HILARY  HOPES  FOR  PEACE  PACT  BEFORE  GMA  TERM  ENDS

[PHOTO AT LEFT - US State Secretary Hillary Clinton is welcomed by students of Malanday High School in Marikina City yesterday. Clinton announced an additional $5.2 million in disaster relief and recovery assistance to the Philippines during her visit to the school. Inset shows Clinton being congratulated by President Arroyo after being conferred the Order of Sikatuna at Malacañang last night. Val Rodriguez |MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, Philippines, By Pia Lee-Brago - US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the time was ripe for the Philippines to finally seal a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with barely six months left in the Arroyo presidency.

Clinton urged both sides to broker an agreement before the end of President Arroyo’s term in June next year.

She warned the negotiating environment could change under a new administration.

“The conditions for peace are ripe. People really want to see it. I hope no one misses this opportunity,” Clinton told a nationally televised public forum of the ANC a day after discussing the issue with Mrs. Arroyo and other top officials.

Clinton recommitted her government’s support in helping negotiate a deal with the MILF, which has been waging a separatist rebellion in Mindanao since 1978.

Clinton also clarified that US forces in Mindanao were never involved in direct combat operations.

“In respect to the conflict in Mindanao, we have provided training and assistance but not involvement in combat by US forces. It is a facilitating and support role to fight those who disrupt communities to engage in terrorist activities, but unfortunately the kinds of horrible acts like beheading and kidnapping are so contrary to every religion, contrary to every faith,” she said.

In urging quick action for a peace deal with the MILF, Clinton recalled that her husband Bill Clinton was close to sealing a Middle East peace agreement near the end of his time as US president.

But she said then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had put this off, thinking he could get a better deal from Bill Clinton’s successor. None came.

“So strike while the iron is hot, when people are in the mood and willing to make peace. Do not sleep, do not rest until we finally get there,” Clinton told a crowd of students at the University of Santo Tomas during the televised forum.

Clinton said she believed Mrs. Arroyo was “fully prepared” to make the difficult decisions necessary to achieve peace with the MILF.

“What I have often found is that it is easier to make these difficult decisions when you are on the way out of office. Because you know what is at stake and you are willing to brave the political fires,” she said.

The Philippine government and the MILF signed a new ceasefire in July, 11 months after long-running peace talks were derailed by a series of deadly guerrilla attacks in Central Mindanao.

The attacks came after the Supreme Court rejected a planned deal that would have given the MILF political and economic control over 700 territories it claims as its ancestral domain.

Both sides have said in recent months that peace talks could resume soon, but this has not materialized.

“You cannot have a peace agreement that gives one group of people more rights than other groups of people within your country,” Clinton said.

“That would be creating more problems, so whatever is worked out within the political framework has to be respectful of the constitutional and legal requirements of the nation,” she said.

In dealing with terrorists operating in countries like the Philippines and Afghanistan, Clinton said the most important lesson the US learned is that the people themselves should be willing to stand up against terrorism.

“People have to be given support to stand against it (terrorism) and that’s really what counterinsurgency and counterterrorism is about,” Clinton said.

“The most common comment we hear from around the country from people (is) we want your help to enable us to defend ourselves and once we can, we want you to leave. That is exactly what we want,” Clinton said.

Clinton said the US would continue to provide support “appropriate in partnership and in pursuant of the friendship that we feel for the people of the Philippines.”

HILARY CLINTON: VFA  AN 'IMPORTANT EXPRESSION  OF  OUR PARTNERSHIP'

MANILA, NOVEMBER 14,
2009 (STAR) By Pia Lee-Brago - The United States is committed to a strong partnership and alliance with the Philippines, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a press conference shortly after her arrival yesterday for a two-day visit.

“I am here today to reaffirm that commitment,” Clinton said as she also defended the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which she described as “an important expression of our partnership.”

She said the VFA is based on mutual respect and interest, citing the relief and rehabilitation efforts undertaken by US servicemen after the onslaught of tropical storm “Ondoy” and typhoon “Pepeng” in late September and last month.

“I am proud with what our service members have done to respond to the devastating storms and the floods,” she said.

While she did not say if the VFA was discussed in her meeting with Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Clinton cited the need for cooperation in security and military matters, particularly in the fight against terrorism.

There was no official word either from the Philippine government on whether the VFA issue had been raised by Clinton.

Ambassador Kristie Kenney said on Wednesday that the VFA would not be on the agenda in Clinton’s meeting with Philippine officials.

Kenney said Clinton did not intend to discuss specific agreements of the US with the Philippines, including the VFA.

Militant groups calling for a review or scrapping of the VFA said the visit of Clinton to Manila is an opportunity for them to deliver the message to the US government to revisit the VFA.

“Let me say I do not discuss military decisions. That is more appropriately worked out between our governments and militaries but I will just reiterate that the US stands ready to assist our friends in the Philippines who are seeking to counter terrorism and radical extremism,” Clinton said when asked about the future of US forces in Mindanao.

“And we will be willing to support them in any way that is appropriate, but the relationship between our countries and between our militaries is very strong and cooperative and we look forward to continuing that,” she added.

Clinton also revealed that the US government is heartened by the ceasefire between the Philippine government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

“We are encouraged by the ceasefire and the report that I received today about the negotiating effort is very promising, so we will wish the very best to those who are attempting to bring (an end) to the conflict and to support you in any way that is appropriate,” she said.

Clinton said the US and the international community stand ready to assist the Philippine government in the Mindanao peace process but stressed “this is ultimately up to the Filipinos and the government leadership.”

For his part, Romulo emphasized that US forces are in the country to assist, advise and train their Philippine counterparts.

“It is limited to that,” he said. “As far as combat role, that is purely Filipino. On the other hand, in addition to assisting and advising, socio-civic and humanitarian aspect of the undertaking and the humanitarian aspect came out in Ketsana (Ondoy) and Parma (Pepeng) when they deployed military personnel,” he said. “I think it worked well for us.”

Even as protests greeted Clinton’s visit, a senior State Department official said most Filipinos supported military ties with the United States.

“I’m not overly concerned by these calls,” the official, on condition of anonymity, told reporters Wednesday during Clinton’s visit to Singapore for talks with Asia Pacific foreign ministers.

“You hear them periodically in the Philippines but I think the broad trend is to support deeper mil-to-mil (military-to-military) engagement between the two countries,” the official said.

Ahead of the visit, the Philippine foreign department also issued a statement reiterating its commitment to the military cooperation.

“The Philippine government believes that the Philippines-United States Visiting Forces Agreement is indispensable to the nation’s security,” the statement said.

The State Department official said Clinton wanted to show a “strong commitment” to the Philippines in its fight against extremists, but it would be up to the new US Pacific commander, Admiral Robert Willard, to study strategies.

Authorities in the Philippines say the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf’s numbers have fallen to about 300 to 400 from about 1,000 eight years ago, when the US Special Forces arrived to begin training the Filipino military.

Analysts say US intelligence and weaponry helped Filipino soldiers capture or kill the main leaders of the Abu Sayyaf early in the mission.

But they said younger, more radical rebels had taken their place, as evidenced by persistent violence in some parts of Mindanao where the Abu Sayyaf are based and have support from local Muslim communities.

Clashes in Mindanao since the start of the year have left 48 Filipino soldiers and at least 70 Abu Sayyaf militants dead, according to a tally by AFP based on authorities’ reports.

Highlighting their ability to defy the military campaign, the Abu Sayyaf on Monday dumped the severed head of a local school principal they kidnapped in October in Jolo.

In September, two US soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb on Jolo in the deadliest attack by the Abu Sayyaf on the American contingent.

“We have seen both dangerous attacks and kidnappings and the situation is still quite difficult on the ground,” the US official said.

“There are indications that certain tactics and strategies that have been perfected in Iraq and elsewhere are tried in other theaters and we see some of that playing out in Mindanao and in other parts of the Philippines,” he said.

Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have often resorted to roadside bombs to deadly effect against US and allied troops.

The last trip to the Philippines by a US secretary of state occurred in 2002 when Colin Powell visited.

Help for disaster victims

Clinton, meanwhile, announced an additional $5.2 million in disaster relief and recovery assistance to the Philippines.

Speaking at the Malanday High School in Marikina City, Clinton said the additional assistance is intended to address vital education, water and sanitation, health, and disaster preparedness needs.

These funds are in addition to the more than $14 million in rescue and relief aid that the US government has already provided in response to the destructive storms that devastated many parts of Luzon in the last six weeks.

The US State Department said the official purpose of the trip was for Clinton to show US solidarity with disaster victims.

Marikina is one of the areas hardest hit by the floods. Malanday High School lies next to the Marikina River, which overflowed and inundated many parts of the city.

In her Marikina visit, Clinton, along with Kenney, Education Secretary Jesli Lapus, Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral, and Marikina Mayor Marides Fernando, opened a book fair. The American Brother’s Brother Foundation, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), donated 50,000 books to Malanday High School. USAID has also donated desks and ceiling fans to the school.

Last weekend over 100 US embassy employees and family members worked side by side with Malanday community members to repair the school and health clinic as part of the embassy’s Community Partnership Program.

Protests

Police yesterday had their hands full as militant groups came out in full force to denounce the alleged US meddling in local affairs. The militant groups also demanded the abrogation of the VFA.

Sanlakas, National Union of Students of the Philippines, the Scrap VFA! Movement, and the League of Filipino Students tried to march to the US embassy and Malacañang Palace but were blocked by anti-riot policemen.

The marchers were allowed to hold their programs at Plaza Ferguson across the US embassy in Ermita.

After a brief tussle with the police, the activists burned pictures of Clinton as well as US flags while chanting anti-US slogans.

Sanlakas spokesperson Rasti Delizo said the visit of Clinton “exposes Washington’s clear imperialist agenda to firmly ensure Gloria’s state policy to allow US military forces to remain on Philippine soil in clear violation of the 1987 Philippine Constitution.” With Nestor Etolle, Rudy Santos, James Mananghaya

Hillary makes pitch for reproductive health (The Philippine Star) Updated November 13, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Aware of opposition to artificial contraception from groups including the Catholic Church, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday her government would leave it up to the Philippines to decide if it would accept Washington’s offer of assistance in promoting planned parenthood and reproductive rights.

“Of course, as with any policy, we work with our partners and our allies. It is up to the people and the government of the Philippines to accept any assistance that we might be willing to offer, though I know this is a matter of concern in society here in the Philippines,” Clinton said at a press conference at the Goldenberg Mansion in Malacañang when asked for her stand on the controversial Reproductive Health Bill.

“I respect that and we certainly do not have any intention or plan to preempt or otherwise go beyond or around the attitude of the society,” she said.

Clinton said she personally believes that family planning is an important aspect of development because it empowers women by enabling them to make choices that are in the best interest of their children.

Family planning, she said, also increases educational competence, increases income generation, and provides a much stronger basis for human development.

“We have a lot of experience now trying to empower and educate women so they are able to make these decisions and they have access to family planning,” she said.

“It is not only a positive for the woman and her family but for the larger society,” Clinton said. “I think that is the other point that I would make, but again I would reiterate all these decisions are certainly up to the people and the government of the Philippines.” – Pia Lee-Brago


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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