Memoirs of Pinatubo eruption and the US military bases

Thirty years ago, on June 15, 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines was considered the world’s  largest volcanic eruption.

Bursts of gas-charged magma exploded into umbrella ash clouds, hot flows of gas and ash descended the volcano’s flanks and lahars swept down valleys.

Attached photo is from the Philippine Collegian editorial 1991

Three months later, the Philippines Senate on September 16, 1991 rejected a proposed extension of the US military bases  agreement  by a 12-11 vote.

The Pinatubo eruption buried the region in ash, severely damaged the facilities at the Clark and Subic bases and rendered them inoperable.

The   recent weekly media forum by veteran journalist Melo Acuna  on  the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States touched upon the bases agreement.

President  Duterte is holding off for six more months the abrogation of the  VFA to further study the move “while both sides address his concerns regarding particular aspects of the agreement.”

I gave  a historical perspective  on the VFA by narrating my experience with the campaign  during  the 1990s against the renewal  of the US military bases treaty.

As the photographer of the Philippine Collegian, I covered several mass actions involving  UP students including  the historic Lakbayan on March 1991, a three-day 96-kilometer march  from the UP Diliman campus to the Clark Airbase in Pampanga.

On foot, we traversed the length of MacArthur Highway, chanting slogans and distributing leaflets under the hot summer sun. The contingent swelled as we were approaching the base.

Several  hundred meters away from the main gate of the base, the contingent was blocked by the police. 

The planned placing of a symbolic closure order at the front gate did not materialize as  big rocks came flying from the sidewalks  thrown by the nearby residents, who were naturally pro-bases. Water cannons were also used to disperse the crowd.

The most memorable was the one held near the Sheraton Hotel in Pasay on May 14, 1991 where the  treaty negotiations meeting was being held at the Central Bank building.

While in front of the contingent trying to get good coverage, I heard a lot of popping as yellow smoke filled the streets. Teargas!  The mass gathering ended up with a violent dispersal where the riot police also used truncheons and water hoses to disperse the rallyists.

Unfortunately, I was hospitalized after a teargas cannister landed at the back of my head during the dispersal.

After the minor head surgery for seven stitches, I called my mother and greeted her “Happy Birthday” and asked her to pick me up at the PGH.

The signing of the bases  agreement  in 1947 allowed the US to establish and operate air and naval bases for 99 years. An amendment in 1966 cut that tenure to 25 years.

The proposed RP-US Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace would have given the US ten  more years at Subic Naval Base extending the US military presence in the country beyond September 1991. The US offered $203 million a year in compensation.

An impassioned debate ensued in which the bases were attacked as a symbol of the country’s continued colonial-like dependency on the U.S and violations of sovereignty.

The bases were also seen as sources of social ills such as prostitution, AIDS and illegitimate children.

On the other hand, supporters argued that hundreds of millions of dollars annually entered  into the local economies of Olongapo and Angeles in addition to billions of dollars in U.S. aid that was tied to the bases.

By a vote of 12-11, the proposed treaty was rejected by the Senate led by the 12 senators, dubbed the “Magnificent 12” through Resolution 1259 of Non-Concurrence to the Proposed Treaty  authored by Senator  Wigberto Tañada.

The other senators include Senate President Jovito Salonga and senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Agapito Aquino, Joseph Estrada, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Sotero Laurel, Orlando Mercado, Ernesto Maceda, Aquilino Pimentel Jr, Victor Ziga,  and Rene Saguisag.

I was among the thousands waiting at the footsteps of the National Museum, drenched in rain, as the Senate voted to reject the bases treaty with the US.

In 1998, less than six years after the closure of Subic, the Philippines and the U.S. signed a VFA , laying out the rules for American personnel deployed in the Philippines and  the establishment of the Balikatan military exercises.

Aside from jurisdictional issues, critics argued that American troops  were privileged even on issues of taxation and visa requirements.

The VFA has been dragged in two prominent criminal cases — the 2006 Subic rape case involving four US marines and the 2014 killing of Jennifer Laude.

The VFA had also been challenged twice before the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the treaty.

Kule is the monicker of Philippine Collegian, the official student publication of UP Diliman. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email info@sapalovelez.com, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786

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