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Zamboanga better with American troops


ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines - A guard signaled our driver to move between rows of 7-ft-high concrete barriers of a bomb containment area, before allowing us to move to the side of the bullet-proof sentry gate of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Mindanao Command, manned by rifle-carrying soldiers in camouflage uniform.

This scene is somehow different to other military facilities I've visited in the Philippines, since this is also the camp where US troops are stationed under the Philippines-US Visiting Forces Agreement.

Since 1999, when the treaty was signed by the Philippine Senate, US troops were stationed here in this part of Southern Philippines, holding training missions with and for Philippine troops.

AFP Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) chief Major General Noel Coballes said the American soldiers are very cordial in dealing with their Filipino counterparts.

"May mga panahon na down-to-earth, meron din namang professional ang dating. But most of these are all cordial," Coballes told ABS-CBN News.

Comrades-in-arms

Coballes said the US troops have been accustomed to the way of life in the camp that they treat Filipino soldiers like their own comrades, rendering salute even to Filipino officers. 

The main purpose of the US troops' presence is to train with their Filipino counterparts on military inter-operability.

Coballes said both sides have benefitted greatly in the training they have undergone.

A concrete example is the capture of prominent leaders of Abu Sayyaf Group, which is known to have links with the international terror group Al-Qaeda.

Americans, on their part, have also tried to maximize the value of their presence here in the country by undertaking civil-military operations.

These kind of operations include medical missions and building infrastructure projects like road networks and classrooms in different parts of the country where American troops are present.

"As of this time, nagsimula yan ng mga 2006, more than $20 million na iyung na-contribute nila sa Jolo and there are also some projects in Basilan, like iyung ngayon, I understand yung Amaoy roadnet, kanilang project yun. Although iyung nagta-trabaho noon ay civilian contractor, but the funding came from them," Coballes said.

Best sentry gate

Even Camp Navarro -- the compound that hosts the AFP Wesmincom and the US troops -- benefited from the infrastructure projects through road concreting and improvement of its sentry gate.

The sentry gate can be considered the best in the Philippines, incomparable to other military facilities in the country.
Camp Navarro's gate is similar to the set-up used by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has solar-powered lights, blast-proof windows and 7-ft-high concrete bomb containment area.

Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang of AFP Wesmincom's Civil-Military Operations said he even got the Americans to renovate the camp's Public Affairs Center, which used to house Zamboanga's Defense Press Corps.

"Nagkaroon ako ng chance dati na makasama yung American counterpart ko, naglalakad kami dito, tinanong ko kung pwede kaming tulungan na ipaayos yan, pinaayos naman nila," said Cabangbang.

No problem in Zamboanga

The AFP Wesmincom said US soldiers have not given a big problem to Zamboanga City. "Hindi naman sila naging problema dito. Never silang (residents of Zamboanga) nagkaroon ng malakihang reklamo sa mga Amerikano. Of course, hindi naman natin mape-perpekto lahat ng organization eh. Merong mailiiit, pero hindi nakaapekto yun sa kanilang, ang presensya nila dito, di nakaapekto yun," Coballes said.

The last time the Philippines had a major problem with American soldiers was in 2006, when a rape case was filed against Lance Corporal Daniel Smith in Subic.

The case was eventually dismissed in 2010 after the complainant retracted her affidavit where she claimed she was raped. The girl who filed the complaint is now reportedly living in the US.

The Philippines is not new to these cases.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, when Americans still had bases in Subic and Clark, cases of sexual abuse and maltreatment involving American troops were filed by Filipinas. Most of the cases never prospered in court.

On June 17, 1991, the Americans pulled out and evacuated from the bases.

It was 2 days after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Pampanga, an eruption that was worse than that of Mount St. Helens in US.

Two months later, the Philippine Senate voted against extending or renewing the US government's lease on the land where their military bases stood, ending their 50-year stay in the country.

Business growing in Zamboanga

Now, more than a decade has passed since "GI Joes" returned to the Philippines.

Their presence in Zamboanga has somehow brought good vibes to the local business here.

Zamboanga is the hub of business in Western Mindanao, being the transhipment point of goods and produce not only from Zamboanga Peninsula but also from the areas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi provinces.

Business is now growing despite negative reports of bombings and kidnappings in the southern Philippines.
A hotel owner said the presence of Americans has somehow brought positive effects to their community. "In a way, nakakatulong. I would say na it is an added security blanket for Zamboangueños, because nakikita nga natin, we're threatened by terrorists," said Brian Go, general manager of Garden Orchid Hotel.

Go, however, also admitted that the presence of the Americans in their city also has its negative side. 
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