New Zealand and the Philippines: Military Ties or Peace Ties?

May 16, 2009

Opposition is mounting in the Philippines against the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the US rebuild of its military presence. The latest news of another shocking rape of a Filipina by a US marine has further heightened the calls for the abrogation of the 10 year old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Women and other sectoral groups say the VFA is responsible for grave and ongoing human rights abuses.

It is a good time to reflect on the defence ties between the Philippines and a junior western ally, New Zealand. Along with the Philippines New Zealand has some experience of resisting US pressure – in our case over the visits of nuclear warships back in the 1980s.

During the Marcos times New Zealand forces participated in large military exercises in the Philippines such as the Cope Thunder exercise where our Skyhawks used to practice dodging imitation Soviet radars at the Crow Valley electronic range. More covertly, New
Zealand SAS (special forces) personnel took part in special or counter-insurgency warfare exercises conducted by the US at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. We only learned about the special warfare ‘SPECWAREX” exercise in 1981 when two New Zealand soldiers were listed among those killed in a US C130 transport plane during one such

The downfall of Marcos came as the Labour Government in New Zealand was hitting its anti-nuclear stride and at a time when peace activists were pushing their leaders to take the peace commitment further. There were strong campaigns urging that New Zealand should withdraw from alliances with nuclear powers and cease taking part in exercises
designed for intervention in distant conflicts. In 1986 there was a hiatus in military training programmes offered to the Philippines under our Mutual Assistance Programme. We lobbied Government to declare that there would be no resumption of defence ties to the unreformed military of the Philippines, and were advised by the Defence Minister of the day, Frank O’Flynn, that any future military aid to the Philippines would be limited to ‘non-combat’ areas such as technical training.

At the same time peace activists were also keeping a close eye on New Zealand’s emerging arms export industry. There was a lively nationwide peace campaign against the proposed export to India and the Philippines of a New Zealand-made device called a Mere Mortar calculator. This hand-held military device was technologically sophisticated for the time as it could store the positions of up to 99 battlefield targets. A ‘mere’ is a traditional Maori stone weapon, and many were indignant at this choice of name for a military device that would be used in a guerrilla war situation against our Pacific brothers and sisters. The manufacturer’s explanation that the name was just an acronym for Mortar Elevation Ranging Equipment did not seem convincing. I am not sure now if any of these devices ever made their way to the Philippines, but the campaign certainly helped to heighten awareness about the ongoing struggle for justice in that country.

In 1988 the Philippines Solidarity Network set out to organise a major project: a 17 strong team of people traveling to the Philippines to take part in the 1988-89 Peace Brigade or Peace Caravan. The Brigade was designed to offer international guests from 18 countries an ‘exposure’ experience to learn more about the struggle against foreign
military bases and other linked campaigns for human rights, labour rights and land reform. The programme culminated with a conference: ‘Asia-Pacific Peoples Conference on Peace and Development’ and a two day peace caravan to protest at two major US bases: Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Force Base.

The Brigade and New Zealanders participation in it was highly controversial – our visas were issued with strict conditions about who we were allowed to meet and the Chief of the Philippines Constabulary, General Montana, said we would ‘be treated like common criminals and paedophiles’ if we stepped out of line. Media interest was heightened when the Manila Conference was told about a hitherto secret Mindanao base at Bukidnon, which peace researcher Owen Wilkes described as a ‘scorekeeper’ base designed to detect and record nuclear explosions.

Thus, in 1990 and 1991 Philippines issues were high on the agenda of the New Zealand peace movement. It is true that the level of peace activism declined somewhat after the 1987 nuclear free legislation was passed, but the movement had become more international in its outlook. The mass campaigns in the Philippines against the US bases were very inspiring and New Zealand activists could see clearly that the stakes were high for the whole region. If the United States was forced to leave its massive naval and air bases in the Philippines that would be a major step back from the nuclear brink and towards a more peaceful Asia Pacific.

New Zealanders rejoiced with Filipinos when the last carrier group pulled out of Subic Bay in 1992.

Two years ago President Gloria Arroyo visited this country to take part in an Asia-Pacific inter-faith dialogue, ironically aimed at strengthening ‘regional security while promoting peace and tolerance’. She was met with determined protest action about extrajudicial killings. Since then there has been a renewed focus on the Philippines in our human rights and union sectors. The anti-base movement in this country is again making common cause with the Philippines movement and promoting awareness about the implications of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The United States (US) and the Philippines have just hosted an exercise for the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) called a Voluntary Demonstration of Response (VDR) in Central Luzon. New Zealand forces were present along with troops from 11 other ASEAN and Pacific countries. Although billed by the ASEAN Secretariat as a “civilian-led, military supported” disaster relief training exercise, there are some grounds for concern that the exercise may also support the United States regional ‘security’ agenda and have a secondary aim of improving interoperability among the participating nations. ARF
set up as a forum for security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific and has 27 member countries, but this has been its first field exercise since its establishment in 1994.
The ARF is not a defence pact, but is beginning to look as though it could develop into one. The puzzling thing is that the Philippines does not have a Visiting Forces Agreement with any other country apart from the US, so should not take part in an overt multi-country military exercise, while New Zealand is usually left off the list for exercises with the US military because of the anti-nuclear standoff.

As people of the Philippines strive to protect their sovereignty and resist being drawn deeper into supporting US global strategy, there is an important role for New Zealand, but it is not a military one. What we need instead are close ties based on the promotion of peace and demilitarisation, justice and human rights.

Maire Leadbeater
Member of Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA) in the 1980s
Spokesperson, Indonesia Human Rights Committee and longterm peace activist