On October 11, 2014, the body of Jennifer Laude was discovered in a hotel room in the Philippine port city of Olongapo. She had been beaten, strangled and drown in a tub. Laude was beloved by all who knew her. She was a 26 year old woman who supported her family and enjoyed life. But she was born into a reality beyond her control. She was Filipino and transgender; and her unfortunate fate was sealed when she met her killer, US Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton. This could be just another tragic story of sexual assault, transphobia and murder, which is bad enough. But this incident represents a long, bloodstained history of American military occupation and imperialism.
Following centuries of colonialism under Spain, Filipinos, who had fought long and hard for independence, found themselves to be yet another chess piece in the geopolitical game of the elites. Despite the illusion of a conflict, the US struck a deal with Spain only to introduce a new era of subjugation on the indigenous population. Armed struggle against US forces proved futile for the Filipino people. Although they did fight fiercely again for their independence, the Americans had far deadlier weaponry. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, were massacred in the first years of the 20th century by US troops. Waterboarding, commonly thought to be a relatively new torture technique for American forces, was used liberally on Filipinos. The cruelty inflicted upon them was breathtaking in its depravity. The book “In Our Image,” by journalist Stanley Karnow, detailed many of these atrocities including rapes, village burnings, indiscriminate killings and concentration camps.
As was the case with all people of color, the dehumanization of Filipinos became embedded in American policy and practice. Anthropologist W. J. McGee called them “monkey-like” and exhibited them at the St. Louis Fair in 1904 much to the amusement of curious white Americans. Prominent periodicals like National Geographic referred to Filipinos as “uncivilized.” And these attitudes had a direct impact on their rights, both there and in the US where they were segregated, prevented from voting, having property, or working in most careers.
Following WWII, and a brutal Japanese occupation, the United States picked up where it had left off. As with Native Americans, Filipinos were systematically stripped of their culture and language. And racism became the class designating factor, where those with more European features were favored with more benefits over everyone else. With the force of the military, American imperialism morphed into national security interests. American corporations sliced up the country for their own profit and employed a loyal band of well paid locals to enforce American interests within government. Vast swaths of land were handed over to US corporations, leaving indigenous Filipinos impoverished and disenfranchised in their own nation. And any dissent or resistance was met with swift violence.
The independence the Philippines eventually attained was an illusion. Sovereignty was supplanted by the “free market” with the result being gross income inequality and pollution left behind by the US military. Subic Bay, where the US Navy dumped raw sewage and chemicals like asbestos for decades and where thousands of Filipinos live, continues to cause disease, premature deaths and birth defects in the local population. And the US has yet to pay for the destruction of coral reefs at the UNESCO World Heritage site in Palawan by the USS Guardian. The Philippines became fertile ground for the ruthless economic policies of the global elite. It has seen a long list of presidents who bow to Washington and Wall Street. And current President, Benigno Aquino, as well as a slew of other politicians on the dole, do their best not to disappoint in carrying out the duties of an obedient, client state.
The tragic case of Jennifer Laude is emblematic of the savage legacy of military occupation and economic imperialism. Misogyny, heterosexism, and racism underpin its foundation and it permits such injustices by its very nature. Her murderer will most likely go unpunished as other similar incidents have proven. American military personnel enjoy immunity in the Philippines, as they do in any other occupied territory. But her life will be honored; and her death will be remembered by people everywhere who struggle for a more just and equitable world and who long for an end to tyranny.
“…I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines . We have gone to conquer, not to redeem… And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the [American] eagle put its talons on any other land.”
— Mark Twain October 15, 1900 The New York Herald
Kenn Orphan 2015