MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino has informed US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. of a plan to “refine” the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), citing some flaws in the controversial deal.
“I think it’s inarguable that there are benefits, but perhaps a refinement is necessary. It can be made better,” Aquino said in a panel interview with The STAR editors yesterday at Malacañang. He did not specify which provisions in the VFA needed fine-tuning.
He also defended his appointment of Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. as head of the Presidential Commission on the VFA. Ochoa will discuss the possible modifications in the agreement with US officials.
“He’s been my lawyer for a long time. He’s never given me wrong advice,” President Aquino said.
Ochoa, a childhood friend of Mr. Aquino, reportedly helped shape his political career – beginning as a Tarlac congressman in 1998 to senator in 2007.
Militant groups led by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan had criticized Mr. Aquino for his reported silence on the VFA issue in his brief one-on-one talk with US President Barack Obama last month.
“The prioritization of the issues seems misplaced. There has been a clamor from various sectors regarding the VFA,” Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes said in a statement. “Was the President trying to play it safe with the US government?”
“Was this a result of the $434-million aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation?”
Reyes also said Aquino should ask the US to explain reports that US troops would remain indefinitely in Mindanao.
The New York Times had quoted US Defense Secretary Robert Gates as saying that 600 US Special Forces would remain in Mindanao indefinitely.
“The Philippine president could have at least inquired why these US troops are still in the Philippines more than a year after the announcement made by Gates,” Reyes said.
“The Philippine president should at least be concerned on this indefinite stay of foreign troops on Philippine soil which is in direct violation of the Philippine Constitution,” he added.
In 2009, the Senate, which then had Aquino as member, adopted a resolution calling on then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to tell the US about the need to review and renegotiate the VFA. In the event of a US refusal, the Philippine government should have the deal terminated, according to the resolution.
The VFA, which took effect in 1999 during the Estrada administration, allows the US government to keep its jurisdiction over American soldiers accused of committing crimes in the Philippines. This means US personnel accused of wrongdoing may stay in US custody or be tried only in US courts.
The VFA also exempts US military personnel from visa and passport regulations in the Philippines.
The controversial Subic rape case involving four American soldiers had bolstered arguments against the VFA.
In November 2005, a Filipina accused US Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith of raping her as his three companions cheered inside a moving van.
The US embassy, citing provisions in the VFA, took custody of the four soldiers while the case was being heard in court.
They remained in US custody even after the Makati City Regional Trial Court sentenced Smith to long prison terms and acquitted his companions, Chad Carpentier, Dominic Duplantis, and Keith Silkwood in December 2006.
In April 2009, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Makati court and ordered Smith’s immediate release, saying “a careful and judicious perusal of the evidence on record does not convince the prudent mind about the moral certainty of the guilt of the accused, hence we must acquit.”
Delon Porcalla, Philippine Star