THERE IS A DISTURBING sense of déjà vu in the Philippines. Thirty-seven years after the nonviolent People Power movement ended the brutal and kleptocratic 20-year reign of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., his only son and namesake sits comfortably in the presidential palace. Following in his father’s footsteps, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is once again cozying up to the United States.
In 2012, the Obama administration began to “rebalance” U.S. military and trade agreements in Asia. Since 2014, the U.S. has had access to five military bases in the Philippines and trains Filipino soldiers under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) — all part of Obama’s “pivot to the Pacific.”
In February this year, Marcos agreed to allow the U.S. military to pre-position troops and weapons at another four bases. This gives the U.S. the largest military footprint it has had in the Philippines in 30 years, when a Filipino-led anti-colonial independence movement led to the removal of all permanent military bases in their country.
In its push to expand EDCA, the Biden administration said it would spend $82 million on projects at the first five bases. In addition, U.S. ambassador MaryKay Carlson announced $100 million in new foreign military financing for the Philippines “to use as it wishes.” The Philippines is already the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance in the region, receiving $1.14 billion in weapons and equipment since 2015. U.S. and Philippines government officials claim that the purpose of this growing U.S. military presence is to help with humanitarian crises and disaster relief, as well as to prepare for a future conflict with China, most likely over Taiwan.
CHRISTIANS, HOWEVER, HAVE many reasons to question this narrative. In a meeting in February at the Quezon City headquarters for the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, a top concern raised by those present was how the influx of U.S. weapons and training will strengthen the Filipino military, which has been responsible for widespread human rights abuses.
Religious leaders are particularly concerned about the abusive, decades-old practice known as “red-tagging,” in which the government publicly accuses activists, journalists, and church workers of involvement with or giving support to armed communist insurgents. Anyone critical of the political and economic elite can end up in the state’s crosshairs — subject to harassment and violence at the hands of the military. “Giving aid to the poor is authentic witnessing to the Christian faith but church workers who dare to ask why many people are mired in poverty face the danger of being called a communist,” wrote Filipino journalist Mark Saludes in 2021. The situation is now much worse. The human rights group Karapatan calls red-tagging a death sentence; it has documented the extrajudicial killing and torture of hundreds of people since 2016.
The danger has only grown with the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which is being weaponized in a similar fashion to target all forms of dissent. Former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio has gone so far as to say that the country is now “permanently under a situation worse than martial law.”
“If [the U.S. is] really concerned about us, why train us to be the enemy of our own people?” Norma Dollaga, a deaconess in the United Methodist Church, asked at the meeting of church workers. “We know that [the military] will never be trained to become compassionate.”
Given the desperate poverty and need in the Philippines, Dollaga insisted that there is a better way to protect the country. “Why not use the taxes of the American people to contribute to real development — to educate the people, make them healthy, give them housing, provide them social and basic services?”
FOR NEARLY 100 YEARS, the U.S. maintained what was once the largest overseas naval base in the world at Subic Bay on the island of Luzon. America’s devastating environmental and humanitarian impact there serves as a cautionary tale.
Only after the U.S. military pulled out in 1992 did Filipinos learn that the U.S. had for decades spilled toxic waste on the ground, buried it in unsealed landfills, and dumped millions of gallons of untreated sewage into waterways each day, according to U.S. government data. Despite killing many, spreading illnesses, and causing miscarriages and birth defects in children, the U.S. continues to refuse to take any responsibility for cleanup — revealing how little the U.S. military values Filipino lives.
There is also a long, sordid history of prostitution and human trafficking around the naval base, and sexual violence against Filipina women by U.S. troops. The horrific murder in 2014 of Jennifer Laude, a transgender woman drowned in a toilet by a U.S. Marine, is just one of the most recent stories to spark widespread national protests.
Many religious leaders and activists fundamentally disagree that having a larger U.S. military presence will defend the Philippines’ interests against China. As Catholic priest Benjamin E. Alforque put it, the U.S. “has not lifted a finger to help the Philippines secure its territorial integrity in the Chinese-occupied parts of the West Philippine Sea.”
Instead, some Filipinos fear it will only make their country a more legitimate target if war does break out over Taiwan. “The hope of salvation for the Philippines,” Alforque said, lies not in “preparing for war, but … disarmament and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
People of faith in the Philippines draw on their long history of resistance to the successive colonial powers that have come and gone from their homeland. “We have a collective memory of resistance against foreign aggression,” Dollaga said. “The sovereign will of God is for us to be free people. So, we’re still hopeful church people.”