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The Legacy of U.S. Military Bases in the Philippines


Through most of the Cold War, the largest U.S. foreign military bases were not located in Europe, Japan, or South Korea, but rather in central Luzon in the Philippines. Second largest was the massive facility at Subic Bay, home of the Seventh Fleet; larger still was Clark Airbase, covering 243 square miles (if one includes the military reservation attached to the airbase proper). In the towns catering to the bases, prostitution thrived, as in Pattaya Thailand. Olongapo city, adjacent to Subic Bay, and Angeles City, serving Clark Field, were well known among U.S. servicemen for commercial sex.

The United States military pulled out of the Philippines in 1991, turning over the two bases to the Philippine government. Rising nationalism in the Philippines compromised the U.S. presence, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the same year devastated both sites. Ash-fall at Clark was so heavy that massive aircraft hangars simply collapsed. When the Philippine senate refused to renew the leases for the two military bases, the game was over.

The evacuation of Clark and Subic presented the Philippines with major opportunities, as the American infrastructural investments had been massive. Both sites were soon designated as special economic zones, designed for international corporate ventures. Close to Metro Manila, the Philippines’ congested core city, and favored with superb transportation facilities and plenty of room, Angeles City (Clark Field) and Olongapo (Subic Bay) were to be Philippine incubators of globalized capitalism.

Olongapo and Angeles have had different fates under Philippine control. The Subic Bay area has forged ahead, keeping commercial sex in check. Angeles City, on the other hand, has turned into a smaller version of Pattaya, profiting heavily from prostitution.

Sex is by no means the only successful business in Angeles. By 2007, the Clark Freeport Zone, as the special economic zone was eventually dubbed, was the site of nearly 400 licit commercial ventures, employing some 47,000 Filipinos. Call-centers are well represented; the Philippines is increasingly competing with India for this business, capitalizing on the greater familiarity of its people with American culture and idioms.

The Wikipedia dubs Angeles City the “Entertainment Capital of Central Luzon,” but does little to specify what kind of amusements the city offers. An internet image search gives the answer immediately. Dozens of go-go bars, which double as prostitution outlets, line Fields Avenue, the main drag. Commercial sex in Angeles surged in the 1990s, after Alfredo Lim, the reforming mayor of Manila, closed down the city’s infamous Ermita red light district. Although another Wikipedia article begins with the assertion that, “Prostitution in the Philippines is … a serious crime with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment for those involved in trafficking,” sex is sold openly and ubiquitously in Angeles City and several other Philippine locales. According to the invaluable Havocscope, the Philippines has some 800,000 sex-workers, up to half of whom are under-aged.

American retirees have been flocking to Angeles City, an inexpensive and convenient place to live. Many of the estimated 1,500 U.S. citizens living in the city are retired military personnel. But if life if easy and cheap in Angeles, it is hardly risk free. Crime is common, and a number of gruesome murders have occurred in recent months. In July 2010, for example, a 70-year-old American war veteran and his Filipina wife and three servants were killed in their home, despite its location in an “exclusive subdivision where foreigners, mostly retirees, reside … well-secured, with sentinels posted for 24 hours.”

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Pattaya Thailand: From American Troops to Russian Prostitutes

The three maps of U.S. foreign military bases posted in Geocurrents yesterday all show an American military presence in Thailand. The contingent exists but is tiny, amounting to 113 troops in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. The force is designed “not only to promote the initiatives and interests of the United States, but also to report and assess any concerns, political or otherwise, in the country.” The American military also periodically engages in joint exercises with the Royal Thai Army and Navy, most recently in 2010.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the story was different. The U.S. air war in Vietnam essentially operated out of Thailand; many more American Air Force personnel were based on Thai territory than on Vietnamese. Even then, the U.S. did not officially maintain Thai airfields. Local officers remained officially in charge, with a so-called gentleman’s agreement allowing effective American control.

U-Tapao airbase, 90 miles (140 km)southeast of Bangkok, hosted the U.S.’s B-52 Staratofortress bombers and their pilots. American servicemen found a local “rest and relaxation” center in Pattaya, a nearby fishing village with a great beach. Businesses soon sprang up to cater to their desires. Bars and brothels multiplied.

When the war ended in the mid-1970s and the Americans departed, Pattaya took an economic hit – but not for long. Civilian tourists began to flock to Thailand in the 1980s, many seeking commercial sex. Capitalizing on its go-go bars and massage parlors—as well as its transportation infrastructure and natural amenities—Pattaya became a major destination. By 2008, it was attracting a whopping 4.4 million international visitors a year: more than Cairo, Beijing, San Francisco, Tokyo, Orlando, or Vienna.

A casual perusal of the Wikipedia article on Pattaya might lead one to think that most foreign tourists come for shopping, swimming, or festivals. The author eventually allows that “Pattaya has derived part of its reputation as a tourist destination due to the sex industry and the resulting wild nightlife, and in many ways the city has become what it is now because of this.” The admission is an understatement; commercial sex is to Pattaya what gambling is to Las Vegas or Macao. To appreciate the magnitude of prostitution in Pattaya one need only search the city on the internet.

Like its clientele, Pattaya’s workforce is international. Thailand’s poor and mostly Lao-speaking Isan region in the northeast is the main source, but Pattaya also employs thousands of foreign sex-workers. Burmese and other poor Southeast Asians are found at the lower economic end of the trade, and in child prostitution; exploitation in this sector is especially severe, with human trafficking linked to the heroin and meth trade in northern Southeast Asia. At the upper end, Russian and East European women are common. Trafficking here is linked to the Russian mob.

If Russians were first attracted to Pattaya for the sex trade, they evidently found much to admire in the area. The city has become a popular winter resort for the elite, drawing more than 800,000 Russian visitors a year. Pattaya even supports a Russian circus. Russians have also been purchasing property and establishing residency. In 2008, one realtor was quoted as saying, “I think this year, Russians will account for 40 per cent of property sales in Pattaya.”

Local officials are certainly concerned about the criminal activities of the Russian mob, but they embrace Russian tourists and their money. As Pattaya People reported in October, 2010: “On Friday afternoon, at the Diana Garden Hotel, North Pattaya, the Deputy Governor of Chonburi Mr. Songpon Jampapan started the “Russian Language Training Program for Boosting Long Term Tourism,” in cooperation with Pattaya City Hall …. This training program aims to help small and medium businesses to communicate with Russian tourists, to help the tourist business, and build good relationships between the 2 countries.”

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