MANILA – Outrage greeted the reported trespassing of US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian (MCM 5), yesterday in the waters of Palawan. The US Navy said in its website that their ship “ran aground on Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park, a World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea, 640 kilometers (400 miles) southeast of Manila at 2:25 a.m. local time, January 17.”
Philippine laws say the area is off-limits to the ship, the area being a protected site, but based on the Tubbataha management office report, the US ship entered these areas without permission and failed to coordinate with environmental officials.
“The Avenger-Class ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay, Olongapo City and was en route to her next port of call when the grounding occurred. The ship is currently stuck on the reef, approximately 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan Island,” the US 7th Public Affairs Fleet said in the US Navy website. It said ‘The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship.”
The US Navy said the cause of the grounding was under investigation, but officials had said it was apparently due to “misnavigation”.
Angelique Songco, head of the government’s Protected Area Management Board, reportedly flew over the stuck ship in a Philippine Air Force plane. She said the USS Guardian “does not appear to be damaged.”
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Tubbataha Reef. According to the Tubbataha management office, it is highly probable that the ship has damaged large portions of the heritage sites’ coral reefs, thus violating pertinent Philippine laws, including Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act of 2009.
Poison to Philippine resources, sovereignty
Songco reported that park rangers were barred from boarding the USS Guardian for inspection; they were told instead to contact the US embassy in Manila. She also said their radio calls to the ship were ignored.
On top of the still to be assessed damages to the reefs, and fears that the ship may be leaking toxic substances including oil, the behavior of the US Navy enraged various groups critical to the stepped up US presence in the Philippines.
“We denounce how the US military forces responsible for the damage have barred our environmental officials from inspecting the USS Guardian to immediately assess the incident. They are the intruders and violators, yet they still have the gall to disrespect Filipino officials and bar them from doing their environmental duties. This is the height of US military arrogance and brazenness,” Clemente Bautista, coordinator of environmental activist group Kalikasan PNE (Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment), said in a statement.
“This incident shows us how the United States military forces have brazenly disrespected our laws and damaged our country’s environment and national treasures,” Bautista added. He asked: What other environmentally-critical areas has the US military presence damaged or destroyed?” Last Oct, the US Navy committed another ‘environmental crime” when Glenn Defense Marine Philippines Inc., a US Navy contractor, dumped human and toxic waste into Subic Bay, Clemente said. And now, this damaging of protected reefs.
The US military are yet to be punished for these crimes on the environment, Clemente said.
Because Tubbataha is a World Heritage Site, damaging corals is tantamount to killing the species that thrive in it, Vencer Crisostomo, chairman of patriotic youth group Anakbayan said. He described the US presence as “poison, a plague to our seas and sovereignty.”
In Congress, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Raymond Palatino railed at the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), as he called this damage on the erstwhile protected reefs another case highlighting “how the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty between our country and the US is opening loopholes that enable the said imperialist country to conduct covert military operations on our territory, without any regard whatsoever on its effects to our people and our natural resources.”
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) allows the US military to move around unhampered in Philippine territory. It also grants immunity to US military personnel deployed in the Philippines.
US Navy ships regularly conduct joint military exercises, do port calls in the country under the VFA. But as it increasingly does so, it also “destroys our natural resources with impunity,” said Bautista of Kalikasan-PNE.
“In almost 15 years of implementation of the VFA, US military forces have routinely infringed on our sovereignty, violated the rights of our people, and destroyed the environment. It is most urgent for the government to review and junk this unjust, onerous agreement,” Bautista said. After all these years, he said the VFA “clearly only serves the interests of US military forces and will never be advantageous to our country.”
On top of US military ships “barging on our conservation parks,” this year, also, “we accidentally discovered the Aquino-backed US game of drones in the country,” Palatino said. The youth solon is set to file a resolution asking Congress to probe the said infringement on Philippine sovereignty.
Aquino’s silence a ‘sign of puppetry’
Green groups and the youth also question the Aquino government’s silence amid reports of such infringements on Philippine sovereignty.
Anakbayan’s Crisostomo said Aquino’s silence on the matter and lack of outrage is a “sign of puppetry.”
“The Aquino administration must also be held accountable for allowing unbridled entry of US ships. His being an Amboy is costing us our natural resources,” said Crisostomo. (Bulatlat.com)