November 6, 2008

Cordillera: Groups Unite in Calls to Find Balao

Sample ImageInternational indigenous groups and leaders have united behind a call for Philippine authorities to do more to find the whereabouts of missing activist James Balao. 

Below is an article written by Arthur Allad-iw and published by the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project: 

World church representatives meeting here [Baguio City, Philippines] to forge new links with indigenous peoples groups have lined up to condemn the disappearance of leading local activist James Balao, blaming the authorities for his abduction. 

Balao, 47, a founding member of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) and president of the Oclupan Clan Association, disappeared on September 17 [2008] in Tomay, La Trinidad, Benguet, 15 kilometers from here.  

Eyewitnesses claim he was abducted by several men who jumped out of a van and handcuffed him as he was making his way home.  

Reports claim the kidnappers told onlookers that Balao was “a drug pusher” and was being taken to Camp Dangwa, the regional headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP).  

The police deny responsibility for his disappearance.  

The CPA claims state complicity in Balao’s disappearance, maintaining it to be 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 alliance is an independent federation of progressive peoples’ organizations from within indigenous communities in the Cordillera region in northern Philippines. It claims that Balao is one of several members to have been abducted by the authorities in recent years. He was arrested in 1988 and charged with possession of “subversive” documents. The case was later thrown out in court.  

More than 50 people from across the world came together for an International Consultation and Social Visions of Indigenous Peoples, an initiative sponsored by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC). They sealed their first meeting by condemning the abduction of Balao, an indigenous Ibaloi of Benguet in the Cordillera.  

The conference which ended October 25 [2008] also condemned atrocities committed by states against indigenous peoples the world over as the latter work to keep their lands from forces of so-called “development aggression.” 

“We have heard litany of abuses committed against indigenous peoples. Worst of these are the killings and enforced disappearances, the latest of which is the case of Balao” ran their joint statement.  

The group intends to press the case with both President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. They claim the circumstances around Balao’s disappearance as supported by witness accounts convinced them to urge “action of all government authorities to locate and surface Balao the soonest possible time.” 

An American Indian called for answers and action from the top of the Philippine government.  

“This (abduction) is not a small operation. It was carried out by powerful forces” alleged Dr. Richard Grounds, a member of the Euchee Indians of Oklahoma in the United States 

“We join the Balao family in their call to surface James” added Grounds who is also a board member of the Massachusetts-based group Cultural Survival. 

Grounds claimed the abductions of political activists are a shame to a government that claims to be democratic.  

He was one of 19 activists representing 20 national and international organizations who came together October 22 and 23 [2008] for an International Solidarity Mission to Surface James Balao.

The mission included the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact alongside Desaparecidos and a range of national and international church groups. The two-day mission saw meetings with the PNP, the Military Intelligence Group of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Commission on Human Rights as well as Baguio City Council members and Governor Nestor Fongwan of Benguet.  

Public outcry over Balao’s disappearance has led to the Police Regional Office in the Cordillera (PRO-COR) creating Task Force Balao headed by PRO-COR head General Eugene Martin.  

In an interview about allegations that the PNP were involved in the abduction, Martin claimed it was not fair to blame the PNP while their investigation is ongoing.  

“We took the statements of witnesses. There is nothing from these statements directly identifying the PNP and military” he told the Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project.  

“The witnesses were just able to account that the alleged abductors claimed that Balao has many offenses, like drugs, and they are bringing him to Camp Dangwa he explained.  

But Martin rhetorically asked why the abductors would publicly claim to be members of the PNP if indeed they were.  

After reports came out October 23 [2008] suggesting Balao was still alive and being held at Camp Allen, a nearby army base, the mission approached the Philippine Army but was denied entry.  

At a press conference after it ended its series of meetings with the authorities, the mission complained that government institutions “were not working together to decisively address the Balao case.” And like the CPA, it alleged Balao “was victim of an enforced disappearance perpetuated by the state security forces as a result of Oplan Bantay, the government’s anti-insurgency policy.” 

Aside from the snowballing call to authorities, the Balao family filed a petition for a writ of amparo at the Regional Trial Court in La Trinidad, Benguet. The case had an initial hearing on October 30 [2008].  

Balao’s legal team claimed that the writ of amparo is the best legal move which may help lead to the tracing and surfacing of Balao.  

Early last week, a team composed of Balao’s family, CPA, Cordillera Human Rights Alliance, Karapatan, Hustisya, Kalipunan ng mga Katutubong Mamamayan sa Pilipinas (KAMP), Desaparecidos and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) went to Camp Aguinaldo and Camp Crame in Manila, 250 kilometers from here, to look for Balao. 

But both the military and police denied the team entry to the camps, saying there are no directives from their superiors. CHR chairperson Leila de Lima said this is unusual because the military and police have always respected the commission’s visitorial powers in camps, until recently.  

De Lima is seeking a dialogue with the leadership of the military, police and the national defense department to remind them that the CHR has the right to check their detention centers and camps as cases of enforced disappearances continue nationwide.  

(The author is a journalist based in Baguio City and a member of the Kankanaey tribe in the Mountain Province. He writes in a local paper and hosts a television program in a local cable station. He is also an active member of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.)