TIME The Philippines

Witness Says Suspect U.S. Marine Didn’t Know Murdered Filipina Was Transgender

A primary witness in the high-profile murder case gave testimony to a Philippine Senate hearing today

A friend of murdered Filipina Jennifer Laude testified that the American suspect, who went out with the two of them on the night of the crime, didn’t know that they were transgender.

Mark Clarence Gelviro made her statement during a Philippine Senate hearing Wednesday and also identified U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in a photo lineup, reports online news portal InterAksyon.

Pemberton allegedly met Laude and Gelviro on Oct. 11 at a bar in Subic Bay, a port that often hosts U.S. warships. He was visiting for a joint military exercise involving 4,000 American soldiers and sailors. Gelviro claimed to the hearing that Pemberton was drunk but friendly, and that he “thought we were real women.”

The three of them then allegedly went to a motel in nearby Olongapo City, where Gelviro said she left the two others alone in a room. Gelviro claims that, a little while later, the motel cashier notified her that Pemberton had left and that Laude was unconscious in the room, her head submerged in the toilet bowl.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who chaired the hearing, later said she considered the evidence against the suspect “damning,” reports the Philippine Star.

The now almost two-week-old case has stoked massive criticism over a bilateral agreement that allows the U.S. to keep custody of military personnel accused of committing crimes on Philippine soil. Pemberton was transferred Wednesday to a Philippine military base, but is still being guarded by American servicemen.

“We have our own guards, and yet they don’t seem to trust them,” said Defensor Santiago according to Asia One. “And we’re in our own country, not America.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino rebutted claims that local authorities were going too easy on the suspect at a foreign correspondent’s forum in Pasig City on Wednesday.

“He is not being treated with kid gloves,” Aquino said, “and the Americans, may I reiterate, are conforming to the [Visiting Forces Agreement under which] they have to make this person and others available for both the investigative and the judicial processes that are forthcoming.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Laude’s sister Michelle testified to the panel that the victim was not a sex worker. During the year leading up to her murder, she had barely been outside the house, Michelle said, claiming that Jennifer was subsisting on a monthly allowance from her fiancé.

Read next: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

TIME The Philippines

Philippine-U.S. Ties Tested After Visiting Marine Accused of Murder

CORRECTION Philippines US Killing
Julita Laude, mother of killed transgender Jennifer Laude, talks to reporters during a rally near the USS Peleliu, where U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton is said to be held, at the Subic Bay free port, Zambales province, northern Philippines. Oct. 18, 2014. Aaron Favila—AP

Protesters have been chanting 'U.S. troops out now'

The alleged murder of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude by a U.S. Marine has sparked outrage in the Philippines, with some calling into question the U.S. military’s presence in the country.

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, the U.S. military is allowed to conduct drills in the Philippines. The accord also gives the Philippines the power to prosecute American service members if they fall foul of the law, but they can remain in U.S. custody until the end of judicial proceedings, the Associated Press reports.

Several small protests took place in the country’s capital, Manila, and the city of Olongapo, where the alleged murder took place, and in the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay free port Saturday, where the suspect Pfc. Joseph Scott Pemberton, is being kept on the U.S.S. Peleliu. He has been summoned by the Olongapo City Prosecutor’s Office to attend a hearing Tuesday.

Protesters have been chanting “U.S. troops out now” and calling for the Visiting Forces Agreement to be abolished.

But authorities say the case is isolated and not related to the treaty.

Read the full story here.

[Associated Press]

TIME The Philippines

The Philippines’ Most Active Volcano Is Now Shooting Lava and Super-Heated Boulders

Nearly 24,000 people have been evacuated

Evacuations are continuing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines after an active volcano began billowing smoke and spewing lava and heated boulders.

Seismologists have raised the alert level at Mount Mayon to critical. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology says that magma is now accumulating at the crater and that a major eruption is possible “within weeks,” according to CNN.

The institute’s head, Renato Solidum, told the Associated Press that technically the volcano was already erupting “but not explosive.”

He said: “Currently, the activity is just lava coming down. If there is an explosion, all sides of the volcano are threatened.”

AP reports that nearly 24,000 people from villages within an 8-km (5 miles) radius from the crater have been evacuated.

Scientists have recorded rock falls and small earthquakes around the crater and say the red glow of lava is visible at night. Volcanologist Ed Laguerta told AP that lava and boulders could be seen rolling down from the crater on Tuesday night from as far away as 12 km (7 miles).

Mount Mayon, which lies about 330 km (210 miles) southeast of the capital Manila, is one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes. It has erupted 50 times in the past 500 years.


TIME Hong Kong

‘Racist’ Insurance Commercial Draws Outrage in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's Domestic Help System Under Scrutiny Following Recent Cases Of Abuse
Indonesian domestic workers protest in the streets of Causeway Bay to demand better working conditions in Hong Kong on Jan. 26, 2014 Jessica Hromas—Getty Images

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong has been deemed as racist by advocates of domestic workers and prompted outrage on social media

An insurance commercial in Hong Kong that features a male Chinese actor who impersonates a clumsy Filipina maid has been deemed as racist by domestic-worker advocates and prompted outrage on social media — reminding many Hong Kong residents of the unfair treatment of foreign domestic workers.

The advertisement for domestic-helper insurance by Malaysia’s Hong Leong Bank shows the Chinese actor as “Maria” while wearing a curly wig and covered in dark orange makeup. Foreign maids who are mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand have become a common fixture in Hong Kong since the booming of the economy in the mid-1970s.

Along with the immigration of more than 300,000 domestic workers to Hong Kong have come horror stories of their unjust treatment by employers. Recent high-profile cases like the hospitalization of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, an Indonesian maid who was allegedly beaten by her employer for eight months, have brought to light the abuse of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong and prompted many of them to speak up. During the One Billion Rising event in February, a global campaign to end the abuse of women, hundreds of domestic workers there joined together to demand fairer treatment.

Erwiana’s employer, Law Wan-tung, is currently on trial and has pleaded not guilty to charges of withholding payment, criminal intimidation and causing bodily harm.

An Amnesty International report in 2013 stated that Indonesian women trafficked as domestic workers face “slavery-like conditions” in Hong Kong and that both the Hong Kong and Indonesian governments turn a blind eye to the “widespread abuse and exploitation” that foreign workers endure.

The controversial commercial comes only a few weeks after pictures from textbooks that feature racial stereotypes went viral on social media in Hong Kong. One exercise in the book invited students to match job descriptions with nationalities, prompting children to associate domestic work with a seemingly Filipina figure.

Advocates for domestic workers say the recent outpourings of racial discrimination are only a fragment of the mistreatment that domestic workers have experienced for years. Eni Lestari, spokeswoman for the Asian Migrants’ Coordinating Body, told AFP the commercial lampooned an entire community by dressing the Chinese actor up in blackface instead of hiring an Indonesian or Filipina woman to play the role. Although it was supposed to be funny to Chinese residents, Lestari added, “what they don’t realize is what’s funny is actually racist.”


TIME The Philippines

One of the U.S.’s ‘Most Wanted’ Terrorists Is Arrested in the Philippines

Officials in Manila have nabbed a top commander of the Islamic extremist outfit Abu Sayyaf

One of the U.S.’s most wanted terrorists, Khair Mundos, was brought into custody by Philippine authorities on Wednesday morning, after he was arrested in a slum near the capital’s international airport.

Mundos is a key figure in the Philippines-based terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, believed to have been responsible for a spate of lethal attacks on U.S. troops and Filipinos since forming near the city of Zamboanga in the early 1990s. His capture brings an end to a seven-year manhunt.

After fleeing prison in February 2007, Mundos worked as a “fundraiser, bomb maker, and instructor” for Abu Sayyaf. One of his roles was arranging receipt funds for his group from al-Qaeda.

“Mundos confessed to having arranged the transfer of funds from al-Qaeda to Abu Sayyaf group leader Khadaffy Janjalani to be used in bombings and other criminal acts throughout the [Philippine] island of Mindanao,” said a U.S. State Department statement.

In 2009, the State Department offered half a million dollars for information leading to his arrest. Mundos also became the Philippine government’s most sought-after terrorist, and was accused of having ties to the leader of the region’s most feared militant group, Jemaah Islamiyah, according to a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.


Obama in the Philippines: ‘Our Goal Is Not to Contain China’

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a bilateral press conference with the Philippines President Benigo Aquino at Malacanang Palace in Manila on April 28, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a bilateral press conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino at Malacañang Palace in Manila on April 28, 2014 Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement took eight months to negotiate but mere days to anger Beijing, which sees U.S. involvement in East Asia as interference despite President Obama's insistence the goal is not to "contain" China

This is not about China. That has been the theme of Barack Obama’s four-nation trip to East Asia. Yet China loomed large over stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia. And in the Philippines today, China was front and center.

On Monday morning, local time, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a 10-year pact that will give U.S. planes, warships and troops more access to the archipelagic nation. The U.S. will not re-establish a permanent base, but will rotate troops through. The deal, officially called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, took eight months of negotiation, and gives some substance to the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia.

At a joint press conference in Manila, President Obama insisted the deal was not about thwarting China’s rise. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected, and that includes in the area of international disputes,” he said.

His counterpart, President Benigno S. Aquino III, said the agreement was about deepening U.S.-Philippine ties and would promote “regional peace and security.”

China begs to differ. Locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Japan and others, Beijing sees U.S. involvement in East Asia as unwelcome interference. In an editorial published less than an hour after the agreement was officially signed, state-backed newswire Xinhua blasted the pact, calling the Philippines a “troublemaker in the South China Sea” and warning the U.S. that its plans may backfire.

Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” it read.

The agreement is no less contentious within the Philippines. The country has a long and complicated history with the U.S., particularly the U.S. armed forces. The Philippines spent 300 years as a Spanish colony before being “liberated” by the U.S. in 1898. What followed was a brutal Philippine-American War and the U.S. colonization of the islands. When the Philippines became independent in 1945, the Americans left behind massive military bases — and with them a well-documented legacy of rights abuses and environmental problems.

More than a decade of antimilitary activism led to the closure, in 1992, of U.S. bases. But the Americans never fully withdrew. U.S. forces have maintained a small but continuous presence, conducting training exercises and, since 2002, antiterrorist operations as part of the so-called global war on terror. For a dedicated block of activists, the fact that the U.S. military still has boots on the ground is tantamount to neocolonialism. Some staged protests outside the U.S. embassy in Manila last week.

“I think people are angry that this was negotiated behind close doors and made public after it was signed,” says Alex Magno, former professor of political of science at the University of the Philippines, now a political commenter for the Philippine Star. “It is being sold to the public as an enhancement of our national defense [but] Obama tries to tone down that expectation by saying that it is not America’s role to counter China.”

The deal is also under fire from Filipino politicians who see it as a hasty and counterproductive turnaround. In an email reply to questions from TIME, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago blasted the government for signing the pact without input from the Senate and questioned the logic behind the agreement. “The U.S. should not continue to treat [the Philippines] as a satellite state, while aiming to remain on good terms with China,” she wrote. “America cannot have it both ways.”

Since his election in 2010, President Aquino has alternated between reassuring and castigating Beijing. In a 2012 interview, Aquino told TIME that U.S. military aid “helps us address our needs without giving [our neighbors] any sense of added nervousness.” (One of the unnamed neighbors, of course, was China.) He has since become more direct: in a February interview with the New York Times, Aquino compared his country’s plight with the West’s failure to protect Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hitler demanded land. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough?'” he asked.

At the press conference in Manila on Monday, Aquino once again spoke softly, noting, among other things, that his country does not have a single fighter jet. But he said it with President Obama at his side — a fact that will not be lost on Beijing.

TIME Barack Obama

Better Late Than Never: Obama Plans Asia Trip After No-Show

Obama's twice-canceled Asia visit finally happens in April Leslie E. Kossoff—Pool/Getty Images

But he does so at a time when the 'Asia pivot' seems to have lost some of its punch

After cancelling a trip to Asia last October because of the American government shutdown, U.S. President Barack Obama has scheduled a make-up tour in April with stops in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Obama, who once declared himself the U.S.’ first “Pacific President,” will be visiting a part of Asia that illustrates both the economic excitement and geopolitical risk of the world’s most populous continent. Although the tastes of Asian consumers increasingly influence global economics, security tensions between some of the region’s biggest powers have pundits wondering whether military clashes between some of the world’s biggest economies could break out. Defense spending is escalating across much of the continent.

The four nations Obama is visiting are all embroiled in territorial disagreements — some with China, some with each other. These disputes in the East and South China seas have festered for decades but nationalist rhetoric across Asia’s eastern flank has sharpened the potential for armed conflict, even as regional economic interdependence grows.

In late 2011, the Obama Administration declared intentions to “pivot” to Asia, a policy shift designed to wean American foreign policy from its preoccupation with the Middle East and Afghanistan. The U.S. military plans to increase its Asia-Pacific presence, even at a time when overall defense spending is being slashed. Obama is also pushing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to bind a dozen nations together through free trade. Japan’s negotiations to enter the trade pact will surely be a major point of discussion during Obama’s time in Tokyo, especially since political support from Obama’s Democratic Party for his free trade effort appears to be slumping.

The Obama Administration once criticized former U.S. President George W. Bush’s government for undervaluing Asia and not sending high-wattage enough representation to regional meetings. Yet Obama has twice canceled planned Asia visits, once six months ago and another time in 2010. Both postponements came courtesy of domestic politics.

Now, with even the TPP taking blows in Washington, has the Asia pivot lost its punch? Indeed, since its much-heralded debut, the pivot has been rebranded as a rather less vigorous “rebalancing.” Other Administration officials have referred to a gauzy notion of a “Pacific Dream.” Last year while in Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry directly linked this Horatio Alger phraseology to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own “China Dream,” a fuzzy concept that appears to combine national pride with individual accomplishment. Kerry’s pointed dream analysis wasn’t lost on Beijing, which sees the pivot — or whatever it’s called these days — as an American effort to contain an ascendant China. Even the TPP, which looks unlikely to encompass the Chinese economy, is seen as carrying the whiff of a U.S. power play.

Kerry is again visiting the region this week in what can loosely be considered an advance tour for Obama’s April trip. The U.S. Secretary of State’s first stop on Feb. 13 is South Korea, then China the day after. In both places he will doubtless discuss the foreign-policy conundrum that is North Korea, as well as the icy relations both countries share with erstwhile wartime occupier Japan. Kerry next heads to Indonesia, where he will discuss climate change in a sprawling island nation particularly susceptible to environmental shifts.

On his visit to Japan last April, Kerry noted that “our Pacific Dream is to translate our strongest values into an unprecedented security, economic, and social cooperation.” He listed “our network of alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.” Shortly before Kerry began his latest Asia trip, a State Department official cautioned against “provocative actions” by China in relation to regional maritime quarrels. The tone was admonishing. Analysts in Beijing wondered if U.S. ally Japan, which has itself sounded the nationalist bell in territorial spats, was somehow being let off the hook by Washington. If nothing else, it’s worth noting that one Asian power — in fact the Asian power of the early 21st century — won’t be part of Obama’s April Asia tour. That would be China.


The Philippines Is Still Paying the Price for That Supertyphoon

An aerial shot shows clouds above Manila on December 23, 2013. Ted Aljibe / AFP / Getty Images

Supertyphoon Haiyan Hampers Philippine Growth

Outpacing most other Asian economies in the first nine months of 2013, Philippine growth was hampered in the year’s last quarter by the devastating effect of Supertyphoon Haiyan, which claimed more than 6,000 lives and disrupted the livelihoods of more than 4 million people.

Gross domestic product rose 6.5 percent from a year earlier, down from the 7.7 percent growth in the first half of the year, but still better than earlier estimates of between 4.1 to 6 percent.

Seen over the whole year, GDP growth still climbed to 7.2 percent, making 2013 the first time in 25 years that growth exceeded six percent two years in a row.

The World Bank predicts that Haiyan’s effect will slow Philippine growth to about 6.5 percent this year, while Manila maintains its target of 6.5 to 7.5 percent.


TIME The Philippines

Typhoon Haiyan Cuts a Path of Destruction Across the Philippines

Filipino authorities estimate that the death toll from Supertyphoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall, could reach 10,000. The storm leveled coastal cities causing massive damage as it moved across the country on Friday

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