U.S. troops have maintained a continuous presence in Sulu since 2004. Malacañang says they are there for “civic action.” However, their visibility in areas where AFP operations have been conducted raises questions on the real reasons behind their presence in the country’s southernmost province.
BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
When an encounter between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) broke out in Barangay (Village) Buansa, Indanan, Sulu last week, U.S. troops who were a few kilometers away were seen running toward the direction of the gunfire. They were carrying their guns.
The fighting ensued after AFP troops attacked the camp of MNLF state chairman Khaid Ajibun in the said village.
Military spokespersons said the attack was brought about by reports that members of the bandit Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) were in the MNLF camp. The MNLF –- with which the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) signed a Final Peace Agreement in 1996 –- has repeatedly denied that it coddles ASG members.
In Brgy. Bato-Bato, also in Indanan, U.S. troops are presently busy with a road-construction project. That village is right now the center of AFP operations in Sulu, with an encounter having taken place only last March 2.
These were gathered by Bulatlat in an interview with Jolo Councilor Temojen “Cocoy” Tulawie.
This, Tulawie said, is just part of a larger picture that has been developing in Sulu since 2004.
“Military operations always take place not far from where U.S. troops are,” said Tulawie, who is also a convener of the Concerned Citizens of Sulu. “The presence of U.S. troops has been visible in areas where military operations have taken place.”
While Tulawie says there is yet no evidence that U.S. troops have actually participated in combat operations, their visibility in areas where AFP operations have been conducted raises questions on the real reasons behind their presence in the country’s southernmost province.
Tulawie said the presence of U.S. troops in Sulu started in 2004 and has been continuous since then.
The Jolo councilor said that in one of his recent travels, he saw that several U.S. soldiers were among the passengers in the Sulu-bound plane from Manila.
“I talked to the guards in the airport here and they told me that U.S. soldiers arrive everyday,” Tulawie disclosed. “They come usually in the wee hours of the morning, just after midnight.”
U.S. troops would have entered Sulu as early as February 2003. The AFP and the U.S. Armed Forces had both announced that the Balikatan military exercises for that year would be held in Sulu.
This provoked a wave of protest from the people of Sulu, who had not yet forgotten what has come to be known as the Bud Dajo Massacre.
The Bud Dajo massacre, which took place in 1906, is described in some history texts as the “First Battle of Bud Dajo.” It was an operation against Moro fighters resisting the American occupation.
The description of the incident as a “battle,” however, is disputed considering the sheer mismatch in firepower between U.S. forces and the Moro resistance fighters. The 790 U.S. troops who assaulted Bud Dajo used naval cannons against the 800-1,000 Moro resistance fighters who were mostly armed only with melee weapons.
In the end, only six of the hundreds of Moro resistance fighters holding Bud Dajo as a stronghold survived, while there were 15-20 casualties among the U.S. troops.
The announcement in February 2003 that the year’s Balikatan military exercises would be held in Sulu summoned bitter memories of the Bud Dajo Massacre and led to protest actions where thousands of Sulu residents participated. “The situation was very tense here at that time,” Tulawie told Bulatlat.
The next year, however, U.S. troops came up with ingenious ways to find their way into Sulu.
“They started coming in small groups, bringing relief goods,” Tulawie said. “They concentrated on winning the hearts and minds of the people of Sulu.”
“Their strategy was effective,” Tulawie also admitted. “They have to some extent been able to neutralize the Sulu people’s resistance to their presence here.”
It is unclear how many U.S. troops there are in Sulu right now, Tulawie said. “They don’t tell us how many of them are here,” he pointed out.
The U.S. troops in Sulu are part of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P). Based on several news items from the Philippine Information Agency (PIA), the JSOTF-P are in Sulu to train the AFP’s Southern Command (Southcom) and to conduct civic actions.
However, an article recently written by Command Sgt. Maj. William Eckert of the JSOTF-P, “Defeating the Idea: Unconventional Warfare in Southern Philippines,” hints that there is more to the task force’s work than training AFP troops and embarking on “humanitarian actions.” Wrote Eckert:
Working in close coordination with the U.S. Embassy, JSOTF-P uses Special Forces, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations forces to conduct deliberate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in very focused areas, and based on collection plans, to perform tasks to prepare the environment and obtain critical information requirements. The information is used to determine the capabilities, intentions and activities of threat groups that exist within the local population and to focus U.S. forces –- and the AFP –- on providing security to the local populace. It is truly a joint operation, in which Navy SEALs and SOF aviators work with their AFP counterparts to enhance the AFP’s capacities.
“There are U.S. troops stationed in all military camps in Sulu,” Tulawie added. “If they are here only to give training, as they and the Philippine government claim, there should be only a single training camp where they are to be stationed. But what is happening is different.” Bulatlat