Manila, March 4, 2003 -- President Arroyo's scheduled state visit to the United States may now be in peril, following the disclosure of her secret invitation to the leaders of Libya and Malaysia to set up a huge palm oil project at Liguasan Marsh in Mindanao. Highly informed diplomatic sources believe the revelation dampens the atmosphere of a state reception in Washington and could even force an indefinite postponement of the visit scheduled in early April.

The public disclosure of the project by the Tribune in an exclusive report published yesterday also serves to explain the puzzle over Mrs. Arroyo's order to the military to capture and occupy the Buliok Complex fronting the Liguasan Marsh, which served as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's home base, in the middle of an agreed ceasefire. The order was issued on Feb. 11, 2003 and executed the next day, while the MILF fighters were celebrating Eid-ul Adha, just before Mrs. Arroyo left for the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Kuala Lumpur.

The Chief Executive apparently wanted to be able to tell the Libyan foreign minister in the Malaysian capital that Liguasan Marsh had been cleared and was waiting for the project to be implemented as soon as possible.

This proposed partnership with Libya would not have caused any stir had she announced it as one intended to benefit the Moslems of Mindanao. The fact that she had failed to publicize it, despite the fact that she had started talking with the Libyans in March of last year, tends to raise some difficult questions. Some have in fact suggested that Mrs. Arroyo's interest in the project could be more “personal” than official.

This could compel a review of her ties with Washington.

The political fallout could benefit Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, who is now discussing defense cooperation with US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon.

Reyes could become suddenly more valuable to the US, despite the Pentagon's initial disappointment over its inability to deploy combat troops in Sulu because of constitutional objections.

This could also seriously affect the relationship between Mrs. Arroyo and Reyes whose political projection has begun to worry her key advisers.

Both the President and Reyes are trying to use the Iraq and Mindanao cards to secure and maintain political power. But the Philippine Defense chief may have the advantage of being in direct touch with the Pentagon.

Last year, Reyes and Rumsfeld formed the US-RP Defense Policy Board as a forum to override the traditional lines of communication between their two governments.

Reyes's political projection has gone beyond the local scene. In its Feb. 17, 2003 editorial, the International Herald Tribune called on Mrs. Arroyo to restrain Reyes who, it said, may be counting on a war in Mindanao to propel him to Malacañang.

For her part, she appears ready to deal with the problem. She has given the military 90 days to wipe out the Abu Sayyaf a move seen by many as a clear prelude to her sacking Reyes if the military fails to wipe out the kidnap-for-ransom gang within that deadline.

But given Reyes' direct ties with the Pentagon, and the fallout generated by Mrs. Arroyo's Libyan project, it is doubtful she would keep the upper hand.

Some observers say Rumsfeld could cast the decisive vote by replicating the formula used by the CIA in “inventing” President Ramon Magsaysay at the height of the anti-Huk campaign.

But Reyes and Rumsfeld will first have to tame the political storm unleashed by the dispatch of US combat troops to Sulu without legitimate constitutional cover.

The US does not seem prepared to engage in an innocuous military exercise against a hypothetical enemy, using blanks in an area away from actual conflict. And it cannot just pull back its combat troops, without losing credibility in the region.

But the constitutional prohibition on US troops fighting on Philippine soil is inflexible. The only exception is if and when the country or its forces are attacked, and the government has invoked the Mutual Defense Treaty and asked the US to help repel the aggressor.

An attempt may be made to find a solution outside the Constitution. (By Francisco S. Tatad, Special Analyst)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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