Tens of thousands of Filipinos answered President Corazon Aquino’s call Tuesday for “people power” to back her efforts to pressure her nation’s defiant Senate to ratify a military bases treaty with the United States.
In a heavy downpour, Aquino, dressed in a yellow raincoat, marched half a mile to the Senate at the head of a column of supporters estimated by police at between 100,000 and 150,000--far fewer than the 500,000 to 1 million people the Philippine president had suggested might turn out.
As the crowd rallied in a square to support continuing the 93-year U.S. military presence in the Philippines, a subject that has polarized the nation, a homemade bomb exploded underneath a soft-drink truck, slightly injuring half a dozen people, police said.
The explosion occurred while Aquino was inside the Senate building in a private meeting with Jovito Salonga, the Senate president, to discuss a Monday vote by 12 senators in the 23-member chamber to reject the bases treaty. It was a preliminary vote.
In her speech to the pro-bases demonstrators, Aquino warned of dire economic consequences if the United States is forced to abandon Subic Bay Naval Base as well as Clark Air Base and other smaller military facilities throughout the Philippines. All are covered by the bases treaty, which the United States has said must be ratified or it will withdraw its forces when the agreement expires next week.
The opposition senators “don’t say what will be the alternative or option if the treaty is rejected,” Aquino told the crowd. “Let’s all go to the Senate to tell the senators ‘Yes!’ to the bases treaty.”
Demonstrators carried balloons and placards reading “Yes to Retention of U.S. Bases” and “Keep the U.S. Bases to Prosper.” They chanted “Cory! Cory!” in a familiar enactment of popular support that swept the 58-year old widow to power in 1986.
Many of those supporting Aquino came from areas most affected by recent volcanic eruptions that damaged Clark and Subic. The explosion of Mt. Pinatubo has, in fact, speeded up American plans to withdraw from Clark, which was heavily damaged by the volcano, U.S. officials have said.
On Tuesday, even as Aquino sought to rally her supporters, opponents of the bases treaty conducted their own counter-rally: 6,000 people expressed opposition to the bases treaty, carrying placards reading “Resist Aquino’s Sellout.”
The fervor of the day’s protests--which were kept separated by police--was further indication of the contentiousness surrounding the future of Subic, once considered one of America’s most important naval facilities in East Asia, and how the U.S. military presence here has become snagged in the domestic politics of its former colony.
That the president of the Philippines herself took the issue to the public reflected the shrillness of the debate and, some say, the desperation of her government, which has been the recipient of U.S. military assistance.
American officials have warned that the treaty’s rejection will spell the end of massive U.S. aid for the Philippines. And President Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney both have said the United States will not negotiate further on the treaty.
In a press conference here, U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner insisted that there will be no money to help the Philippines with its debt, as Philippine senators have demanded. “Would we support it in a policy sense? I say yes. Will we have the dollars and cents? No,” Wisner said.
The influential bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and business groups have endorsed the treaty. Aquino is short of the 16 votes required to ratify it. Only 11 senators have said they will vote for it. (The Senate was in adjournment Tuesday.)
An archbishop and four bishops in central Luzon, devastated by Mt. Pinatubo’s eruptions, appealed to the Senate treaty’s opponents, saying in a letter: “You cannot get an adequate idea of the depth and extent of our people’s sufferings.”
Philippine business leaders also warned of the loss of confidence among foreign investors if Subic closes. The stock market closed early, as planned, to let workers attend the rally. Panic selling Tuesday caused a 5% fall in the Philippine market, the biggest single-day loss in five months.
Under the treaty, the United States would give up Clark but would retain Subic for 10 years for a yearly compensation of $203 million. Opposing senators call that offer an insult.
Aquino’s hard sell for the treaty has turned off the senators, who assert that she has demeaned herself. “Ugly, very ugly,” said Sen. Sotero Laurel, a treaty opponent whose brother, Vice President Salvador Laurel, is a supporter of the pact.
“Can you imagine the president pleading for foreign troops to stay?” asked opposition Sen. Rene Saguisag. He, however, was moved by Aquino’s high-profile lobbying for better relations, Wisner asserted.
Aquino’s key adviser, executive secretary Franklin Drilon, said the government’s last card may be to gather support to pass a Senate bill allowing Filipino voters to decide the fate of the bases treaty.
Malacanang Palace officials also said privately that lawyers will go to the Supreme Court to contest Senate treaty votes.