Late in my freshman year, my world literature professor sent me a documentary called Call Her Ganda. The film, directed by PJ Raval, explored the brutal murder of Jennifer Laude, a transgender Filipina woman killed by U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton. It was a deeply disturbing film to watch, especially as a Filipino-American. At the end, I had some peace knowing the case ended with Pemberton being jailed for homicide in 2016.
The pain I felt watching that documentary returned in early September when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pardoned Pemberton. He had served barely half of his ten-year sentence. There was expected outrage from the Philippine LGBT community, but the Philippine public has generally viewed the decision as the latest demonstration of American neo-imperialism over the former colony.
On October 11, 2014, Laude met Pemberton at a bar in Olongapo. The two then left for a nearby motel. Half an hour after checking in, Pemberton left the motel alone. Laude’s body was later found slumped over a toilet bowl, her neck bruised with strangulation marks. Reports attributed her death to “asphyxiation by drowning.”
Pemberton was detained by the U.S. Navy — I’ll explain why later — and charged by a regional court for murder shortly after. In court, Pemberton admitted that he had attacked Laude, but claimed that she was alive when he left their room. He explained that he had choked Laude after discovering she was transgender in an act of “self-defense.”
On December 1, 2015, the court found him guilty of homicide, citing mitigating circumstances like Laude’s failure to reveal her gender identity, and sentenced him to 6 to 12 years in jail. The court affirmed the conviction on March 30, 2016, and sentenced Pemberton to 10 years jail time. Many were unhappy that this blatant act of violent bigotry did not meet the court’s standards for murder but took solace in the fact that Pemberton would be punished.
Now, however, even that justice has been denied. On September 2, 2020, the court granted Pemberton’s partial motion of reconsideration, releasing him from prison on account of his good conduct. Five days later, President Rodrigo Duterte granted him an absolute pardon. Pemberton was shortly deported back to the U.S. where, despite an earlier promise, he will face a discharge, not a court-martial.
How could this man, so blatantly guilty of murder, be allowed to walk free? Why did Duterte, who had promised the Laude family he wouldn’t release Pemberton while in office, reverse his position?
Pemberton was an American marine serving under the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a bilateral military agreement allowing U.S. troops to temporarily station in the Philippines. The agreement, effective since 1999, has long been criticized. It is full of provisions allowing the U.S. government to retain jurisdiction over VFA personnel, effectively shielding them from the local judicial and legal system. These provisions explain why Pemberton was detained by the U.S. Navy and why he was jailed in a military prison rather than a federal penitentiary.
Laude’s death was the second criminal case involving American VFA personnel. The first was in January 2006 when four troops were accused of rape in Subic Bay. Protected by VFA provisions, the accused were held in the U.S. Embassy in Manila and eventually acquitted.
Permberton’s pardon has called both the VFA and the U.S.’ role in the Philippines into question.
The Philippines has answered to foreign powers for much of its history. It was colonized by the Spanish in 1521, taken by the U.S. in 1899, occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and recaptured by the U.S. It was finally granted independence in 1946. Filipinos are a proud people, and view incidents involving the U.S. military such as Laude’s death as affronts to the sovereignty of which they had long been deprived.
Duterte was famous for spouting anti-U.S. rhetoric during his presidential campaign — he called the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines a “gay son of a whore” and said that the CIA would likely assassinate him. Duterte, like many other Filipinos, traces his anti-U.S. position, in part, to a 2002 explosion linked to American intelligence operatives. At the beginning of his administration, Duterte threatened to end the VFA agreement and lessen the Philippine defense establishment’s dependence on the U.S.
However, as China continues its aggressive expansion in the South China Sea, the U.S. isn’t the only hegemon looming over the region. The Philippines, which controls just one island in the region, is hopelessly outmatched by China’s nearly thirty highly-developed outposts supported by impressive air and naval capabilities. U.S. involvement is the only thing preventing China from completely overrunning the region.
Despite initially wishing to pivot away from the U.S. to China, Duterte’s wishes for de-escalation and cooperation have failed to materialize. To his dismay, China has continued to consolidate its claims in the South China Sea at the Philippines’ expense and is falling behind on its development commitments, which includes financing Duterte’s “Build Build Build” infrastructure program. The reorient to the Orient didn’t work.
With Covid-19 straining the economy, the Philippines has been forced to turn back to the U.S. for military support. Duterte reversed his position on VFA and suspended its immediate termination in June. On July 12, Duterte finally acknowledged the 2016 arbitral award saying China’s claims in the region are unlawful. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. agreed with the award, essentially supporting new Philippine policy challenging China.
Two months later, Pemberton was pardoned. Perhaps it was an expression of gratitude for U.S. support. Perhaps it was a prerequisite for it. Perhaps it was completely unrelated and was just another demonstration of the intense military dependence the Philippines has on the U.S. despite American misconduct.
The Philippines knows it is impossible to shake off the U.S. without sacrificing its national security. The U.S. also knows that the Philippines is a valuable regional ally due to its strategic location for bases and role in countering a rising China. This mutual relationship, however, hasn’t compelled the U.S. to regulate the conduct of its deployed forces there. Despite the outcry, the death of Laude didn’t lead to reforms in the VFA or the implementation of stricter punishment mechanisms for U.S. military personnel misconduct.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines 25 years ago. They work as nurses in Round Rock. The remittances that they send back help our family a lot, and I’ve had a higher quality of life and access to a better education here in Texas. However, it hasn’t always been easy. My parents uprooted their lives and moved to a land that, even now, can be unwelcoming and unfulfilling. While I’m proud of my heritage, an American life forced me to become detached — I never fully learned Tagalog or Bisaya. Furthermore, when the U.S. abuses its power over the Philippines, it’s discomforting knowing the U.S. is capable of such disrespect for an ally, my ancestral homeland. Both Filipinos in the Philippines and Filipino-Americans know our relationship with the U.S. has been simultaneously greatly beneficial and very difficult at times.
Critics can scream all they want, but Pemberton is now walking free in the U.S., and the Philippines doesn’t have many options for improving the situation. The moral imperative falls upon the U.S. to conduct its relationship with the Philippines in an equitable manner. Filipinos can only hope and pray that something will change so Jennifer Laude didn’t die in vain.
Categories: Foreign Affairs