Philippine President Benigno Aquino sparked outrage on Monday when he declared he will not meet growing calls across the country to scrap the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) following the alleged murder of a transgender Filipina woman, Jennifer Laude, by a U.S. service member in the country.
U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton stands accused by Philippine authorities of killing 26-year-old Laude in Olongapo City on October 11th. Pemberton, one of 3,500 U.S. military service members who recently took part in a joint military exercise with the Philippines, is currently being held by U.S. military officials on a naval ship docked in Subic Bay, a former U.S. Navy base next to Olongapo, northwest of Manila.
Speaking to reporters from the island of Leyte on Monday, Aquino rejected protesters' demands and said the military agreement will not be terminated over the alleged murder. "Why do we need to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement?" he said. "I mean, name me any place that doesn't have a crime. And the sin of one person should be reflective of the entire country? I don't think so. What is important is there was a crime, we should gather all evidence to prove the guilt and justice will be served."
"Jennifer's murder is only one of a vast history of crimes committed by U.S. [service members] on Philippine soil because of these unequal agreements."
—Bernadette Ellorin, BAYAN-USA
Philippine prosecutors have summoned Pemberton and four other U.S. military service members to appear on Tuesday as part of their investigation. However, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy, those "witnesses will not appear on Tuesday, as they have already met their current legal obligations. In accordance with the VFA, the witnesses will be made available for the trial."
Whether Pemberton himself will appear, according to the statement, "is a decision that the suspect will make in consultation with Philippine legal counsel, in accordance with Philippine law."
Since news of the killing surfaced, daily protests have swept the Philippines and other countries demanding for "Justice for Jennifer," including full Philippine jurisdiction over the case and a reconsideration of the military relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, which was drawn tighter with April's signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement—a 10 year pact that expands U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
"President Aquino belittles Jennifer Laude's murder by defending the VFA and the neocolonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines," Bernadette Ellorin, chairperson of BAYAN-USA, an alliance of Philippine organizations in the U.S., told Common Dreams.
In particular, protesters are calling for the scrapping of the 1998 VFA between the U.S. and the Philippines, which allows U.S. military stationing and joint operations in the country and largely shields U.S. military service members from accountability under Philippine law. The VFA states that "the custody of any United States personnel over whom the Philippines is to exercise jurisdiction shall immediately reside with United States military authorities, if they so request," and the deal has previously been used to shield U.S. service members accused of atrocities from Philippine jurisdiction.
Protesters say that Laude's killing is not an isolated case, but rather the U.S. has a long track record of committing atrocities against Philippine civilians, harming the environment, and displacing communities with impunity. "Jennifer's murder is only one of a vast history of crimes committed by U.S. [service members] on Philippine soil because of these unequal agreements," said Ellorin. "In addition, it's equally sickening how Aquino trivializes Philippine sovereignty by placing premium on ensuring U.S. military domination over the country."
“Trans women like Jennifer are at a higher risk for violence because we live in a society that devalues their lives,” stated Irma Bajar, a member of the U.S. arm of GABRIELA—a Philippine alliance of women's movement organizations—in a statement following the killing. “The murder of Jennifer is a hate crime committed by U.S. military personnel, and we call on B.S. Aquino to compel the U.S. to surrender Pemberton to Philippine authorities and terminate the VFA and EDCA now!”