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Philippines needs weightier reason to end VFA — lawmakers

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By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter
and Genshen L. Espedido

THE Philippines should end a visiting forces agreement with the US for reasons “weightier” than the cancelation of an administration senator’s visa, lawmakers said on Thursday.

“It should go beyond the denial of a US visa to a senator,” Senator Ralph G. Recto said in a statement, a day after President Rodrigo R. Duterte ordered Cabinet officials to “boycott” trips to the US.

“What if the US restores the visa of my good friend Senator Bato, are we then going to reverse course, and press the stop button to the revocation process which, per reports, has been started?,” Mr. Recto asked, referring to Senator Ronald M. dela Rosa.

The senator said the Philippines should end the VFA, which contains rules on the deployment of US troops and equipment for war games, because it is unfavorable to the national interest.

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President Rodrigo R. Duterte has ordered government lawyers to expand their study of a plan to end the VFA. He asked the US government last week to reverse its decision to cancel Mr. de la Rosa’s US visa, giving it a month-long ultimatum.

Mr. dela Rosa, a political ally, last week said the US embassy had canceled his visa. Mr. Duterte’s former police chief led the government’s deadly war on drugs that has killed thousands before he became a senator.

He was also considered to be among those responsible for the detention of Senator Leila M. de Lima, a staunch critic of Mr. Duterte’s anti-illegal drug campaign.

Mr. Duterte also said he would skip the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Nevada this March.

Senator Panfilo M. Lacson said Cabinet members should ask Mr. Duterte to reconsider his order because this might disadvantage the Philippines.

“An indefinite travel ban to the United States imposed on all members of the Cabinet could have adverse consequences on our country’s economy and security,” he said in a separate statement.

He also said the ban could the employment of Filipinos and the trade industry, considering that at least $10 billion worth of goods are exported to the US annually.

Zamboanga Sibugay Rep. Ann K. Hofer, who heads the House foreign affairs committee, said she hoped the Philippine-US ties would remain strong despite recent developments.

“The President is just being consistent with his earlier pronouncements,” she said in a mobile-phone message. “Maintaining partnerships is a two-way street. Inasmuch as the US stands by its policy, the President is also duty-bound to defend our dignity as a nation.”

Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevarra told reporters he had no plans to visit the US.

The presidential palace on Thursday said Mr. Duterte had been trying to cut Philippine reliance in the US.

“We as a country have to rely on our own resources,” his spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said at a briefing. “By relying mainly on one particular country, you lessen your capability, the moment that alliance with that country is terminated,” he said.

The VFA allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over American soldiers accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are “of particular importance” to the Southeast Asian nation.

“President Duterte seems to be trivializing the issue to abrogate this onerous agreement,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani T. Zarate said at a briefing.

“We urge him to abrogate it for the right reasons, not because he was irked by the cancelation of Senator de la Rosa’s US visa,” he said.

The US Senate last year passed a resolution asking the Philippine government to release Ms. de Lima. It also sought to block the entry and freeze the US assets of officials behind drug-related killings and Ms. de Lima’s “wrongful detention.”

US President Donald Trump also signed into law last year the nation’s 2020 budget, which includes a clause allowing the US secretary of state to ban the entry of Philippine officials behind Ms. de Lima’s detention.

Ms. de Lima, a staunch critic of Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, has been in jail since February 2017 for drug trafficking.

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