Protests continue across the Philippines following news of the murder of Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipina woman, allegedly at the hands of a U.S. marine in Olongapo City. Coming just months after the U.S. signed a controversial pact to boost its military presence in the Philippines, protesters say the killing is stoking deep-rooted anger over the U.S. military's treatment of Philippine civilians and prompting renewed calls to boot American troops from the country.
"We are not only hoping to be able to bring justice to our fellow Filipina, but also to force the U.S. and Philippine governments to rethink their strategy in the region," Joms Salvador, Secretary General of GABRIELA—a Philippine alliance of women's movement organizations—told Common Dreams on Friday over the phone from Manila.
"Here We Go Again"
Jennifer Laude, 26 years old, was killed in a Olongapo City hotel room on October 11, with signs that she may have been beaten and strangled. Philippine police on Wednesday charged a U.S. marine, Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton, with the murder. Pemberton was one of 3,500 U.S. military service members taking part in a joint military exercise with the Philippines.
U.S. military officials, who have not publicly confirmed or denied Pemberton's identity, say that a marine under investigation is currently being held by the U.S. military on the USS Peleliu, an amphibious vessel currently in the Subic Bay free port northwest of Manila.
The Philippine government served a subpoena for Pemberton on Friday. However, past atrocities, and relative immunity for U.S. troops in the Philippines, leave many skeptical that the U.S. service member will be held to account.
In the infamous Subic Bay rape case in 2005, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith—who was found guilty in Philippine court of raping a Filipina woman while other Marines watched—was transferred from Philippine to U.S. custody. His conviction was later overturned, and he was never made to serve the life sentence handed to him by a Philippine court.
Bernadette Ellorin, New York-based Chairperson of BAYAN-USA, an alliance of Filipino organizations in the U.S., told Common Dreams that she considers the killing of Laude a "hate crime against a transgender woman." Ellorin continued, "There is a long history of the U.S. military committing heinous acts against people in the Philippines and not really being brought to justice because military agreements more or less protect them."
"Here we go again," said Salvador. "We have another case, and we are still not sure if there will be justice for Jennifer and her family."
Expanding U.S. Military Presence
Meanwhile, the U.S. military presence in the Philippines, enabled by mounting pacts between the U.S. and the Philippines, is growing.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines, signed in April, is a 10 year deal that allows the U.S. to drastically increase its military presence in the Philippines. The accord is part of an Obama administration push for a military pivot to the Asia-Pacific region in a bid to hedge against China's rising power.
The pact is broadly opposed in the Philippines, as it reverses a 1992 decision by the Philippine government, under pressure from the public, to kick the U.S. out of its last permanent base in the country, located in Subic Bay. Social movements in the Philippines have long opposed U.S. power over their country, which includes more than five decades of direct colonial rule and the backing of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
However, the 1992 decision did not actually keep the U.S. military out. The U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement, signed in 1998, allowed the U.S. to establish over 20 "semi permanent" military installations in the country. It also includes language that has been used by the U.S. military to shield service members from Philippine laws, including in the Subic Bay rape case.
Residents say that the U.S. military, and the agreements protecting it, is deeply destructive to local communities. Soldiers commit atrocities with impunity, said Salvador. And the military's environmental destruction and waste dumping harms ecosystems and public health. This includes a U.S. Navy ship's damage last year to Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which the U.S. still has not paid reparations for.
"There are also concerns about the displacement of many communities because the U.S. military is already building facilities in several parts of the country, including Oyster Bay in the Pelawan Islands, which is home to indigenous communities," Salvador continued. "The U.S. military has not been fully been held responsible for the damage it has done."
"Justice for Jennifer"
Salvador says that protests in the country are issuing calls for the U.S. military to leave, and "bringing to the fore" the pressing issue of LGBTQ and women's rights.
"Every day there have been protests in front of the U.S. embassy in Manila or the department of foreign affairs office in Manila," she said. "Protests are taking place in schools, in communities, and other parts of the country. We are seeing not only women's and LGBTQ organizations protesting, but also students, workers, and poor people. Even media personalities, legislators, and actors, who before were not vocal about their views, have recently also shared their indignation over Jennifer's murder."
Demonstrations have taken place across the U.S., including New York, San Francisco, and Lost Angeles. "The response has been overwhelming from our community and the LGBTQ community as well," said Ellorin. "Transgender people are taking leadership and sticking up for value of Jennifer's life."
"We are demanding justice for Jennifer," Ellorin added. "We can't take the context away: there is a problem with us military presence in the Philippines."