Thursday, March 26, 2009

James Balao: Still Missing Almost 200 Days On

CPA founding member and Oclupan Clan Association president James M. Balao, 47 years old, was abducted by suspected military agents at Lower Tomay, La Trinidad, Benguet on September 17, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cordillera Peoples Alliance)
BAGUIO CITY, (Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project / Mar. 26, 2009) - Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) founding member James Moy Balao has been missing for six months. Ironically, the anniversary of his abduction by five armed men who warned witnesses away by claiming to be policemen was marked by National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales rejecting European Union concerns about continuing summary killings and disappearances.

The CPA claims state complicity in Balao’s disappearance –maintaining it to part of “a systematic and desperate move of the State against members and officers of the CPA in its ‘counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency’ campaign.”

The European Parliament passed a lengthy and strongly-worded resolution on March 12 expressing “grave concern” over the “the hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings of political activists and journalists…and the role that the security forces have played in orchestrating and perpetrating those murders.”

Gonzales responded a week later on March 17 admitting there were still killings, but flatly denying any state involvement in them. He spoke to the media in Manila the very day the family and friends of James Balao marked the sixth month of his abduction. Next week Balao will have been missing for more than 200 days.

Balao’s family and friends have accused the Philippine National Police (PNP) and military intelligence units of being behind his disappearance – a charge rejected by the authorities. Yet two months ago, a regional judge effectively blamed the government by agreeing to a writ of amparo on behalf of the missing activist’s family –and demanding the “State disclose where Balao is.”

Balao, 47, disappeared on September 17 in Lower Tomay, La Trinidad, Benguet near Baguio City. Eyewitnesses claimed he was abducted by five men in civilian clothes who jumped out of a Toyota Revo or Mitsubishi Adventure van and handcuffed him as he was making his way home.
At least one of the men was said to be armed with an Armalite rifle. Reports claim Balao’s abductees told onlookers he was ‘a drug pusher’ and was being taken to Camp Dangwa, the regional headquarters of the PNP. The police deny responsibility for his abduction.

In publicly confirming he had agreed to a writ of amparo, Judge Benigno Galacgac of Regional Trial Court 53 in La Trinidad, ruled the police had “miserably failed in conducting an efficient investigation, because it was limited, superficial and one-sided.”

In response, Cordillera Police Chief Superintendent Eugene Martin claimed the CPA was being ‘uncooperative’ in the investigation.

The writ, issued and published in January, orders the authorities to “release him from detention.” However, very little, if anything seems to have happened as a result of the writ being granted. The judge denied the family’s request to go inside military camps in search of Balao.

Balao’s family and friends claim the fact he had previously been arrested for his political activity is part evidence of the state complicity in his disappearance. In 1988 he was charged with possession of “subversive” documents –but the case was subsequently dismissed through lack of evidence.

At the time of his disappearance, Balao was deep into the research work of his clan’s genealogy. He belongs to the Kankanaey-Ibaloi tribes and is the president of their clan, the Oclupan Clan Association.

He double-majored in Psychology and Economics at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB) and was editor of the school paper, Outcrop. In 1986, he was part of the staff of the Constitutional Convention assisting anthropologist Ponciano Bennagen in securing provisions for the rights of indigenous peoples in the 1987 Constitution. He also helped set up the Ifugao Peasant Leaders’ Forum.

“James was always an honor student in elementary school,” his father Art told a meeting in Baguio a few months after he disappeared, organized by the group “Surface James Balao” which has been tirelessly campaigning to locate his whereabouts. “He topped the National College Entrance Exam and maintained his scholarship at UPB until he finished his course.”

“With his vast knowledge, we hope and pray that he will not be harmed and be set free the soonest so he can continue to uplift the lives of Cordillerans. He is the eldest of my four children and is single, devoting his life in research to save the culture and traditions of the Igorots.”

Editha Burgos, mother of missing activist Jonas, visited Baguio to meet with Balao’s family in the weeks after the latter went missing - and as with her own tireless campaign, the campaign to “surface” Balao has garnered both national and international support.

The Church, indigenous peoples’ groups, human rights activists, members of Congress and regional governors have all condemned the practice of enforced disappearances. While human rights groups blame the authorities with complicity if not direct involvement in the disappearances, the government claims the “disappeared” are victims of political infighting among insurgent groups.

The human rights monitoring group Karapatan claims there were no fewer than 201 enforced disappearances between January 2001 and October 2008. The figure is contested by the authorities.

“James holds our hearts with so much respect for him. He is all so very dear to us, to our brother Winston and to our father. We love him like you love your son or brother. We miss him and want him back home. This man deserves to live,” said sister Nonette in an open plea on behalf of her family.

“Our mother is bedridden, afflicted with osteoporosis and advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease. She dearly needs the love and care of James.

“Everyone believes our mother has no inkling of what has happened to James. But she stares long and hard at the pictures of him printed on the T-shirts –then she looks away sadly, like she knows.

“Her mind may have all but forgotten memories of James. But maybe a mother’s heart never forgets,” Nonette said.

James Balao will have been missing for 200 days on April 4. (Marilou Guieb - Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project. The author is correspondent of the national daily Business Mirror and Northern Luzon bureau chief of the Women’s Feature Service, an independent news service. )

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