The Aquino government, most especially the Philippine military, has displayed nothing but disdain and absolute lack of sympathy for the kin of murdered transgender woman Jennifer Laude as well as her German fiancé, Marc Sueselbeck, who have simply asked that the suspect, US serviceman Joseph Scott Pemberton, be placed under Philippine custody so that the wheels of justice may turn in accord with Philippine law.
From the beginning, President Benigno S. C. Aquino III and Armed Forces Chief Pio Catapang have been more concerned with upholding and defending the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) by saying that the Laude murder is an “isolated case” and has nothing to do with the purported validity and correctness of the VFA nor the claimed mutually beneficial relations between the Philippines and the US. Philippine authorities immediately stated, even ahead of the US ambassador, that the VFA granted custody over suspect Pemberton to the US despite the fact that the crime clearly had nothing to do with the US soldier’s “official duty.”
Pemberton was brought by US authorities to the Joint US Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) facility at Camp Aguinaldo, to ward off suspicion that he was already out of the country. It is made to appear as if Pemberton has been brought to a Philippine facility, but is in fact a US one within a Philippine military camp.
Philippine military authorities are indignant at how Sueselbeck managed to join Jennifer’s sister in climbing over the fence surrounding the JUSMAG facility to try to see for themselves how the suspect looks and whether he is indeed detained inside. Immigration authorities had prevented Sueselbeck from leaving the country and had charged him with being an undesirable alien subject to deportation proceedings. They gloated at having upheld the country’s “dignity” and “sovereignty” over a foreigner guilty, if at all, only of trespassing.
Apart from appeasing the loss of face by the Philippine military, these moves are calculated to shift the blame to the relatives and boyfriend of the murder victim and away from the government. The US-backed Aquino regime has failed to immediately undertake basic police and prosecutorial proceedings against suspect Pemberton. In the process it may very well have irreparably compromised, if not undermined, the Laude case.
The Laude family must realize by now that they are up against not just an American soldier who is suspected of having mercilessly killed their kin. They are actually facing the might of the US government bent on protecting its questionable prerogatives on Philippine soil, granted under unequal agreements, and with the full backing of the Philippine vassal state.
It is imperative to review Philippine history to begin to understand the sorry plight of the Laude family and how this scenario of injustice will play itself out again and again so long as US troops are free to roam our territory.
In exchange for reparations after World War II and as a condition for the grant of independence, the Philippine legislature was forced to ratify the Bell Trade Act of 1946 that granted, among other onerous conditions, parity rights to US citizens and corporations in the exploitation of Philippine minerals, forests and other natural resources. Then President Sergio Osmeña, an unabashedly pro-American president, called it a “curtailment of Philippine sovereignty, a virtual nullification of Philippine independence.”
The Philippines was also forced shortly after to agree to several unequal military agreements with its former colonizer, most prominent of which were the RP-US Military Bases (MBA) and Military Assistance Agreements (MAA) of 1947 and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951. These agreements turned effective control of the Philippine armed forces over to the US: the latter retained immense influence if not decisive say over the AFP’s strategic planning, logistics, training, indoctrination as well as orientation.
The US bases covered 135,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, including pristine forests. They became US enclaves where the US exercised extraterritorial rights and Filipinos would have no control whatsoever. These bases became important staging areas for US wars of aggression and intervention, such as the Vietnam War. Civilian communities surrounding the bases bore the brunt of the bases’ disastrous effects: scavengers were shot dead by US soldiers who claimed they mistook them for wild pigs; women and children became victims of sexual assaults by soldiers and never got justice; the drug and sex industry proliferated. Moreover, toxic contamination of the soil and water covered by the bases accumulated over the years and were never corrected or rehabilitated.
In 1991, the MBA was terminated and a new agreement was rejected by the Philippine Senate after a sustained anti-bases campaign by nationalist and anti-imperialist forces. It didn’t take long for the Philippine government under Fidel Ramos to negotiate the VFA that was signed and ratified under the Joseph Estrada presidency. In the absence of a basing agreement, the VFA provided for the legal status of US servicemen who are engaged in so-called military training exercises in the Philippines. It essentially grants extraterritorial rights to US forces in any part of the country without any limitations on their number or duration of stay.
The lesser-known MAA has shackled the AFP in terms of equipment and weaponry. The Philippines cannot buy weapons from another country without the permission or “mutual agreement” with the US government. The Philippines is dependent for almost all of its armaments and logistics on what is sold to it by Washington and US defense companies. Because training is usually tied in with arms purchase, the US exerts a strong and pervading influence on the orientation and training of the AFP officer corps.
Furthermore, the MAA created the JUSMAG. The term “joint” refers to US military personnel from the different branches of the US armed forces — army, air force and navy — and not to joint US and Philippine forces. It is a composite force permanently stationed in the country whose work is focused on facilitating the logistical & training requirements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines for counterinsurgency and internal warfare. While supposedly serving to upgrade and modernize the AFP, more than six decades have passed and the Philippines remains one of the most backward armed forces in ASEAN. The AFP’s backwardness continues to be the excuse for maintaining the one-sided military agreements and overall lopsided relations between the Philippines and the US rather than taken as a wake-up call for genuine independence, self-reliance and a nationalist, pro-people orientation.
Is it any wonder then that the Philippine military has not transcended its colonial tradition — from the Macabebes during the Philippine-American War and the Philippine Scouts in the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) — of being a mercenary and puppet armed forces under the US Pacific Command?
The RP-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) seals that tradition and seals the doom of many more Jennifer Laudes to come.
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
November 2, 2014