MANILA, Philippines–It has been seven years since Edita Burgos’ son, farmer-activist Jonas Burgos, was abducted in Quezon City, and despite losing hope that she will find justice under the Aquino administration, she continues to draw strength from family and friends.
“One can never underestimate the strength of a united family,” Burgos told the Inquirer in an e-mail interview, adding that she also finds emotional and spiritual support from members of the group “Desaparecidos, Families of the Disappeared,” as well as relatives and friends of Jonas who make up the “Free Jonas Burgos Movement.”
“I am in touch with some members [of Desaparecidos], especially mothers, and we try to provide support to each other. Yes, I find comfort in these fellow victims. Yes, I can see how blessed I am when I am with them,” she added.
“The strength to continue the search comes from grace. Grace in accepting reality and grace in knowing that there is something we can still do to continue the search, to help other victims and to work for peace,” Burgos said.
She recalled how her family coped, especially during the first few months of her son’s disappearance.
“Living in the hands of God made us live from day to day especially during the early days. Whatever came, we accepted as grace. No clue was rejected, no person was ignored. Yet at the back of our minds we knew that it was possible [that] the clue was floated just to confuse us. We simply pursued the clue and if we hit a blank wall, which always happened, then we looked at other means,” she said.
Not on Aquino’s watch
“I don’t think that this administration will be the deciding factor on whether I will find Jonas or not. I do not believe either that justice will be served [on] Mr. Aquino’s watch. Our family has experienced how slow the wheels of justice move in our country,” she said.
In April, in time for the seventh anniversary of her son’s abduction, Burgos wrote an open letter to President Aquino and reminded him of his promise of a “dedicated and exhaustive investigation” into the incident.
“Our hope was anchored on your promise to do what you could ‘on the basis of evidence’ when I, accompanied by my son, personally pleaded for your help. This was almost four years ago, May 2010,” Burgos wrote.
“There has been no action since I wrote the open letter,” Burgos said. “The executive, judicial and military branches of government have been [silent]. This makes me wonder: What must a victim of the continued torture of not finding a disappeared do to get the attention of [the] government?”
Rights violations continue
Burgos lamented that human rights violations continued to happen under the Aquino administration.
“What is dangerous is that the government seems to be oblivious of these violations,” she said.
“Whereas before I was truly hopeful that [I would find] closure, that I would obtain justice during this administration, now, I know that [the] lost and stolen lives of victims of disappearances and all human rights violations as well have never been a priority of this administration.”
“It took more than six years for the courts to conclude that Jonas’ case was indeed an enforced disappearance and that he was abducted by the military,” Burgos said.
“Yet even after finding Harry Baliaga Jr., a military officer, as accountable and the Philippine Army as responsible for Jonas’ disappearance, nothing came out of the Supreme Court’s order for the military to surface my son. To this date, no one has been punished for the crime,” she said.
Burgos’s frustration is shared by various groups that have criticized the Aquino administration for inaction.
Human rights group Karapatan, which recorded close to 200 cases of extrajudicial killings from July 2010 to March 2014, said the President’s inaction on human rights violations committed during his administration was comparable to his reaction to the controversy involving the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), an economic stimulus plan that the Supreme Court struck down on July 1.
“[The President’s] tactic of sweeping under the rug human rights violations committed [on] his watch is the same scheme he is now using to cover up his accountability for carting away billions of [pesos in] people’s money under the Disbursement Acceleration Program. If the use of [the] DAP is unconstitutional and an impeachable offense, so are human rights violations committed during his four years in office,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary general.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Philippines is among the top three countries where the murder of journalists is most likely to go unpunished, ranking third after Iraq and Somalia.
In its latest Global Impunity Index, released in May, CPJ said: “Fresh violence and a failure to prosecute old cases kept Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines in the three worst slots on the index.”
According to the CPJ report, “more than 50 journalist murders that took place from 2004 to 2013 remain unsolved, belying the claim made in November 2013 by Malacañang that ‘there is no more impunity’ in the Philippines.”
On June 9, veteran radio commentator Nilo Baculo Sr. became the latest journalist to be killed under the Aquino administration.
Baculo was shot dead near his home in Calapan City, Oriental Mindoro province, by motorcycle-riding gunmen.
He became the 24th journalist to be killed on President Aquino’s watch.
Five years ago, Baculo, who hosted the hard-hitting program “Isumbong Mo kay Ka Nilo” on dwIM radio in Calapan, was denied by a court a protection order following alleged threats from elected officials in the province. He was no longer a practicing journalist at the time of his assassination.
More than 160 journalists have been killed since 1986, including the 32 who were killed in election violence in Maguindanao province in November 2009. That atrocity is now known as the Maguindanao massacre.
US rights report
Earlier in March, the US state department’s 2014 Human Rights Report also noted that human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances by government security forces, have continued unabated in the Philippines for the past year.
The report, which documents human rights conditions in the Philippines and more than 200 other countries, also cited widespread corruption and abuse of power among government officials and a “dysfunctional criminal justice system” as some of the most significant problems abetting human rights violations in the country.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) agreed with the state department’s findings, saying extrajudicial killings have persisted in the Philippines, and that the country’s criminal justice system has remained problematic.
“While there are efforts [by] the Armed Forces of the Philippines to try and improve, it’s true that there are still extrajudicial killings. [Though] they have been reduced, they’re still around and not yet eradicated,” CHR Chair Etta Rosales said.
Rights violations continued to hound President Aquino even during US President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines in late April. A foreign correspondent raised the issue during their joint press conference with Obama.
Aquino told Fox News White House correspondent Ed Henry: “As far as journalists are concerned, perhaps the track record speaks for itself. The Maguindanao massacre involved something like 32 journalists. There are presently something like over a hundred people who are indicted for this crime and are undergoing trial.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines criticized President Aquino’s response. “[President Aquino’s] reply to an American reporter during his joint press conference with US President Barack Obama clearly illustrates how much our illustrious leader really cares about media murders and extrajudicial killings in general—zilch,” the NUJP said in a statement released after the press conference.
Last year, international human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch urged the Aquino administration to declare deadly attacks on Filipino journalists a “national catastrophe,” while two other groups—Reporters Without Borders and the European Union delegation to the Philippines—condemned attacks on journalists and urged the government to take “decisive action.”
In the absence of action from the Aquino administration, Burgos said she just pinned her hope on a “higher court.”
“Prayer and belief in a higher court has been the family’s source of hope, not this administration’s actions. We pray that they—those in power (who could have made a difference but haven’t done anything)—would remember that they, too, [would] be judged,” she said.