By Delfin Mallari Jr. Southern Luzon Bureau
LUCENA CITY — American military personnel have been inspecting various sites in the Bicol region for the joint US-RP military exercises in April, fisherfolk here said over the weekend.
The Lakas ng Mangingisda ng Bicol (Lambat-Bicol, Forces of the Bicol Fishermen) expressed fear of being displaced from their traditional fishing grounds as a result of the security preparations for the Balikatan (Shoulder to Shoulder) exercises.
Quoting an initial report by the Lambat-Bicol, Fernando Hicap, chairman of the nationwide fishers’ alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya, National Forces of the Fishers Movement of the Philippines), said several unidentified US military personnel were seen inspecting spme coastal villages in Masbate City and towns of Mobo, Uson, and Cataingan in Masbate province.
Hicap said Lambat-Bicol also noted the early presence of US troops in Oas, Albay, particularly in the farming villages of San Pascual, San Miguel, and Talisay, where the Army’s 5th engineering battalion has been based.
The Pamalakaya leader also said that based on the report of Lambat-Bicol, a number of US troops were spotted in Irosin, Sorsogon. Aside from Albay, Sorsogon, and Masbate, Hicap claimed that the “Balikatan” would also cover Camarines Norte and Camarines Sur.
The Balikatan is part of the mutual defense treaty between the Philippines and the United States. Its primary objective is to improve the “interoperability” of the two countries’ armed forces for defense.
Citing military intelligence information, Hicap said US war ships would avail of the interconnecting bodies of water in the Bicol region namely the Ragay Gulf, Albay Gulf, and Sorsogon Bay that join the provinces of Camarines Sur, Camarines Norte, Albay, Sorsogon, and Masbate for the loading and unloading of US troops and personnel.
Hicap said the fishermen in Bicol have been bracing for a fishing ban by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in areas to be covered by the annual war games.
“We saw it coming. There’s no recourse for us but to face and fight this anti-fisherfolk Balikatan exercises in the sea, in the parliament of the streets and in the court of public opinion,” Hicap said in a statement sent to Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net.
The fishers group claimed that over a 100,000 fishermen would lose their livelihood to the “crazy and shameful military stint.”
“We will not allow this puppet government to sacrifice our rights and livelihood to please their Washington-based military puppeteer,” said the Pamalakaya leader.
Reports said some 400 American doctors, engineers and nurses, belonging predominantly to the military, would join the month-long exercise to provide humanitarian aid to depressed areas in Albay, Sorsogon and Masbate.
According to the Philippine military, the three provinces are considered hotbeds of the communist insurgency in the Bicol region.
Military officials in the region have assured war games critics that the aims of the exercises were “peace and development” in the form of medical missions and engineering works.
Wary of the joint US-RP war games, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has ordered its armed wing, the New People’s Army, to attack Filipino and American military forces that would participate in the military exercises.
Hicap said the RP-US Balikatan exercises were not only meant to gain future access to rebel-controlled territories but would also involve intelligence and military operations against militant groups in Bicol, which the AFP and the US State Department have labeled as “communist front organizations.”