Americans in Philippines Are Wary : Asia: Recent assassinations have changed what was once safe and comfortable duty for U.S. service personnel.
The grizzled U.S. military veterans who enter the Allen (Pop) Reeves American Legion Post 123 here now must detour past a wake in the bingo parlor next door to belly up to the bar.
“We locked the front door yesterday,” explained Ralph Wetherington, a 50-year-old retired Army sergeant who nursed a beer Wednesday at the battered bar. “It’s to prevent anyone from walking in here and blowing our brains away.”
“No problem,” said a grinning Arden L. Beehler, 53, a retired Air Force sergeant sitting several stools away. “Most of us wear Australian T-shirts so there’s no confusion.”
Times have changed in this tawdry military town, home of the giant American-run Clark Air Base and about 15,000 Americans, including 5,000 retirees, since Communist guerrillas killed two Air Force enlisted men here last weekend and warned the U.S. military to “go home or suffer the agony of attrition.”
Six other Americans have been killed in the last 13 months.
Long considered a safe and comfortable duty post, the Philippines is an increasingly frightening home for 40,000 U.S. servicemen and women, Defense Department employees and dependents. For the first time, some Americans say they fear sending children to school, shopping or even driving down the street.
For the first time, too, that fear is an undercurrent in official talks that began this week in Manila over the future of Clark, Subic Bay Naval Base and four smaller facilities. When the two sides met Wednesday, U.S. negotiators demanded that the Philippine government improve security for the bases.
But Philippine Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus has said that security for the U.S. bases is not as good as it could be because Washington has not provided enough money. On the third day of the talks about the bases, money was the focus.
Rafael Alunan, spokesman for the Philippine negotiators, said the U.S. failure to fulfill financial commitments on the bases to the tune of $222.5 million “could endanger the future of our talks with the United States.”
U.S. special negotiator Richard L. Armitage responded sharply, telling the Filipinos not to measure friendship in dollars.
“Mr. Armitage emphasized that he is not an accountant, he does not stand next to a cash register when conducting foreign relations and he does not put a price tag on Philippine honor and sovereignty,” U.S. spokesman Stanley Schrager said.
Police on Wednesday used clubs to break up a march to the U.S. Embassy by Philippine, American and Japanese protesters opposing the bases and arrested 15 of the demonstrators for illegal assembly.
“We realize the difficult situation of providing security around the bases when you have the (Communists), when you have people trying to kill and assassinate American servicemen and American officials,” Schrager said.
U.S. officials fear that the communiques from the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the outlawed Philippine Communist Party, presage a campaign of terrorism against Americans officials and soldiers. Although it has suffered setbacks in recent months, the NPA still controls an estimated 19,000 troops.
Since the shooting last Sunday, military officials have indefinitely canceled all leave and liberty and locked all residents inside the bases. Those who live off-base are ordered not even to stop on their way to work. The country is off-limits to visiting troops for rest and recreation. Convoys are required for most travel base to base.
Here in Angeles City, 50 miles north of Manila, 700 visiting troops were moved out of local hotels after the shooting and tripled up in Clark’s already crowded barracks, or put on 200 cots in a base gymnasium. Single men living off-base also were ordered inside. Armed guards in flak jackets and helmets carefully patrol the base perimeter or check passes behind sandbags at the entrance.
As a result, the usually bustling Fields Avenue strip of raucous honky-tonks, curio shops and tattoo parlors was virtually deserted Wednesday afternoon. Only two Americans could be found, sipping beers outside the dimly lit Puppy Lounge and Soul Food Kitchenette.
“You used to be able to go anywhere, do anything here,” retired Air Force Sgt. Eugene Ward said. “Now, you’re limited where you can go. And you’re always looking over your shoulder.”
“I’ve been here since 1984, but now I’m getting ready to go,” agreed his companion, Steve Hinton, another retired sergeant. “This place is hurting.”
Inside the sprawling, 205-square-mile base, behind a newly erected 26-mile-long cement wall, Americans spoke of fear, anger and frustration as fighter jets screamed overhead. “What good is coming to the Philippines if you can’t get off the base?” complained one officer who asked not to be identified. “This used to be one of the hardest assignments to get. Now people don’t want to come.”