Trigger warning: Rape, violence
By GABBIE CASTRO
Graphics by Jannela Paladin
BACOOR, Cavite — Last week’s order of President Rodrigo Duterte recalling his termination notice of the lopsided Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) has brought back to mind the abuses that Filipino women and LGBTQI+ have been subjected to in the name of supposed friendship and alliance between the US and Philippine governments.
Following the visit of US Defense Chief Lloyd Austin III to President Duterte, the Philippine government retracted the order and declared that the military pact is in “full force again” and is “back on track.”
The VFA was signed just six years after the Philippines successfully kicked out the US military bases. This military pact was passed by the Philippine Senate on May 27, 1999, which grants extraterritorial and extrajudicial “rights” to US servicemen visiting the Philippines. It also allows the joint military exercises dubbed as Balikatan, which have been held annually since 2002.
But a closer look at the VFA revealed that the constant presence of US soldiers has been detrimental, subjecting Filipino women to abuses which, according to Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas, remain unresolved. Perpetrators of these gender-based abuses conveniently cited the VFA’s provision, where a US personnel accused of violating Philippine laws, shall be “carried out in facilities agreed on by Philippine and US authorities.”
“Filipino women will all the more become vulnerable now that VFA is back. In all the cases that involved US soldiers, not one has been genuinely held to account. They were either given special treatment or presidential pardon,” Brosas said in a statement.
In 2005, Nicole, not her real name, was raped by Lance Corporal Daniel Smith inside a moving van while three other US soldiers – Lance Corporal Dominic Duplantis, Keith Silkwood, and Staff Sergeant Chad Carpentier – reportedly cheered on.
In a trial that lasted for four hours, Nicole narrated her ordeal and positively identified the perpetrators, whom she met when she traveled to Subic.
Her lawyer Evalyn Ursua said in a 2009 Bulatlat report that she knew that the case was significant as it was the first rape that involved a US soldier that was able to reach the Philippine court.
“Before, there were many such rapes that took place – in Subic, in Clark, when there were US military bases here –but these cases didn’t reach the courts. There were many but these were always either compromised or settled, or the soldier would simply be spirited out of the country and back to the US. So this time, there was a case that reached the court – that was historical,” Ursua said.
Upon his conviction for the rape charges in 2006, Smith was whisked away from a Philippine jail to a purported detention facility at the US Embassy in Manila through what is now known as the Romulo-Kenney Agreement.
In 2009, Nicole submitted an affidavit before Philippine courts, expressing doubts over the rape. Ursua later explained that her former client had left for the US “for good” and that their family is “tired of the case” because “there is no justice in the Philippines.”
Smith was acquitted in the same year.
“The battle for justice, especially in a society as unjust as the Philippines, is never easy. This rings more true when the enemy is not a mere criminal but a symbol of US dominance over the Philippines, and the accomplice to the crime is a Philippine government most servile to the whims of its master,” said Emmi de Jesus, then secretary general of Gabriela.
Just four days before the Court of Appeals overturned the case of “Nicole”, another Filipina was raped in a Makati hotel.
Vanessa, not her real name, said in tears during a 2009 press conference how she was beaten and raped in a hotel room. Despite bringing to public her plight, Vanessa chose not to press charges, fearing the struggle that Nicole had to put up with.
Ursua, who also served as Vanessa’s lawyer, said she is not the first to be raped by a US soldier and not file charges. The plight that Nicole endured, she added, made it difficult for victims to fight because the government “did not help her and even took back her initial victory.”
“We cannot blame Vanessa if she won’t file a case against her rapist,” she added.
Just six months after another military pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was touted by the Aquino administration as the implementing agreement of both the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the VFA, a transwoman was found dead inside the bathroom of a hotel in Olongapo City.
Laude was last seen entering the lodge with a US soldier, later identified as US Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton. During the trial, Pemberton said he attacked Laude as part of his alleged self-defense. But the injuries she sustained said otherwise.
Pemberton was found guilty beyond reasonable doubt of homicide by the Olongapo City Regional Trial Court (RTC), and was sentenced to six years to 12 years imprisonment in December 2015. A year later, his sentence was reduced to 10 years and was denied bail after the RTC granted Pemberton’s appeal.
In 2020, however, Pemberton, who had stayed under US custody through the Joint US Military Assistance Group inside the Philippine military headquarters instead of a Philippine jail, was granted absolute pardon. President Duterte said he was “not treated fairly” and gave him full credits for his Good Conduct Time Allowance (GCTA), reducing his original 10-year sentence to a mere four-year detention.
The president’s decision to pardon Pemberton was described as “treason” by Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas.
Apart from Nicole, Vanessa, and Jennifer, thousands of faceless victims of abuse were also not documented. Women rights advocates have long assailed how Filipino women fall into prostitution in areas where there are US forces.
Gabriela’s De Jesus estimated some 50,000 prostituted women in the cities of Olongapo and Angeles in Pampanga for the “rest and recreation” of US soldiers stationed there.
In 2009, then Sen. Francis Pangilinan expressed his disappointment in the blatant cover-up of the VFA Commission towards the allegations of prostitution and the alleged misconduct of US troops in Southern Luzon, particularly those involved in the Balikatan exercises in the Bicol region.
Former Navy Officer Mary Nancy Gadian also exposed the rising cases of prostitution in Zambaonga City, where about 600 troops were stationed since 2002. US soldiers, she said, brought Filipino women inside Camp Navarro even in broad daylight. This, a 2009 report of Bulatlat read, underscored the social costs of the presence of foreign troops in the Philippines.
“It is the experience of every nation that wherever there is a concentration of American soldiers for a prolonged period of time, exploitation and abuse of the local people ensued,” De Jesus said, adding that there are probably more but kept from the public eye. (JJE, RTS, RVO)