Sensational Murder Complicates US-Filipino Relations

On Oct. 11, a 19-year-old US Marine Private First Class named Joseph Scott Pemberton picked up what he apparently thought was a woman named Jennifer Laude at the Ambyanz disco bar in the infamous bar town of Olongapo, next to Subic Bay, north of Manila.

Jennifer turned out to be a 26-year-old male transgender born as Jefferey*. Pemberton, said Mark Clarence Gelviro, another transgender, was drunk but friendly and “thought we were real women.”

About 30 minutes after Pemberton and Jennifer had put up at the nearby Celzone Lodge, witnesses saw Pemberton hurriedly exiting the motel, leaving the door ajar. Shortly afterwards, Laude was found naked, propped up by the toilet bowl. According to the police, Jennifer had died from “asphyxiation by drowning.” Her head apparently had been stuck in the toilet bowl.

As can be expected, the alleged murder has kicked off front-page headlines in the rambunctious Philippine media, which has painted Jennifer as an innocent flower of Filipino personhood despite her presence at a pickup bar in one of the country’s seamiest cities. An example of the media circus occurred at Camp Aguinaldo last week when the late Jennifer’s German boyfriend, Marc Suselbeck, and Jennifer’s sister climbed over the fence in the presence of scores of television cameras, pushing confused-appearing soldiers aside and supposedly attempting to get at Pemberton.

Suselbeck later fainted at the international airport in Manila when told he was an undesirable alien and was on a watch list and was photographed lying on the ground, looking wan, all of which made spectacular television viewing.

The episode threatens to become an international incident at a time when Washington, DC and Manila are working painstakingly on rebuilding a relationship that was ruptured in 1991, when the US pulled out of the country rather than submit to a list of demands from the Philippine government.

The United States had occupied bases in the Philippines since 1899 except for the period of World War II, when the Japanese drove the Americans out temporarily, to have them come storming back to rescue the country, which has complicated the relationship ever since.

Pemberton’s ship, the USS Pelilu, an amphibious assault carrier named for the Battle of Pelilu (now Palau) during World War II, was docked in Subic Bay when Jennifer was murdered. The US Navy has been increasing its visits to the Filipino port over the past several years as Washington pivots back to Asia as a counterweight to Chinese domination of the South China Sea.

“This could not have happened at a worse time,” said Mark Singer, an analyst for Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a Manila-based country risk firm. In April, the two countries agreed to expanded military cooperation, with leftist and nationalist opponents contesting the agreement’s constitutionality. The implementation of the agreement has been held off temporarily while a court rules on its validity.

That ruling could make or break the entry of thousands of US servicemen into the country at a time when the US, in its “tilt” to Asia, is seeking to build up its forces to counter China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

The critical issue is Pemberton’s custody. With activists and the media calling for the Marine to be turned over to the Philippines, he has been incarcerated in Camp Aguinaldo, a Filipino army base, but the question is where on the base. Under a fuzzy part of the agreement between the two countries, the US has facilities inside Camp Aguinaldo.

US Ambassador Philip S. Goldberg issued a statement expressing “deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased,” and adding that “the United States has a right to retain custody of a suspect from the commission of the alleged offense until completion of all judicial proceedings” under the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement, an indication that the US has him.

Goldberg described the relationship between the two countries as “strong,” adding that the agreement “is a key part of that relationship, and the United States plans to continue to work closely with the Philippine government to help ensure justice is served and the rights of all persons are protected.”

Protected or not, LGBT rights activists and others including left-wing political coalitions have been raising a hue and cry over Jennifer’s death and what they call the "special treatment" of US troops, as well as the domestic ill-treatment of people like Laude

Although the case puts the US in a difficult situation, there is some precedent. A similar media circus erupted in in 2005 when four Marines were arrested for allegedly raping a young Filipina in a van at Subic Bay. Eventually the accuser, Suzette Nicolas, said only one of the Marines, a Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, had raped her. After a year of hearings in a Filipino court, Smith was found guilty of rape and sentenced to 40 years in jail although the sentence was cut substantially later.

But instead of being confined in a Filipino prison, Smith remained in the US embassy in Manila for more than three years despite the judge's order that he be confined in a Philippine jail, and despite protests from Suzette's camp. Eventually, however, complicating the issue even further, Nicholas recanted her accusation of rape and Smith was freed. After receiving PHP100,000 in restitution, Nicholas received a visa and left for the United States.

The protection of United States service members accused of crimes overseas has been a hot button issue across Asia, particularly in South Korea, Okinawa and Japan, where frequent incidents of rape, car accidents and other offenses have exacerbated relations.

“The case has both immediate and long-term implications for the Philippines and those who are living and operating businesses in the country,’ PSA said in a risk report. “On an immediate and practical level, the case has mobilized militant activists who have a long history of staging protests in the already traffic-crippled Metro Manila.”

On a medium term basis, the case puts United States and Philippine relations in a state of uncertainty for months, and possibly years, as the Smith case did. “The United States must balance its responsibility to defend its accused national with its need to build trust in the American military for a long-term strategic alliance with the Philippines.”

It was announced this week that Pemberton would be tried in a Filipino court, which raises the distinct possibility that, as with the Daniel Smith case, each new court hearing will generate a new media circus.

The Philippines, according to analysts, is in serious need of US military help to prop up its shambolic, ill-equipped, corrupt and largely ineffective military to counter Chinese aggressiveness over its claim to the South China Sea virtually to the Philippines’ doorstep.

“If the Philippines and its allies lose access to the resources and open navigation of the South China Sea, the national security and economic interests of the country could sustain major, long-term damage,” PSA said.

*Corrected 1101014