people of Mindanao and put a stop to the Balikatan exercises. We also hope that our peace-loving legislators in the Senate and Congress will look into the complaints of the victims,” she said.
”American officials and their soldiers should be made answerable to the complaints made by civilians against them,” Lidasan said, citing an incident that occurred in December in Zamboanga City where passengers of a motorcycle taxi complained at a radio station about US soldiers who rammed their vehicle.
“Instead of helping the victims to get up, US soldiers got down from their vehicle complete with high-powered guns that according to the complainants looked like they were going to war. Ordinary citizens of Mindanao have been exposed to the impertinent attitudes of the US soldiers, and this is aggravated if government officials do not act on it,” Lidasan said.
While criticizing arrogance of some US troops, Lidasan praised Sarangani province Gov. Miguel Dominguez for apprehending armed American servicemen at a restaurant.
“It is a pain for the victims of Balikatan to learn that their complaints have fallen on deaf ears as the government gave a go-signal to commence the Balikatan exercises in their areas despite of the unresolved cases of human rights violations that involved US soldiers,” Lidasan said.
She also cited several cases involving US troops who participated in past Balikatan in Basilan and Sulu. Among them were the shooting of a Muslim villager, Buyung-Buyung Isnijal, allegedly by an American soldier identified by witnesses as a certain Sgt. Reggie Lane, who was accused of participating in a military operation on July 27, 2002 in Tuburan town in Basilan.
Lidasan said the involvement of an American soldier in combat operations is a violation to the Terms of Reference under the Visiting Forces Agreement between the US and the Philippines in defining and limiting the conduct of the joint military exercises.
Another was the reported involvement of US soldiers in combat operation against the Moro National Liberation Front in Sulu in 2005.
Lidasan also cited cases of shooting and maiming of civilians allegedly by US soldiers who accidentally fired at civilians in the community while on a test missions. One case was the shooting and wounding of Arsid Baharun in Zamboanga City while soldiers were conducting a marksmanship practice in 2004, and the second was in September 2006 where shrapnel from a misfired bomb hit a 50-year old Muslim woman, Bizma Juhan in Indanan town in Sulu.
The militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) called on Congress and the Senate to immediately launch a thorough probe on the real role of US troops in Mindanao.
“We are calling on both Houses of Congress, to call for respective investigations on the matter…We have to uphold our sovereignty if not then foreigners will just trample it under their feet,” Rafael Mariano, chairman of KMP and president of the Anakpawis party-list group, said.
The Balikatan demonstrates Washington’s resolve to continue the commitment to train, advice and assist the Philippine military to build capacity to counter terrorism.
The Balikatan includes support for comprehensive defense reform; security assistance modules for counter-terrorism training; operations intelligence fusion; and aspects in education programs, logistics, and engineering, equipment, and maintenance and helicopter programs.
It will also enhance the skills and capabilities of Filipino and American forces in combating terrorism and other internal and external security threats. And improve inter-operability between RP and US forces through the exchange of training skills and techniques.
The training is part of Washington security assistance to the Philippines, a key US ally in Southeast Asia in the so-called global war on terrorism. (Mindanao Examiner)

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