Search for Filipino activist continues

May 22, 2009

Eight months after the enforced disappearance of indigenous rights activist and founding member of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) James M. Balao in the Cordillera region of the Philippines, his colleagues brought Balao's case to the United Nations.

"We need to keep the fire burning in the search for James," said Windel Bolinget, secretary general of the CPA, a federation of grassroots organizations dedicated to the promotion and protection of indigenous peoples' rights, during a staff briefing May 21 at the Episcopal Church Center in New York.

Bolinget is part of a Filipino delegation addressing the Eighth Session of the United Nation's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues May 18-29 on matters including the environment, development, education and human rights facing indigenous peoples in the Philippines.

Balao, an Episcopalian, disappeared Sept. 17, 2008, when five men with high-powered guns took him by force from just outside the regional headquarters of the Philippine National Police, according to testimony.

"This is the first case of enforced disappearance in the Cordillera," Bolinget said to the church center staff. "We fear that another case will follow. Enforced disappearance is rampant in other parts of the Philippines."

In March, the Episcopal Church sent testimony addressing human rights violations in the Philippines, in particular the abduction of Balao, to the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Appropriations and Sub-Committee on State, Foreign Operations. The testimony outlined the Episcopal Church's concern for the continuing widespread human rights abuses in the Philippines, where extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have been commonplace under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's presidency.

Extrajudicial killings and abductions occur without the permission of a court or legal authority and are generally carried out by a government in order to rid itself of a disruptive influence. More than 900 such killings have been reported since Arroyo was sworn in as president in 2001, according to the human rights alliance KARAPATAN in its third quarter 2008 report.

The military has denounced the CPA as a "front organization" for the Communist party and accused Balao of being a leader in the Communist party in the Cordilleras, which had led to CPA members being assassinated, forcibly abducted and tortured. Rafael "Markus" Bandit, CPA's elders commission officer, and Alice Claver, a CPA member, were killed in 2006, Jill K. Cariño, CPA's vice chairperson for external affairs, said during the May 21 briefing.

Former Obispo Maximo (Prime Bishop) of the Philippine Independent Church Alberto Ramento was found stabbed to death at his rectory in October 2006. (A concordat of full communion is shared between the Philippine Independent Church, the U.S.-based Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in the Philippines.)

Known for his advocacy work for peace and human rights, Ramento had been an outspoken critic of the Philippine government.

There have been 201 victims of enforced or involuntary disappearance under the Arroyo government, Bolinget said in his testimony to the U.N. forum.

"James' enforced disappearance is not an isolated incident. It is part of a nationwide policy to attack the Filipino and Cordillera people asserting their democratic rights. It's an attack on the CPA for its pursuance of indigenous peoples' collective rights and active involvement in economic, social, and political issues under this repressive regime," said Bolinget in his testimony to the U.N. forum.

"Hopefully before year's end, James will surface alive," Balao said to the church center staff. "We have a feeling he's alive."