Abductions and disappearances in the Philippines

Mark Dearn
19 October 2009

Beset by natural disasters like the devastating typhoon Parma, an ever-widening poverty gap, stumbling efforts at much-needed land reform, and two ongoing conflicts resulting in the death and displacement of thousands of people, the Philippines finds itself in a dark time. Set against this, the shocking legacy of human rights violations which plague the country while drawing little international scrutiny are a damning indictment against the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Mark Dearn has written and researched for the Independent, Chunichi Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun. He focuses on southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Among Mark Dearn's openDemocracy articles:

"Mindanao: poverty on the frontlines" (4 June 2009)Philippine human rights group Karapatan estimates that more than 900 activists, journalists, street children, petty thieves and outspoken clergy have been the victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings while the Arroyo regime has been in office, a tally that is rightfully pushing the notion that - while in international notoriety it is nowhere near its equal - in the sheer number and horror of crimes committed against the populous and, in the words of European Commission envoy Alistair MacDonald, the ‘culture of impunity' that has developed at the highest levels of the political and military establishments , the Arroyo administration is beginning to best that of Ferdinand Marcos.

Many admirable, campaigning Filipino organisations consistently draw attention to the issue, alongside Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, yet little criticism is heard from the West. At the G20 meeting in London, the British Government seized the opportunity to highlight the human rights records of Russia and China; the Philippines was conspicuous by its absence from the UK foreign office's list of offenders. Only last month, Philippine leader Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was treated to a red carpet welcome in London, with a slavering Peter Mandelson re-enforcing the message of growing trade and investment and enhanced political relations between the two countries. No mention was made of the extraordinary human rights situation in the Philippines.

This month, an altogether different visit to the UK by a Filipina will take place: that of Dr Edita Burgos, mother of Jonas Burgos, one of many unaccounted for desaparecidos (disappeared) who have come to be a hallmark of the Arroyo regime.

The case of Jonas Burgos has drawn significant media attention in the Philippines, in no small part due to the fame of his late father, Joe Burgos Jr - publisher of the newspaper Malaya - who in the words of late former president Corazon Aquino "lit our paths in the dark, long years of martial rule".

The Burgos case shows many of the disturbing patterns of what has become a ‘style' of abduction: dragged from a busy restaurant with two of his friends in a metropolitan shopping mall in broad daylight, his masked and armed abductors claimed they were policemen and warned against interference. His ‘crime'? Burgos helped peasant farm workers learn organic agricultural techniques and was affiliated with Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines), which aims to help farmers fight for their rights through peaceful means.

Also in openDemocracy:

Steven Rogers, "Philippines' democracy in turmoil" (16 August 2005)

Sheila Coronel, "Cory Aquino and democracy in the Philippines" (3 August 2009)

Since that day in April 2007 there is still no one, least of all his family, who can confirm where Jonas is. Although President Arroyo personally called Dr Burgos to give her assurances that the police would aggressively pursue the case, little progress has been made since.

Dr Burgos has testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that she believes the military took and still hold her son. However, all the implicated men have denied involvement. Witnesses have come forward claiming that the abductors were seen driving into to nearby military bases,  and, in 2007, a confidential military memo surfaced which showed Burgos' name in the army's ‘order of battle', a list of communist insurgents targeted for arrest or elimination. Next to his name was the word "neutralized". The three officers implicated in the abduction have all since been promoted.
Thankfully, the case has not completely escaped the international spotlight.  Alistair MacDonald highlighted the plight of Burgos in a speech in 2007, saying that, "Just this week we've seen the appalling case of the abduction of Jonas Burgos and two companions...frankly I am shocked about what this suggests about the culture of impunity in this country."

Prof Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a statement given to the UN General Assembly that, "The Supreme Court's decision to establish a writ of amparo [protection] to facilitate the prompt resolution of alleged extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances is also encouraging...whether the judiciary will use its powers to overcome the military's resistance to clarifying the case of Jonas Burgos- a missing activist who may have been disappeared or killed - will be an important test."

What has the government done in the face of this relentless tide of extrajudicial killings and abductions? While publicly endorsing human rights and denying involvement, the all too obvious lack of successful prosecutions tells its own story.

In 2006, a special police unit named ‘Task Force Usig' was established by Arroyo. Since then, its main concern seems to be a pre-occupation with discrediting statistics in favour of pursuing prosecutions. The Melo Commission was set up in the same year to investigate all killings since 2001. Human rights groups pointed to a biased panel on the Commission which would favour the incumbent administration, and refused to take part and advised witnesses to do the same. Upon producing its findings, Arroyo attempted to keep the information secret, even though the Philippine constitution provides for the "right of the people to information on matters of public concern". When its findings saw the light, the conclusion was stark: "Killings of activists and media personnel is pursuant to an orchestrated plan by a group or sector with an interest in eliminating the victims, invariably activists and media personnel...there is certainly evidence pointing the finger of suspicion at some elements and personalities in the armed forces, in particular General Palparan, as responsible for an undetermined number of killings, by allowing, tolerating, and even encouraging the killings."

Yet, in spite of the findings Human Rights Watch has stated that it has, "Failed to find any cases where prosecutions of commanding officers have been pursued based upon the principle of command responsibility...Instead, there is a perception that military officers who at the least condone killings ... however unlawful, are rewarded."

When Dr Burgos arrives in the UK later this month in a visit organised by Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines with Amnesty International UK and UNISON, she will hope that at least in some small way her presence and push for publicity will, if not directly lead to the release of her son, alert people to the dire state of affairs in her home country.

But to bring an end to the chains of impunity something more may be needed. The Arroyo regime is notable for its ‘trapos democracy' style of government, wherein it courts the historically powerful local clans, showing little care for a disenfranchised working class whose campaigners are often prominent victims of disappearances; little hope resides in change coming in this term of office.

As Dr Edita Burgos says: "I want us to elect honest people who will help end disappearances. If we do not put people there who will be sincere in dismantling all the institutions used to abduct people, these disappearances will not end."

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