The death of a Filipino transgender woman following a bilateral military training exercise made international waves after a U.S. Marine was charged with murder.
The incident rippled up the military chain of command on Oct. 12, with top officers warning of trouble with one of the nation’s closest allies in the region.
“Philippine police report a homicide occurred in a hotel room in Olongapo City on the night of 11 Oct,” an internal Navy memo obtained by Marine Corps Times stated. “The victim was reported as a male Philippine national … preliminary witness statements indicate U.S. military personnel may have been involved.”
Philippine police say the victim was Jeffrey Laude, a transgender woman who went by the name Jennifer. On Oct. 15, local officials charged Pfc. Joseph Pemberton, an antitank missileman with 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, with her murder. Two days later, the Philippine government served five subpoenas to the U.S. Embassy — one for Pemberton, and four more for Marines sought to serve as witnesses.
The consequences could be severe as the U.S. military carries out its pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, placing tens of thousands more troops west of Hawaii. And as Philippine politicians consider approving an agreement to allow more American troops to rotate through the country, some there are calling for the deal to be thrown out entirely.
The slaying rekindled anti-American sentiment more than two decades after U.S. forces were expelled from Subic Bay.
“The Philippines is really driven by public opinion,” said retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, who studies the Philippines closely as the director of programs at Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These type of incidents really have a big impact on how they view their relationship with the United States.”
Alleged foul play
Laude was found dead in Olongapo City, near Subic Bay. Her body apparently showed signs of strangulation, and an autopsy report stated that the death was due to asphyxia by drowning, according to Reuters.
Laude was with a friend and “a foreigner” at the hotel that night after leaving a local bar. The friend reportedly told police that shortly after they arrived at the hotel, Laude became uneasy and asked the friend to leave before “the foreigner could discover that they were transgenders,” Inquirer.net reported.
Days after her death, grisly photos surfaced showing the victim’s lifeless body leaning on a toilet. The incident galvanized Filipino transgender rights advocates. Protests erupted in the Philippines, New York and San Francisco, where organizers burned American flags and held signs that read, “U.S. troops out now.”
Marine and Navy brass confined Marines and sailors there to their ships. A joint investigation was launched between Naval Criminal Investigative Services and the Philippine National Police.
Pemberton was held aboard the amphibious assault ship Peleliu, and Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear decided to keep that boat in the Philippines as the case continued.
Charles Jose, a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said his country has jurisdiction in the case, and there will be a trial in Philippine courts.
As of press time, it was not clear whether Pemberton would leave the Philippines or stay to face a murder charge.
A vital partnership
Thousands of Marines train in the Philippines each year, and in 2013, U.S. and Philippine officials began talks about an access agreement that could allow American troops to be temporarily based at military facilities there.
Although tensions are high in the Philippines, experts say the situation is likely temporary. In the long run, the slaying won’t destroy the relationship between the two countries — both are concerned about China’s presence in the South China Sea and managing territorial disputes, and they have to rely on each other to satisfy their interests, experts said.
“The larger story in the background is China, and the Philippines realizes that it can’t do much on its own against a big bully,” Dakota Wood, a former Marine officer and analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
Philippine Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, the chief of staff of the armed forces there, said in a news conference Oct. 14 that the incident, while important, has not hurt relationships between the two countries.
Gen. James Amos, outgoing commandant of the Marine Corps, offered a similar statement.
“I know the matter has the potential to charge the atmosphere with regards to the relationship between us and the Philippine government, and I hope it doesn’t damage it because we have a very close relationship,” he said..
The Visiting Forces Agreement, a document that, among other details, determines how crimes involving U.S. service members are handled in the Philippines, is at the heart of the relationship between the countries. The agreement allows the U.S. to keep custody of military members accused of crimes rather than turning them over to Philippine officials and courts for trial. In the wake of Laude’s death, Filipinos took to the street and demanded that the suspect be turned over for trial in their courts.
Previous requests to turn over an accused service member entangled in high-profile and politically-sensitive cases have been ignored, and Philippine media regularly brings up a 2006 rape involving four Marines and a Filipina woman. They were tried in local courts but remained in the custody of the U.S. Embassy.
A judge eventually found one Marine guilty, but unsuccessfully ordered him to be turned over local authorities. Later, on an appeal, and after the victim changed her account, the Marine was acquitted.
The case is still a sore subject among locals, and many Filipinos feel that the VFA allows American service members to get away with criminal activities, Baker said.
“The people there have long-lasting memories” about U.S. actions under the VFA, he said.
Five days after Laude’s death, members of the Philippine congress introduced a resolution that would rescind the VFA.
The VFA took effect in 1999, but the U.S. and Philippines just signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in April. That agreement includes plans for rotating more U.S. military personnel through the island nation for the next 10 years. Its constitutionality is currently being challenged before the Philippine supreme court, and now activists want that deal scrapped as well.
Baker said that the protests and attention brought to this case, combined with concerns about crime that could occur with American service members in the country, could sway justices as they consider the case.
In addition to drawing attention to military presence in the Philippines, Laude’s death incited transgender rights advocates there. The trans-rights movement in the Philippines is in its infancy, but the case has brought attention to the violence transgender people face there, said Kate Montecarlo Cordova, the founder and chairwoman of the Association of Transgender People in the Philippines.
“Jennifer is not just a victim here,” Cordova said in an email. “She is a hero on the field of trans advocacy. Her death beckoned other trans individuals to come out and express support to trans advocacy. It’s just sad that one’s life has to [be lost] for us to be given attention.”
Article source: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/20/marine-transgender-woman-killing/17603399/