The United States Presence in the Philippines
Spanish and American Colonial Rule
For centuries, the resource-rich Philippines struggled for independence against a succession of colonial occupiers. Spain ruled the Philippines as a colony from the 16th century to the end of the 19th. In 1898, the Filipino people rose up against Spanish rule. The United States lent its support to the revolutionaries as part of a strategy to undermine Spain in the Spanish-American War. The U.S. led Filipinos to believe that it had no intention of colonizing the island nation once it was freed from Spanish rule—the first of many misleading encounters between the American government and the Philippines.
After the defeat of Spain, the Treaty of Paris handed over ownership of the Philippines to the United States in exchange for $20 million (paid to Spain). The Filipino people were not included in these negotiations. The Philippines became the largest holding in the United States’ growing imperial empire. In 1899, the U.S. asserted its rule by crushing the ongoing independence movement; at least 200,000 civilians were killed in the Philippine-American War. President Theodore Roosevelt declared victory over the Filipino guerillas in 1902, although violent suppression of insurgents continued into the 1910s.
During almost five decades of colonial rule, the U.S. dominated public narratives about American-Filipino relations because it ran media outlets and public schools in the country, but the Filipino people continued to push for self-determination. During the anti-imperialist decade leading up to World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a plan that would gradually transition the country to Filipino self-sovereignty.
While the Philippines gained formal independence in July 1946, the U.S. remained entrenched in the country economically and militarily. The two countries signed an agreement that would allow the American military to operate two major bases in the Philippines, one in Subic Bay near Olongapo City and another outside Manila; the lease for the two sites had a duration of 99 years. The United States relied heavily on these bases for its Cold War maneuvers in Asia. The U.S. also offered humanitarian aid to the Philippines, but it came with strings attached: demands dictated by American economic and political interests. To this day, conditional aid is one way that wealthier countries influence domestic politics in the Philippines.
The Marcos Era
In 1965, an authoritarian dictator named Ferdinand Marcos rose to power in the Philippines. Declaring martial law in 1972, he indefinitely suspended Filipinos’ constitutional rights and closed the legislature. American administrations supported Marcos because he helped the U.S. maintain a military presence in the Philippines. It relied on that presence to fight the Vietnam War and also as a Cold War counterweight to the Soviet Union after 1975. The U.S. sent military aid to the Philippine government, including training and weaponry that Marcos used to suppress political dissidents.
After years of growing unrest in response to the corruption and stark inequality of the Marcos regime, in the 1980s a popular rebellion was brewing. Marcos called a snap election in February 1986; despite his efforts to rig the vote, he lost to opposition leader Corazón Aquino. Under the leadership of Aquino—the country’s first woman head of state—the Philippines ratified a new constitution that was crafted to prevent future abuses of power.
By the 1980s, many Filipinos had grown disillusioned with the ongoing U.S. military presence in their country. Although the bases created jobs, they also fueled crime and sexual exploitation in nearby communities, and there was resentment of American support for politicians like Marcos who had not acted in the best interests of the Filipino people. In 1991 and 1992, the country’s senate rejected an extension of two U.S. military leases, and the bases closed down.
In 1999, the Philippines and the United States signed a treaty called the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allowed U.S. ships and aircraft unrestricted movements in the Philippines, enabling the U.S. to conduct military exercises on the country’s soil. It also gave the U.S. government jurisdiction over American military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines: under the VFA, Filipino courts cannot prosecute American soldiers for crimes committed in their country unless the charges are “of particular importance to the Philippines.”
U.S.-Philippines relations were formalized again in 2014 with the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a deal signed by U.S. president Barack Obama and Philippine president Benigno Aquino III. This agreement allows U.S. troops a “rotational presence” in military bases in the Philippines, and many Filipinos have questioned its constitutionality (although it was upheld by the Supreme Court of the Philippines in 2016). In 2018, construction began on a large U.S.-funded military facility in Pampanga, where the U.S. has been conducting military exercises with fighter planes. The U.S. has found the Philippines bases crucial for intervening in territorial struggles against China in the South China Sea.
The two treaties that sanction U.S. presence in the Philippines have been controversial among Filipinos. Critics say they undermine the nation’s sovereignty by granting immunity to U.S. troops who commit crimes against Filipinos. The debate has flared up during several high-profile incidents in recent years. In January 2006, when four American troops were accused of participating in a gang rape while visiting Subic Bay, the U.S. military maintained custody of the men, which prevented them from being tried by a Philippine court. The U.S. military’s protection of Joseph Scott Pemberton during the Jennifer Laude murder case also resulted in public controversy and critiques of the treaties.
- Gomez, Jim. “Marine Accused in Philippine Killing Tests US Ties.”AP News, 20 Oct. 2014.
- Little, Becky. “The Surprising Connection Between the Philippines and the Fourth of July.” National Geographic, 1 Jul. 2016.
- “Philippines Has A 'Love-Hate Relationship' With U.S.” NPR, 15 Nov. 2013.
- Philippines - Islands Under Siege, June 2003.” PBS.
- “RP-US VISITING FORCES AGREEMENT.” Chan Robles Virtual Law Library. 10 Feb. 1998.
- Shenon, Philip. “Philippine Senate Votes To Reject U.S. Base Renewal.” The New York Times, 16 Sept. 1991.
- Tilghman, Andrew. “The U.S. Military Is Moving into These 5 Bases in the Philippines.” Military Times, 8 Aug. 2017.
- ”Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain; December 10, 1898.” Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library.
The Jennifer Laude Case
Jennifer “Ganda” Laude was a 26-year-old Filipina transgender woman who was killed by 19-year-old U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in Olongapo City, Philippines. Pemberton was stationed at the nearby U.S. military base, the Subic Bay Freeport, which was formerly one of the largest overseas U.S. military bases but now serves as the site of “regular military exercises” under the Visiting Forces Agreement.
On the evening of October 11, 2014, Pemberton and Laude met at Ambyanz, a disco in Olongapo City. They went together to a nearby motel and checked into a room. Witnesses say that about 30 minutes later Pemberton left the motel room alone. Laude was then found dead in the room, slumped over the toilet with her head partially submerged in water; her cause of death was later determined to be “asphyxiation by drowning.” DNA found on a nearby condom was a match for Pemberton.
Under some interpretations of the VFA, the U.S. can retain custody of American service members charged with crimes in the Philippines "from the commission of the offense until completion of all judicial proceedings," and the Philippines has one year to complete all judicial proceedings against the defendant. Immediately after Pemberton’s arrest in 2014, he was detained at a military headquarters guarded by both U.S. and Philippine troops.
A 2009 Supreme Court of the Philippines ruling established that U.S. service members could be tried in local courts and that Americans convicted of felonies could serve their sentences in the Philippines, a policy that was tested in the case against Pemberton. Before his arraignment, the case was suspended for 60 days as Pemberton’s legal team challenged the prosecutor’s claim of “probable cause,” a status necessary to file murder charges. That challenge was eventually denied.
At Pemberton’s February 2015 arraignment, the Olongapo City court pled not-guilty on his behalf, as he refused to enter a plea. When the trial finally began in March 2015, Pemberton entered a not-guilty plea. He admitted to strangling Laude but claimed that he had acted in self-defense when he realized that she was transgender, a fact that he said Laude had concealed from him. In December 2015, the court found Pemberton guilty of homicide, a lesser charge than murder. That Laude did not initially reveal her gender identity was cited as a mitigating circumstance, and Pemberton was said to have acted out of “passion and obfuscation.” Pemberton was sentenced to six to 12 years in a prison under control of the Philippine government. Although the judge ordered that Pemberton serve his sentence in New Bilibid Prison "under Philippine control,” immediately after the verdict 12 U.S. Marines refused to turn over custody of the convict to the Philippine authorities.
Instead of New Bilibid Prison, Pemberton is now incarcerated at the military headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo, where he is guarded by the U.S. military inside the quasi-American territory of the Joint United States Military Advisory Group (JUSMAG). According to prosecutor Harry Roque, although Pemberton’s imprisonment “makes it appear that custody over him will be under the Bureau of Correction... the truth is that it will still be the US Marines who will guard him there.” The dispute over Pemberton’s custody illustrates the ongoing dispute over whether the Philippines truly has sovereignty under the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Dalangin-Fernandez, Lira and Brian Maglungsod. “Pemberton Meted 6 to 12 Years for Homicide in Jennifer Laude Case.”InterAksyon.com, 4 Dec. 2015.
Gomez, Jim. “Marine Accused in Philippine Killing Tests US Ties.”AP News, 20 Oct. 2014.
Joaquin, Ansbert.“THE LAUDE VERDICT | It's Homicide, Then the Impasse”InterAksyon.com, 1 Dec. 2015.
“Marine Convicted of Killing Filipino Transgender Woman.”CBS News, 1 Dec. 2015.
Ray, Michael, ed. “Philippine-American War.” Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Glossary of Terms
Transgender: Transgender, sometimes shortened to trans, describes people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from that of the sex assigned to them at birth. Transgender people sometimes, but not always, choose to alter their bodies through hormones or surgery.
Cisgender: Cisgender describes people whose sex at birth and gender are the same under traditional parameters. According to an article published by Teaching Tolerance, “Cisgender is an important word because it names the dominant experience rather than simply seeing it as the default.”
This article from Teaching Tolerance is a helpful primer on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation: “Sex? Sexual Orientation? Gender Identity? Gender Expression?”
Explore GLAAD’s glossary of transgender-related terms, which includes defamatory and discriminatory language to avoid.
- Baum, Joel, and Kim Westheimer. “Sex? Sexual Orientation? Gender Identity? Gender Expression?” Teaching Tolerance, Summer 2015.
- Kilman, Carrie. “The Gender Spectrum.” Teaching Tolerance, Summer 2013.