GOING  'GAGA' OVER  OBAMA  CALL  SIDETRACKED  GLORIA

MANILA, MARCH 17, 2009
(MALAYA) BY WENDELL VIGILIA (Palace pressed to pursue SC ruling on Subic rapist)

A LIBERAL Party congressman yesterday assailed President Arroyo for going gaga over US President Barack Obama instead of pursuing Philippine interests under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in their phone conversation Saturday morning.

"Instead of asserting what the High Court said about (Lance) Cpl. Daniel Smith’s custody, Malacañang got star-struck and said, ‘You had me at hello,’" Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon said.

The Supreme Court has ruled that Smith, a US serviceman convicted of raping Filipina "Nicole" in Subic in 2005, must be detained under Philippine custody.

The tribunal said the 2006 executive agreement between Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney, which allowed Smith’s transfer from the Makati jail to the US Embassy was inconsistent with the provisions of the VFA.

Biazon said Malacañang’s "ecstasy over President Obama’s phone call is disturbing since it appears that Obama’s statement that he is committed to the VFA is interpreted by Malacañang as being favorable to our national interests."

"While it must be acknowledged that the AFP derives benefits from the VFA, it must also be admitted that the US interpretation in how the VFA is implemented, particularly the custody issue, is clearly one-sided," he said.

Biazon stressed Obama’s statements during the call were "not a commitment to respect Philippine sovereignty but a commitment only to US interests."

"It is sad that Malacañang got so excited with the phone call itself and failed to discern what the message was," he said.

Palace officials led by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde were elated over Obama’s call after Arroyo’s several attempts to meet him in Washington failed.

Malacañang said the US leader reaffirmed his country’s commitment to its long-standing alliance with the Philippines, including the VFA.

Rep. Bienvenido Abante (Lakas, Manila) said Obama must surrender Smith to Philippine custody as a show of respect for the country’s sovereignty.

"It is still important that the US government should respect our sovereignty as a nation and should not expect that we will always say yes to what they want," he said.

He said: "If Obama indeed is different from George Bush, he will be more humble and compassionate. That’s what a good leader should be."

United Opposition (UNO) president Jejomar Binay said Malacañang should not make a big thing out of the phone call.

Binay, also Makati mayor, said Obama reaffirmed his support for the VFA because it is consistent with US interests and policies.

"The duty of the Philippine government, on the other hand, is to advance Philippine interest," he said.

He said Obama’s support for the VFA should not stop the Philippine government from pushing for a review of the agreement.

"This could even be the most opportune time to raise the issue of renegotiating the VFA, since the case of Daniel Smith is a human rights issue," he said.

He said recognizing respect for human rights of Filipino nationals victimized by US soldiers, and seeing that justice is rendered fully would be consistent with the pro-human rights foreign policy set out by the Obama administration.

But Binay said he was not optimistic that the Arroyo administration would raise the issue of human rights.

"The Arroyo administration’s human rights record has been criticized by the US State Department. Internationally, human rights groups and European governments have complained about the Arroyo government’s inaction and in some cases, complicity, in human rights violations," he said.

MOVE BEYOND VFA

Sen. Francis Pangilinan called on Arroyo and Obama to reshape RP-US ties and move beyond the provisions of the VFA.

Pangilinan last month filed Resolution 892 calling for the termination of the VFA following the failure of Philippine authorities to implement the SC decision to transfer Smith to Philippine jail.

"Malacañang should not point to Obama’s support for the VFA as a means to shore up support for our own people. For them to do so is to suggest that they support US interests more than they do our own," he said.

Sen. Francis Escudero said: "I hope that in the excitement triggered by President Barack Obama’s unexpected call last Saturday, President Arroyo did not forget that she represents a nation that has interests that need protecting and promoting too." Sen. Loren Legarda said the government must uphold the national interest in understanding Obama’s pronouncements.

"While US President Barrack Obama has called by phone on President Arroyo to congratulate her on the anti-terrorism drive, and plugged for continued implementation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, we must consider as supreme our national interest," she said.

CONSTANT REVIEW

DFA assistant secretary Ed Malaya assured critics of the VFA that the government is constantly reviewing the agreement.

"The department has the existing internal mechanism to review bilateral agreements, constantly, including the VFA," he said.

Malaya said they welcome the concerns of critics of the VFA.

"We are looking to conduct these reviews with considerations to the opinions shared by institutions such as the Senate and House of Representatives," he said.

DESPERATELY SEEKING OBAMA

Remonde said he is not surprised that some senators still persist on doing away with the VFA even after the phone conversation between the President and Obama.

He said Obama did not lobby for the retention of the VFA in his conversation with Arroyo, but just reaffirmed the friendly relations between the US and the Philippines.

He said it is not true that President Arroyo had been "desperately seeking Obama" by trying to talk to him while she was in the US.

He said it is not yet certain when Arroyo and Obama will talk again but "there is no communication gap in the high- , mid-, and low-levels in our countries. Our diplomatic relations continue." – With JP Lopez, Gerard Naval and Regina Bengco


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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